Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Forming My Feminist Consciousness: An Interview with Professor Clair Morrissey

          Feminist consciousness formation sounds hard, like something that might hurt. For many, that is acutely true. Identification as a feminist is a long and winding journey for a lot of people; it may involve tumultuous self-discovery through a painful process of understanding that world around you is never exactly what it seems. It can even mean trying so hard to reconcile your past, present, and future intersecting identities into something that makes sense as feminist. It may happen that for a while, you lose sight of the fact that you are a complete human being and not just some paradoxical mess of oppression and domination. It’s a journey that doesn’t end, but the first step is simply understanding women as human beings, fundamentally and intrinsically equal in any and every sense that matters.

          For Professor Clair Morrissey, this first step was easy. “I identified as a feminist forever, I don’t know why even,” she told me, sitting in her office on a warm October day. “Women are people and I am a person and I just didn’t understand how anyone could ever think anything else.” She leaned towards me, inviting me to understand. I had asked her whether there was a specific point in her life when she felt like she either fully adopted or rejected the term. It’s an interesting question to ask someone, since it prompts such serious self-reflection. She said that as a teenager, “[she’d] become convinced that what [she] should do is care about other women,” and in high school had watched the children at the women’s shelter while their mothers were in group therapy. Through college she volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center, Students for Choice, and NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League. She became a leader in community organizing around reproductive rights and went on to volunteer at a prison, gardening with the women. Listening to her recount her life, I felt a deep pang of something that I later understood as the sort of admiration that accompanies finding someone who you look up to. I can hear it in my voice as our conversation progresses—my exclamations of agreement become more frequent and I start to ask things that strayed from the pre-decided set of interview questions. Looking back, I consider this interview a crucial step in my own process of feminist consciousness raising. A step that isn’t grounded in theory or academia, but rather in the ideological discovery that female role models are a crucial part of feminist flourishing. 

          If I had to pinpoint a moment in my life when my identification with the label ‘feminist’ came full-stop with no qualifications based in insecurity such as, “but I don’t hate men!” or “that doesn’t mean I don’t shave!,” it would be my freshman year of high school. I texted a boy who I thought was cute the unbelievably unassuming message “hey :),” to which he immediately replied, “dnt txt me unless u plan on choking on this 12in cock.” I immediately started cry-laughing. Not in the way that you might assume, as in laughing so hard that I started crying, but from some strange and deeply confusing emotion that I have carried with me since that day. I felt sad and scared both personally and as a woman generally, but also knew that this horrible prepubescent child had no idea what he was talking about. The utter ridiculousness of this fact is what prompted me to laugh. It’s a similar feeling to the one I get when I watch thirty very successful and utterly beautiful women covet the attention of a borderline offensively mediocre man on The Bachelor. It’s entertaining, but it makes me feel sick. Like, come on ladies! Can’t you see how boring Brad is? The threshold for decency these men have to surpass is comically low! So, for me, ever since the beginning, feminism has always been framed as a response to oppression by men, which I don’t view as necessarily wrong. It has been based on recognizing and attempting to rectify the wrongdoings committed against women, rather than appreciating the unique power and knowledge that women alone possess. However you approach your own feminist belief is valid, so long as it encompasses issues of intersectionality and privilege recognition. But interviewing Professor Morrissey about her life specifically through a feminist lens, I felt my perspective begin to change as this wave of admiration overcame me. I started to recognize that the power of womanhood was something accessible to me. This feeling wasn’t entirely foreign—of course I have had female role models in the past, and their impact on my development should not be underestimated. But here was someone sitting before me, a brilliant and accomplished woman in the field I am hoping to go into, talking to me about the exact time in her life that I am currently trying to navigate. And as she began to talk about her own role model— “my person,” she called her—I could tell that this type of respect was not a seminal discovery on my part. While she described her Great Aunt Toddy, who had joined the nunnery at only eighteen as a way to secure her education in light of her poverty, I came to understand that a huge part of feminist consciousness raising is finding someone who you can model yourself off of and strive to be like. Professor Morrissey’s family instilled within her, in her own words, the ideal that “the things that matter in the world are learning, and that is done, kind of through, well for my family through school. I don’t necessarily think it has to be that way, but sort of always learning and growing and changing. And then seeing and experiencing things you haven’t experienced before, understanding contexts and people that you haven’t been in contact with before.” Her Great Aunt Toddy, and later a select group of female philosophers, acted as the embodiment of such ideals in the most relatable and marvelous way.

          As she talked about these women, I recognized more and more the same hope and confidence that I felt about Morrissey herself. There was an almost breathless excitement to her voice, as if remembering how smart and capable these women are reignited her inspiration. We discussed how amazing it is to know women who are so unapologetically themselves. How we are so frequently forced into roles that we learn to play as we go and end up hating ourselves for what we have become. How boys suck. But then, she recalled a moment when two of her grad school professors said to her, “You’re good at this. We’ll help you. We want you to do more.” In that instant, I recognized that simple affirmations such as that are some of the most powerful tools of feminist consciousness raising that exist. Clearly this moment stuck with Professor Morrissey as well, enough that she would recall it as impactful years later. To hear from a woman who you admire so deeply, who is flawed as all humans are but an exemplar (not in spite of their humanity but because of their embrace of it), shines a light on something within yourself that you can admire as well. As Patricia Hill Collins describes in Black Feminist Thought, “Institutions, paradigms, and other elements of the knowledge validation procedure controlled by elite white men constitute the Eurocentric masculinist knowledge validation process. The purpose of this process is to represent a white male standpoint” (Hill-Collins, 203). We are told, as women, that what and who we are is not valued. I think, however, that we all know that this isn’t true. Then when we suddenly find someone who is doing what maybe we thought wasn’t possible for us, the world opens up as teeming with opportunity. By securing a relationship in your life that counteracts the unwavering androcentricity of our society, a particular type of hope and confidence in oneself can bloom.

          This hope is not unnamed. As Audre Lorde discusses in Poetry Is Not a Luxury, there is an oft untapped power deep within the consciousness of women. She says, “These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling” (Lorde, 223). Accessing this well of power despite the constant oppression and subjugation of women constitutes a form of empowerment that can awaken a feminist consciousness centered on the inexhaustible capabilities of womanhood. As much as Professor Morrissey claimed to be intimidated by formal intricacies of feminist theory, she expressed a very similar thought to Lorde’s. When talking about women in philosophy and the gross historical qualification of genius as male she said, “there are some women philosophers who have this incredible clarity about life and can write it an express it that I think comes from their subjectivity and their position.” What could that incredible clarity be other than a reserve of creativity and power, previously unexamined but now articulated into philosophical doctrine? A primary concern of feminist methodology is the centering of traditionally devalued knowledge. The motivation behind this embrace of alternative epistemologies is not just an egalitarian effort, but because experiential knowledge has a certain qualitative value that doesn’t exist in any other realm. It is valuable for its own sake, not just for the sake of inclusion and fairness.

          There is a way in which Professor Morrissey is incredibly rare. She grew up in a very white, neo-liberal world and emerged from it a kind, generous, socially conscious feminist whose most central belief is that “at least one thing is true and it’s that everybody counts.” She has dedicated her career to making sure of that fact. Most people aren’t born with this enhanced notion of fairness that they then put to such good use. Because of that, she makes an exceptional role model for anyone looking to promote equity within philosophy, a goal most admirable considering that, in Professor Morrissey’s own words, “still somehow in the culture philosophy is dead white guys so somehow every new generation of 18-year old’s comes to college and suddenly I am not a philosopher.” But particularly as a woman, interviewing her taught me a lot about what feminist consciousness formation is and the true value of experiential knowledge. It is one thing to theoretically conceptualize that our society doesn’t value women’s perspectives that are rooted in nontraditional epistemologies, but it is quite another to realistically and practically realize what we are missing. It took the recognition of someone who is defiantly themselves in the face of social and cultural expectations of conformity that exposed me to a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I realized that I had been undervaluing my own perspective and my inherent worth as a woman, specifically in academia. On the other, I have come to understand that role models provide the opportunity for women to act from their own empowerment. I never expected to learn so much about myself in the process of this interview, but as Sandra Harding details in “Is There A Feminist Method?,” a key aspect of feminist research is “the placement and recognition of the researcher as a subject who exists in the same moment as the subject matter she is researching (Harding, 1987). As a young woman and philosopher, it is impossible to separate myself from this endeavor, and any attempt to do so would have been a disservice to feminist methodology. Feminist consciousness awakening is hard, but it can be a whole lot easier once you realize that you do not have to do it alone. 

Works Cited
1. Lorde, Audre. Poetry Is Not A Luxury. Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, 1985.
2. Harding, Sandra. Is There A Feminist Method?, 1988.
3. Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 1990.

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