Entry 17: How to Finish?

It makes me feel just a little sad and wistful that this is the closing journal entry. The final reflection; the last words; the concluding summation. Without trying to sound too cliché (or maybe I am), it’s like a long, long physical journey almost completed – tired, a little bit worn-out; not stopping to take a break, but not wanting to either, the destination so close the air itself feels like it’s starting to change. But oh what an experience it has been! And so rather than focusing on the finishing just yet, I will spend a moment or two re-evaluating and reflecting on myself; the traveller.

There have been some definite ‘moments of crazy’ during the last couple of months (my sister can attest to the fact that to combat ‘writer’s block’ and inspire short bursts of literary brilliance I would listen to ‘The Circle of Life’ from The Lion King on repeat for…well, hours really). But, as I hope has been evident throughout all my posts, there have also been ‘moments of insight.’ And by purposefully engaging with the works of so many incredible scholars, theorists and authors, I feel absolutely at bursting point with fresh ideas and new, more complex ways of looking at and understanding the world.

To begin with, I want to revisit my own feminist position. I’ve noted previously that I’d “label myself as a 'middle-of-the-road' (as opposed to 'extremist' or 'radical') liberal feminist who believes that women are entitled to full legal and social equality with men, and that given equal environments and opportunities, males and females will behave similarly (Crawford, 2012).” I also acknowledged that this is an ideological position. However, when I was writing my discussion segment on Sheri S. Tepper’s dystopian novel, The Gate to Women’s Country, I was struck again by the inadequacy of either liberal feminism or cultural feminism (as the two most common ‘understandings’ of feminism) to describe the problems women face and prescribe any sort of overarching solution. But at the same time I want to be able to say “I am this” or “I am that” with a good dose of conviction and a sense of my own rightness. While it might be a sweeping generalisation, Western society appears to place a lot of emphasis on the importance of taking a decisive side wherever there is room for an argument. And once you’ve subscribed to a particular camp, remaining solidly on your side of the line at all costs: don’t sit on the fence, don’t vacillate between ideas, don’t listen to the other side. Make yourself and your experiences right and brook no room for disagreement. It’s so tempting to subscribe to this way of thinking about everything, from feminism to religion and politics to sexuality. It’s as if we forget our own subjectivity, our mutability, and our predilection for contradiction, and conceive of ourselves as these objective, all-knowing godlike entities (to over-exaggerate only slightly!).

I’m including this observation from Le Guin (1986) because I think she gracefully sums up the problem and proposes a much better alternative:

Early this spring I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and to a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language - and I with my splendid Eastern-women's-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going for the kill - to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said after clearing her throat, "Offer your experience as your truth." There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn't talk objectively, and we didn't fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking with one another, which involves listening. We tried to offer our experience to one another. Not claiming something: offering something.

Maybe learning to say “I’m not sure, but this is my experience” or “that’s an equally valid philosophy/perspective/idea” with some conviction once in a while would be a very good thing. As The Gate to Women’s Country demonstrates, different feminist perspectives can look like equally valid alternatives depending on the circumstances you examine them under, and from what position you’re in at that moment. And so while I’m not 100% sure which ‘camp’ of feminism I should subscribe to, or even if there is much benefit in doing so (not feminism in general, obviously I’m still a feminist!), as Ladkin (2010) would say, my feelings of unease indicate I’m still in the midst of ‘questing’ for the right questions to ask myself when it comes to engaging with feminist theory at a deeper level, and, ultimately, that’s a very good thing!

Of course, I haven’t underpinned my thesis on unanchored whims and unfounded theories! By taking a multiplicity of approaches – liberal, cultural, and poststructuralist feminism (and a good dash of sociology) – in my thesis, I think I am offering rather than claiming something: A particular way of looking at women and leadership that is broader, richer and, I hope, raises many more questions than it answers; expanding on possibilities rather than narrowing them.

Shaping or Being Shaped?

A couple of weeks ago I finished writing the discussion. It was hard work! I’d meticulously taken notes from all ten of the short listed texts (which took forever, I might add!) with all these grand ideas of how I was going to shape them into tidy little ‘lessons’ and illustrative examples to ‘fit’ my conceptual framework. I had my favourite examples that I wanted to use but I struggled in vain for several days trying to achieve the ‘fit’ that I wanted.

Of course, this was all very naive of me. As Sucher (2007) points out, stories have a life of their own. While the reader is integral in co-creating and drawing out ‘meanings’ from a narrative, the text itself cannot be re-written to suit our own purposes (and nor would it be ethical to try and do so). So it wasn’t until I consciously let go of my desire to control the stories and started instead to work alongside and with them that the words began to flow. In fact, once I became ‘less precious’ about which books and examples to use in the extended discussion, they essentially self-selected themselves. The theory which guided the conceptual framework and the fictional stories began to work together to illuminate one another and produce a set of fascinating guiding questions and ‘answers’ (I’m putting this in quote marks as these ‘answers’ served to produce more questions rather than neat solutions!), such as: Should I exercise ‘power-over’ or ‘power-with’ others? Am I aware of my own and others’ absent but present gendered expectations and their impact on the ‘leaderly’ engagements I participate in? How am I ‘storying’ myself as a leader?

While I, as the researcher, am directly involved in interpreting and creating meaning (and by no means perfectly), this ‘letting go’ also allowed the ideas being drawn out from the texts to shape me. I spent many nights lying in bed reflecting on The Lifeboat and asking what gendered expectations are shaping my perceptions of others, whether or not I’m asking the ‘right’ questions like Sarah Grimke in The Invention of Wings, or, as mentioned above, struggling with feminist theoretical perspectives on leadership after reading and writing about The Gate to Women’s Country.

And so there is no doubt in my mind that actively reading and engaging with women’s novels, plays and short stories can be transformative, if only we’re willing to look a little further, read a bit more carefully and examine ourselves with a touch more honesty.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

How should I finish? Well, that’s quite simple really, with ‘thank you’s’ of course! I know there’s an acknowledgements page in the thesis, but it seems almost more appropriate to end with a special thank you to all those who have been very closely involved in this project from its inception right up to its completion. (And, as an added bonus, I don’t quite have to be so formal here!).

To begin with, I feel immensely privileged that I was given the opportunity to try and make sense of just one tiny corner of the universe by writing a Master’s thesis. I couldn’t have done it without the tireless support and encouragement from my supervisors, Margot and Janet. Thank you Margot for always being so positive, encouraging and full of good ideas! After every meeting I always felt 10x more energised and ready to tackle any challenge. I would not have been able to write this thesis without you, so thank you for believing in me. Thank you Janet for encouraging me to really stretch myself and explore new ideas. Your comments and feedback have been invaluable.

Thank you Mum, Dad and Grandma for always cheering me own, regularly checking-in to see how I’m doing and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers. I really do appreciate how you brought me up to love learning and taught me to always strive to do my best. Mum, thank you for reading so many of my assignments over the years – you have been the best teacher and the most wonderful encourager throughout my years and years of study. To my little sister Esther, thank you for not only being my favourite study buddy but also for reading everything that I was too nervous to send to anyone else first (and being so positive about it)!

But most of all, thank you to Mitchel, my amazingly supportive husband, who has had to (amidst the moments of achievement and excitement) wipe away tears, navigate mini-breakdowns, and spend many, many evenings and weekends without my company. Who has always made an effort to celebrate what I’m doing by reading my blogs, explaining my thesis to anyone who asks (and fending off many a critical remark!), and has tirelessly listened to and responded positively to my catchphrase: “But I still have so much to do!”