When Carly Thomsen was an undergrad, feminist studies existed at very few universities. But this June, Thomsen became the first doctor of philosophy in Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara, a program that is just five years old. A self-described activist, Thomsen focused her work on challenging the logic that society relies upon. “We’ve always believed [the things we’ve been taught],” she said. “I think that critical deconstruction of our own ideas is crucial for social change.” At the end of the summer, Thomsen is heading to Texas for a two-year postdoctoral appointment at Rice University.
UCSB became the second university in the state to offer a PhD program in Feminist Studies, a department that has approximately 80 undergraduates. Feminist Studies Professor Eileen Boris, who recently stepped down as the department chair, called feminist studies a “cutting edge” way to rethink the world during a time “in which the traditional division within the disciplines and humanities make less sense given the interconnectedness of today’s world.”
The program is intentionally small in terms of number of students admitted, Boris said, and they only admit graduate students who they can put up for potential fellowship. “People don’t come to UCSB to major in feminist studies because they don’t know what it is,” Boris said. “They think it’s just feminism. But when they take the classes they realize it’s a very interdisciplinary. … We train them to think and write and analyze the world.”
For her dissertation, which was awarded the Winifred and Louis Lancaster Dissertation Award for Social Sciences, Thomsen examined the tension that exists between people who identify as LGBTQ in the Midwest and the mainstream gay rights movement. She challenged an idea that all LGBTQ women in rural areas are oppressed — thereby “interrogating” the foundation that we use to interpret the society we live in. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
People often talk about young women today resisting the term “feminism”? What are your thoughts? There are a lot of young people who identify as feminists today. I think that all of the Feminist Studies majors would certainly identify as feminists. All of the students I know on campus identify as feminists, all of my friends identify as feminist. We’re in our early thirties or late twenties. In many ways it’s the circles you move in.
But there is this narrative that suggests that there was a stronger movement in different historical periods. There’s this funny understanding of history that suggests that everybody in the ‘60s and ‘70s were racial leftists and political activists, and now today that’s not the case. In many ways, feminists are responsible for perpetuating these narratives saying “Where are all of the young people?” You hear it all of the time among older feminists. And I hate the question because it erases all of the young people who identify as feminists now and it homogenizes an entire historical period engaged in feminist activism. And neither is true.
I do think there are people who are afraid to identify with the word feminist but that they hold what many people to consider to be very feminist ideals, so then the question is why? There’s this negative image as feminists as not sexy, hairy, political antagonists, and I think there’s a wide diversity in feminists. We don’t all look the same, and we don’t act the same.
Some people say UCSB’s student body is not quite as activist-driven as perhaps Santa Cruz’s or Berkeley’s. During Occupy Wall Street there were two kids sitting in the park. What are your thoughts? I think in general I am skeptical of generalizations because it erases the very real activism that is going on on-campus. Just go over to the Student Resource Building any night of the week, and there is tons of activism going on. I’ve never been to Santa Cruz or Berkley, and I know they have reputations for being very activism-driven, and you have to applaud them for that. But I also think that really good activism is happening here, and you can learn something from thinking about why these narratives circulate in the first place. Activism doesn’t happen with one person.
The reason why there were probably two kids in the park that day was because they were trying to do something on their own rather than collaborating with other groups and departments and structures that already exist. No activism is ever individual. It’s necessarily collective, and I’ve taught an activism class three times, and every single time they’ve done amazing things. Even with my theory classes students always do amazing projects, not on their own, but with other groups on campus, so I think there’s definitely great activism at UCSB. It may not look like it does at other UCs.
What is your dissertation about? It’s about the estrangement that exists between the strategies and arrangements and discourse between gay rights groups and the way that LGBTQ women in the rural Midwest live their lives. I’m from South Dakota and did undergrad in Minnesota. That’s home for me. I went home for a quarter and interviewed 51 LGBTQ-identified women and I have engaged in participant observation. My dissertation also includes analysis of discourses that these organizations use.
It was really fun project to work on. In short, gay rights groups expect LGBTQ to centralize their sexuality and their identity and politicize that and be out loud and proud about that, and these are approaches that are undesirable for the women whom I interviewed. That undesirability is also relevant in my dissertation. If people don’t strongly identify with their sexuality and don’t really want to politicize that part of themselves, how would they relate to movements that are expecting this of people?
What did you find? One thing I found is that there is this disconnect. People assume that the strategies of gay rights apply everywhere. This is a really geographical way of understanding the way the world works. How people live their lives differs greatly on where we live. The assumption that people should “come out, come out, wherever you are” ignores the importance of the wherever.
My project is really building on a body of scholarship that already exists: rural queer studies. So within LGBTQ studies, or feminist studies, there’s a branch that really focuses on sexuality. So there’s LGBTQ theory and within that there’s a subfield of queer studies. Very little looks at the experiences of women or the Midwest, so I looked at both at once. This place and this demographic that has been largely overlooked. So I found one that the way they live their lives can’t be understood within the logic of gay rights groups.
One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How did you find people to interview?” And actually this was incredibly simple. And that question comes from a really metro-normative position that assumes that people who live in a rural place can’t be out. So I suggest that what visibility means and what it looks like and how it operates are all geographically contingent. If we don’t shift our lens, we would never be able to understand these people’s lives. They would only looks pitiable and sad and closeted within the logic that circulates around gay rights movements. And that’s not how these women exist; they live really complex lives, and the complexity of those lives is complete erased within that logic.
How many were “out”? Almost everybody who either described themselves as out or not out told stories that contradicted that. For those people who said, “I’m out, yeah, but I’m not out at work.” Or “No, I’m not out because my parents don’t know, but everyone else in my life knows.” In many ways I’m suggesting that the terms we used to describe people’s lives are flawed, so then our analysis that emerges from these terms — out or not out, visible or invisible — just doesn’t work. So I would say the vast majority of my interviewees had a really complicated understanding of what it means to be out. So they don’t feel closeted, even those people who said they weren’t out.
How did you feel after each interview? I would say that I felt exhilarated and excited after almost every interview. Of course some interviews included deep sadness or regret or devastation. Even in those same interviews people would tell these really uplifting stories that made me hopeful. There was so much richness to the texture of their lives. As a researcher, that is so exciting. People’s lives are complicated, and our job as social theorists is to represent that complexity in a way that pushes the ways that logic circulates right now. And being able to do that is awesome.
How did you first get into LGBTQ studies? I think there were a lot of different things that led me to this project. I wanted to a project that would have social relevance and relevance to activism and push the bodies of scholarship that I engage with. It doesn’t matter what your experiences are or your identifications are if you’re not doing something that expands the bodies of scholarship.
What’s an example? It’s no secret that people think of being visible or coming out as LGBTQ is good. Some narratives and studies say that people who know someone who is LGBTQ are more likely to vote in favor of LGBTQ rights. But in these studies, we don’t actually know what it means to know someone who is LGBTQ. Does it mean knowing intimately? Does it mean you know them personally? Does it mean that they needed to be the person to tell you? Is it possible to know someone intimately without knowing anything about their sexuality or sexual preferences? Is it possible to know about someone’s sexuality without being told by the person in question?
Well in rural places, of course, everyone knows everything about everybody! So even though there’s this assumption that you have to be told by the person in question, that reflects an urban ethos that doesn’t make sense in rural places.