Faculty Spotlight

Why the World Needs Simmons: Insights on Contemporary Feminism from Professor Suzanne Leonard

Headshot of Suzanne Leonard

Simmons students are interested in narratives by people who are not cis-gender or White. Their understanding of gender identity is more sophisticated than what you see in popular discourse.

Suzanne Leonard, Professor of Literature and Writing, and the director of the MA in Gender and Cultural Studies, teaches courses on Feminist Media Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and American Literature at Simmons. The co-editor of Imagining We in the Age of I: Romance and Social Bonding in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021) and the author of Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage in the Twenty-First Century (NYU Press, 2018) her research and work explores multiple facets of modern feminism and media. She shared her thoughts on a modern version of feminism and how it plays out in contemporary media, and on the Simmons campus.

"Feminism has gone through different phases," says Professor Suzanne Leonard. While the wave metaphor is widely used to describe different historical eras, she tries to think instead about feminism as a fight against inequality, no matter what its form, object, or source. This often involved activism in response to social injustice.

"The post-feminist turn in 1989 claimed that we didn't need feminism anymore because of all women had gained during the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. Or the argument was that feminists wanted women to have careers at the expense of a family life, a decision that was going to make women unhappy [in the long run]."

Much of Leonard's research focuses on viewing contemporary media through a feminist lens. "A lot of media termed post-feminist played out this struggle where women were trying to have it all, a career and a family. The impossibility of achieving this balance served as an indication of the broken promises of feminism." Released in 1987, the film Fatal Attraction plays with these underlying fears, featuring the character of Alex Forrest [played by Glenn Close] a career woman desperate for family and partnership. "There's a scene of Alex standing outside of Dan's [played by Michael Douglas] house looking at him and his daughter playing with a pet bunny. It's a common trope used in movies: a character looking through the windows to see what they wish they could have. In this case, it couldn't be more clear: Alex longs for the security of domesticity and a strong nuclear family unit."

This struggle — frequently referred to as "work-life balance" — played out in popular media through the early 2000s, until the recession in 2008 inspired new discourse. "Women were going to college in greater numbers than men," says Leonard. "At this time, there were films like Knocked Up about relationships where the woman is the striver and the man is the slacker, and the men are rehabilitated from their immature, childish ways through marriage and children."

Around this time, Leonard notes, "feminism seemed hip. Beyoncé proclaimed she was a feminist…it became something you could put on a t-shirt." A corporate feminism perspective can be seen in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell (Knopf, 2013). "It's all about individualism, self-actualization, and self optimization, urging women to advocate for themselves." Notably, Sandberg was the first woman to serve on the Facebook board of directors in 2012. "But self-advocacy in corporate America doesn't make you a feminist," notes Leonard, especially given the company's issues with privacy and propaganda.

Founder of Bitch Magazine, Andi Zeisler's We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (PublicAffairs, 2016) slapped back at this popular "marketplace feminism" which, as Leonard points out, had no real connection to activism. "It was about what this individual woman wanted to do in her life. No politics or community organizing. Anything aside from babies, husbands, and careers dropped out of the conversation."

This concept of feminism was challenged again by Mikki Kendall in Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, 2020). Kendall, a Black woman journalist, described how pre-existing notions of feminism were constructed with the White woman's experience at its center. "Black and Brown women were often left out of the picture when we told the story of feminism, even though Black intellectuals like the Combahee River Collective were talking about intersectionality before the term was even coined, says Leonard. She continues, "Kendall book taught me that if we want to address inequality in this day and age, the conversation needs to be about poverty, gun violence in schools, and fair housing,"

This focus is especially important now, after the Dobbs decision (2022) removed federal protections on a woman's right to an abortion.

"I agree with Kendall on this point," says Leonard. "The feminist project needs to be focused on the needs of the most marginalized people; oftentimes these are Black, Brown, and Indigenous women as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This changes the tenor of what we need to be truly worried about — not our work-life balance, but the erosion of reproductive rights and the attack on trans lives."

So, how do Simmons undergraduate students relate to feminism, in Leonard's view?

"Many of my students identify as feminists," she observes. "Though their interest lies more in gender identity. Queer theory and Critical Race Studies has done a lot to add to this conversation, regarding what our students are experiencing now." For example, students are interested in narratives by people who are not cis-gender or White.

"Simmons students are on the cutting edge of these conversations," says Leonard. "Their understanding of gender identity is more sophisticated than what you see in popular discourse. The challenge is to make sure that our curriculum reflects that." She notes that the Women in Literature course was re-titled Gender and Power in Literature. "I've tried to stop centering the voices of middle class White women in the course, which is a mistake that I made in the past. The class is now more diverse than it ever was, in every respect. And there's still more to do. Inevitably, when I get evaluations, students want more trans and nonbinary [writers]."

Ultimately, contemporary feminism needs to embrace intersectionalities — overlapping social categories including race, class, and gender identities — to appeal to current students.

"Many of our students attend Simmons because we are a queer-friendly and trans-friendly space," says Leonard. Given the impact of the current political climate on a woman's right to choose, and legislation that impinges on LGBTQIA+ rights, as Leonard says, "Simmons is a place the world needs right now."

Article by Alisa M. Libby

Additional resources:

  • Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the Edge of Normal by Jack Halberstam interprets cultural shifts in understanding gender and sexuality over the past few decades, using Lady Gaga as an exemplar of gender and sexual fluidity.
  • Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie addresses the urgency of feminist activism along with the underlying cultural, racial, and social issues driving incarceration rates in the United States, and how these issues overlap.

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