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Gender Studies 101: Krista Whitehead is a U of T teacher who inspires me on International Women's Day and beyond

In her last lecture, Krista Whitehead asked the class to guess her sexual orientation. On little slips of anonymous paper, 80 University of Toronto students wrote gay, straight, or bisexual, accompanied by a reason justifying the guess. Straight because of her pearl earrings? Lesbian because of her feminist course material? Bisexual because sexuality exists on a continuum?

Her class, the sociology of gender relations, presents more questions than it does answers, but that doesn’t deter Krista from her goal of educating us about gender issues and furthering her research and discovery. Currently, Krista is working on her PhD and her dissertation concerns women with infertility issues and the impact on personal identity and womanhood. She posits that women who are unable to reproduce battle questions of femininity and feelings of having a failed body. She previously concentrated on eating disorders and the promotion of beauty as self-worth.

Krista has spent the last seven years at the University of Toronto and her devotion is epitomized by a tattoo covering her forearm – an artist’s rendering of the notoriously prison-like Robarts library, loved and hated by the entire U of T student body. Ultimately, Krista wants to be a professor noting that she is willing to work anywhere that offers her a job. It’s harder than it used to be to gain professor status at a university.

With her flaming red hair and quirky disposition, Krista is a totally inspiring woman. As a native of Calgary, her soft a’s and down-to-earth attitude makes her approachable, a unique quality to have when its come to the university’s faculty. She offers progressive course material, debunking myths about abortion and challenging her students to envision a world where gender doesn’t matter. She reminds her class that gender inequality hasn’t always existed. In hunter-gatherer societies women provided the main food supply and were highly regarded as shamans and healers.

For International Women’s Day I thought I’d ask Krista a few questions about her work and what it’s like being a feminist in Toronto.

When did you decide to study women and gender studies intensely? Was their a moment in your life or education that set you in this direction?
After reading Simone de Beauvoir I knew a focus on gender studies would always be a part of my educational experience. I didn’t, however, know for sure that it would lead me to pursue a PhD, but here I am!

Can you describe the research you are currently doing?
Currently I am working on my dissertation research that explores women’s experience with infertility. Motherhood is often considered a feminine imperative; some feminist research argues that mainstream culture equates motherhood with femininity. In some ways a woman does not truly become a woman unless she is a mother. My interest in infertility therefore is to explore what happens when women are unable to access this imperative. How do women struggling with infertility make sense of their “failed body”—a failure that prevents them from achieving a particular standard of femininity?

What does the word “feminist” mean to you?
The word feminist describes a political, personal and social orientation and commitment to gender equality. Beyond a focus on repairing gender inequality in contemporary society, I think feminism also has a commitment to an intersectional analysis that also considers other axis of identity as important in informing relations of inequality (i.e., race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc.,). Feminism has a bad rap I think, and that to me is unfortunate. Feminism is not at all about hating men and being lesbians like the mainstream media would have us believe, but rather feminism is about a deep responsibility to take social relations that are unequal, unfair and unjust seriously with the aim to repair those relations.

Is there a particular theoretical position that resonates with you personally?
There isn’t one particular feminist perspective that I rely solely on to make sense of gender issues and inequality. I think each perspective has valuable elements and shortcomings. Some are better at explaining the source of gender oppression, while others are better at offering a practical solution. The fact that we live in a culture driven by consumption and consumerism: I think that feminism needs to take a political economy perspective into account. With that being said, I find particular aspects of psychoanalytic feminism useful in trying to understand patterns of gendered behaviour. I think what’s important is to identify the issues at hand and choose the parts of theories that best help you address those issues. No matter where you are in life there will be contradictions, it’s a matter of identifying them and working with them rather than against them.

Has there ever been a moment in your life when you have felt impeded by your being a woman?
I cannot think of a particular moment in my life where being a women impeded me so to speak, but I definitely have noticed times when I’ve been treated differently as a result of my gender. These moments are too many to even begin to discuss here.

Do you ever find that your position as a strong woman is met with negativity from men?
Yes absolutely. Those are the friendships and relationships that never last!

If you were to suggest one piece of writing to read today, what would you recommend?
This is a tough question, because there are so many good pieces out there and I want people to read about gender studies so I don’t want to recommend anything that will scare them away! However, I am very partial to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was written in 1949, but when I was first read the book it changed my life. That was in the first year of my undergrad at the University of Calgary. The book is fairly dense, so you have to be dedicated to getting through it, but it’s worth it. Something less dense and useful for people newly interested in gender studies and feminism, looking to get a sense of what it’s all about, is Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti. Valenti has a knack for making things accessible without taking away from the severity of the topics she discusses. She’s also the founder of a blog called Feministing that is worth checking out. The book is certainly an excellent place to start for women curious about feminism, or for women looking to give their partners (usually boyfriends) a glimpse into what feminism is actually about.

In your opinion, where should our focus be right now, when it comes to women’s rights?
I think that the focus right now, with respect to women’s rights, should be about securing women’s reproductive freedom and choice. So many of the issues that surround gender equality come down to the fact that women have not been allowed to make their own choices with respect to their reproductive abilities. While many gender scholars shy away from discussing the fact that men and women’s reproductive capacities are entirely different, for fear of essentializing, the fact still remains that women are able to give birth and they do. If at the fundamental level they are not given the freedom decide when, if, and how they want to have children, it takes away their autonomy. Not to mention the sexual health concerns that come along with a discussion of women’s reproductive rights. Moreover, preventing women from making their own decisions about their reproductive abilities is a proxy for how society views women and how society believes they should be treated. Denying women access to reproductive freedom and choice implies that we do not trust them to makes decisions about their own body, which is unacceptable. The issue of reproductive freedom of course branches into other areas of women’s rights that are very important as well. The fact that women are usually the ones who take on the responsibilities in the domestic sphere puts them in a precarious position with respect to how they negotiate their roles in the private and public spheres. With that being said, I think that securing public daycare would be a huge step forward for women’s rights and an acknowledgement on the part of the state that raising children is not a private issue, but it is also a public one. As it stands now, childcare is a private matter which implies that individual families are responsible for the care of their children, and that the public and private spheres do not affect each other. A community-centered approach to child-rearing would probably be beneficial for women rights, and for society as a whole. Now, you’ve got me started, I could keep going, but I’ll stop there.

In 1-2 sentences please describe what this day means to you?
To be honest, I don’t have a sentimental feeling towards this day, because I think about women’s issues continuously, everyday. I think it’s good that we have a day that celebrates the achievements of women, but at the same time I think it’s unfortunate that we still need to have a day like this.

~Shauna Jean Doherty

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