Alumni Voices: Material that Moved Us

In the Fall 2023 newsletter, we asked our alumni about a piece of media (a book, an article, a film, etc.) that made an impact on them during their time in GWS, and what made it so memorable. The responses we received were wonderfully diverse and thought-provoking. What a pleasure to learn more about what GWS material has resonated with our alumni through the years!

A piece that came up multiple times was Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Danielle Trace (class of 2012) wrote, “This article taught me so much about the experiences of white privilege. I realized that my life had been full of moments of white privilege. It also helped me understand that other people experience similar situations very differently. This has stayed with me throughout the years and I think of it often.” Fellow alum, Helen Rottier (class of 2018) recalled the same McIntosh article, remarking, “We read this piece in my first GWS class, and it has had a lasting impact on how I understand privilege.” McIntosh’s prominent contribution remains a key touchstone, frequently assigned in our GWS survey courses such as 101 and 102, and serves as a portal for students new to GWS to think about privilege in critical ways.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood also had an enduring influence on our GWS alumni. A class of 1991 graduate remembers reading it in GWS 101, not long after it was published, remarking “I remember staying up into the middle of the night in my dorm bunk to finish it and my roommate telling me to turn out the light. I was gripped. Still gripped, obviously. My 17 [year-old] read it recently. She said to me, ‘I think we’re closer to this now, Mom, than when you read it.’ So scary.” Concern and anger about the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, and questions around reproductive care and access, are keenly felt as our current GWS students and faculty engage tenets of reproductive justice in classrooms and in research.

Still another alum highlighted the time-honored Our Bodies, Ourselves. Originally published in 1970 by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves has seen many editions over the years, and has crossed borders as a truly transnational feminist project. Though the text is no longer being updated and printed, our GWS students point to this tome, and its half-century of evolutions, as a shining example of feminist praxis, one that helps them to understand that self-knowledge is powerful. “What a remarkable book all about women! It was the first book that I read that combined science with real life stories of women and their relatable experiences,” recalled Stephanie Miller (class of 1993), “I will always treasure the countless ‘wow’ moments I had reading it and thank UW Madison for introducing me to the valuable information!”

Poetry was also represented amongst the works that made a difference in our alumni’s lives. Rachel O’Toole (class of 1992) reflects, “The work that I carry with me the most… poetry of Joy Harjo. In particular, the poem entitled ‘Song for the Deer and Myself to Return On.’ I pull this poem off my shelves even today to remind myself about how Native folks experience displacement, exile, and dispossession. At the same time, the feel of the book and the memory of Dr. Hernández-Avila’s patient instruction, direct questions, and textual analysis to a room of predominantly white Midwestern cis-gender, queer, and straight women students also makes me recall how that summer was a time when I struggled with my own fear, loneliness, and disconnection from kin, home, and community.” Today, GWS course syllabi continue to engage a broad array of materials to enrich curriculum, including poetry from the likes of Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Nellie Wong, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, and Gloria Anzaldúa, among others.

For one GWS alum, a sculpture stood out as a piece that stuck with them. Benjamin Hanley (class of 2018) wrote, “I… have to mention the sculpture “‘Untitled’ (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” by Félix González-Torres. I was introduced to this piece in a GWS course and it has always had a strong emotional impact on me.” Hanley also had some other favorites he recalled quite vividly, “Oh my gosh, absolutely everything I read in my GWS courses was just amazing. A few do stand out though – the essay collection Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, the 1970 film Boys in the Band, and Leo Bersani’s seminal essay ‘Is The Rectum A Grave?’ These texts really connected me as a young queer person to the enormity of queer history that came before me, and opened my eyes to the value of queer identity as a political act.”

Finally, Natalie James (class of 2004) had a profound takeaway from Laura Wexler’s book, Tender Violence which taught the lesson, “All those things that are unkind or make you feel awkward – they matter, and they are not o.k.”

Though memories of time spent in GWS are unique from person to person, the spirit of the materials in our classrooms, and their lasting impact, are vividly felt. Whether offering reflections on theory, scholarship, fiction, art, or poetry, the feminist principle of “the personal is political” endures as a connective thread, as we continue to confront the social justice issues that define our times and span generations. Many thanks to our GWS alumni for sharing their voices and reflecting on the materials that moved them!