By Joanna Sperapani
Elm Staff Writer
On Tuesday, April 4, the Rose O’Neill Literary House hosted poet and activist Phyllis Rackin for a talk titled “Feminism is Everywhere” as a part of the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series. Rackin is known as an intellectual feminist icon and renowned Shakespeare scholar.
Throughout her career, Rackin has published numerous articles and four books: “Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” “Shakespeare’s English Chronicles,” “Shakespeare and Women,” and “Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories.” Her legacy at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School includes the mentorship of two Washington College professors, Dr. Kathryn Moncrief, chair of the English department, and Dr. Courtney Rydel, assistant professor of English.
Rackin is less well-known for her personal history, which is just as impressive as her academic career. Rackin has lived a life of activism, fighting for equal opportunity for women. She sued the University of Pennsylvania for refusing to give her tenure, and led a wildly successful sit-in to protest campus security telling female staff to stop wearing skirts to prevent assault.
Rackin warned students not to become complacent with the state of the world and the place of women. She described the rise of feminist consciousness in the ’60s and ’70s, and the decline evident in the conservative upswing of the ’80s.
She spoke on the discrimination she faced in the workplace, recalling a letter in response to her application to work at a women’s college in Atlanta.
“‘Dear Mrs. Rackin, How old is your child? And what about your husband? How would you be able to come here?’ That was it, except for the signature,” she said.
She described the everyday misogyny she was forced to face in her work, such as the frequent rejection from jobs on the basis of her gender, the faculty who thought of her as the token woman, a new chairman who fired all female professors but her, the casual condescending nature of the administration, the female students of the University of Pennsylvania not being allowed to live off-campus, and female applicants to the graduate program being denied on the assumption that they would likely get married and drop out.
She admitted that she began her own career complacently.
“Seen in the light of the pervasive sexism that permeated the mid-twentieth-century American culture, and filtered by the rose-colored glasses supplied by my own complacency, the Penn English department looked pretty good.”
When Rackin, the final female professor under the reign of the new chairman, was terminated rather than granted the tenure that her colleagues voted for her to receive, she woke up to the injustices around her.
“At first, I was simply angry about the irregularities in the procedures by which the new chairman had managed to deny my tenure,” she said. “But once the news got out, women who were far more advanced in their feminism than I was took up my cause and showed me that the injustice of those procedures was directly related to the injustices that all of us experienced in virtually every aspect of our lives for no other reason than the fact that we were women. Without that direct, personal experience of misogyny, I might never have become a feminist. And without feminists who were way ahead of me to help me understand it, I doubt that I would have fully recognized the misogyny for what it was,” she said.
Through both legal action and the consciousness-raising meetings, Rackin discovered her voice.
“It certainly empowered me, not only to stand up against my own mistreatment, but also to work with other feminists at Penn to support other women who were also the victims of sexist injustice, some of it much worse than my own. It also changed the direction of my Shakespeare scholarship, which came to focus increasingly on issues of gender,” she said.
She went on to become a groundbreaking Shakespeare scholar who examined the Bard’s work in a uniquely feminist sense.
Rackin ended her talk with a call to action. She spoke on the devastating loss of Hillary Clinton as an example how far women still have to go, and pointed to the new administration as inspiration for modern day feminists.
She said, “At this point, I think we’ll be getting enough bad news from Washington to keep feminism active at least until the next election…. Feminism is everywhere. But we’ll have to keep it going this time. We still have a long way to go.”
By Joanna Sperapani