1980s Yale Led Me to Radical Feminism
Over the past month, email after email has landed in my inbox.
“Hi Dena, Just wondering — did you know Brett Kavanaugh at Yale? Did you run into him at parties?”
The answers are no, and no. I steered clear of jocks and frats at Yale, especially DKE. Early in my Freshman year I walked into a DKE party, looked around at the WASPy, inebriated, over-muscled jock-boys, and walked right out again. Not my scene. My friends were the artists and comedy writers and actors — kind, funny, compassionate people of all genders, colors, and sexual orientation.
Yet Dr. Ford’s testimony and then Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation brought up difficult memories of Yale in the 1980s. I had plenty of brushes with the attitude of entitlement Brett Kavanaugh exemplifies. There were non-consensual gropes and smashy uninvited kisses in dark hallways at parties, and demeaning jokes and slurs about women bantered about in the dining hall. I passed the windowless male-only clubhouse Skull and Bones daily on my way to class, knowing that it was a secret bastion of ultimate privilege and power I would never be a part of. Somehow, my being numbered among one of the select — a Yale student — was incongruent with the fact of my being a woman. Yale was nearly three hundred years old when I arrived, but women had only been admitted for eighteen years.
To be fair, the 1980s culture as a whole simmered in a soup of sexism — the old-boy network at Yale merely had its own brand. This past summer I watched Sixteen Candles with my teen daughters. I remembered it as my favorite movie in high school– best ever — but my kids were shocked by the overt racism and misogyny. And so was I. The date rape of an inebriated teen girl is treated as a joke because she was “the bimbo”. Why hadn’t this bothered me back then?
Here is the thing — it did bother me, but I internalized that bother into a twisted, self-loathing shame. With my mane of blond curls, giant smile, and bubbly personality, if you didn’t know me you probably pegged me as one of the ‘bimbos’. Never mind the sky-high SATs, the straight As, the early decision admission to Yale, with no legacies to lean on in my middle class Jewish family. My vivacious prettiness felt like an obstacle to full, dignified personhood at Yale, so I learned to hide it. By the end of Freshman year, I threw away my collection of make-up — green mascara and frosty eye-liner and all (yes, it was the 80s). I traded the neon-accented clothes I brought to Yale from my hometown of West Hollywood in favor of boxy sweaters and black pants. I bought duck boots from L.L. Bean to stomp around the icy campus, and eventually, I chopped my blond curls off.
I found a Women’s Studies class in my Junior year, where I first heard the term “patriarchy” and learned that what I thought of as “history” was actually “white men’s history”. I came to understand how most of the Western canon of film, art, and literature was constructed from the perspective of the male gaze. In the Ivory Tower of male privilege that harbored and supported Brett Kavanaugh, a few hardy professors cultivated a nascent Women’s Studies department. Thanks to them, a fierce Feminist awakened in me. I would not let men tromp on and silence my gender any longer. I would dedicate my life to lifting up women, rewriting the narrative of our lives to account for our authentic experiences as subject, not object. I didn’t know how I would do it — I just knew I would.
When I called my parents to tell them I had found a subject I was passionate about — Women’s Studies- my father laughed at me. He said, “That’s not a real subject. I study women — you don’t need to be at Yale for that!”
I graduated with a degree in Literature and Women’s Studies, and absolutely no job prospects. I joined a peace-activist theater troupe in New York and waited tables to support my acting. Two years later I discovered the existence of nurse-midwives, health care professionals who care for women during their most vulnerable times, either during pregnancy and birth, or when in need of gynecological health services. Going into medical science was something I never imagined I would do — I took zero science classes as an undergraduate. I was a poet, an actress, an activist. Yet something deep within me clicked — midwifery was a field where my radical Feminist soul intersected with my ancestral lineage of Jewish doctors. A friend set me up to be a volunteer doula at a public hospital in the Bronx where nurse-midwives ran the labor floor. I was astonished by childbirth, the ultimate human superpower, and in awe of the nurse-midwives’ compassionate competence. No wonder men do so much to keep us down, I thought. They. Can’t. Give. Birth. I was back at Yale, enrolled in a Masters of Nursing program, within a year.
Becoming a midwife was the hardest thing I have ever done. I memorized whole chapters of William’s Obstetrics, and worked long night shifts on a Bronx labor floor where one night I assisted with four different births. I lived in an Amish farmhouse for a summer so I could attend twenty five Amish home births and learn to trust birth outside the fear-saturated hospital setting. As an unmarried, childless twenty-six year old woman living among the Amish, I was the neighborhood oddity. I learned medical-surgical nursing jargon I would never actually use in order to pass my RN exam. Finally I finished everything, and got certified through the American College of Nurse-Midwives, whose slogan is “Listen to Women.” I had my RN, and my CNM. Through it all, I was thrilled that I was learning the skills I needed to empower and uplift women.
For twenty years I have listened to women, as well as provided information and respectful care, and given women autonomy to make their own decisions about their bodies. After working in numerous clinics and hospitals, I ran a solo home-birth practice for twelve years in which I worked independently of physicians and hospitals. My home birth clients were free to find their own ways through the labyrinth of childbirth: belly dancing through labor, birthing in water, waiting through days of warm-up labor, making out with their partners between pushes, and having vaginal births after previous Cesarean sections when local hospitals no longer “allowed” them. A life of serving women resulted from my initial exposure to the old-boy power structure in place at Yale in the 1980's and I remain committed to countering patriarchy wholeheartedly until it falls.
During the unfolding of multiple accusations of sexual abuse, Dr. Ford’s courageous testimony, and then the gut-punch Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh, women and other marginalized people reeled from feeling triggered, vulnerable, angry, and sad. As for me, I turned that rage into even more connected care at my busy women’s health clinic. I listened extra hard, went the extra mile, gave more hugs as I cared for my patients each day. I remembered that it was the Brett Kavanaughs I encountered at Yale in the late 1980s who transformed the direction of my life — made me dig deep into the darkness and find a way to serve the light. And I realized that more caring, more kindness, more showing up for each other is what is needed now. And I say to everyone stirred up by the state of things in this moment — I believe you, and I acknowledge your pain. Let us join together, stand up, and do something about it.