Show More


This talk was delivered at DePauw by Sara Lennox ’65 on May 19, 2012. Dr. Lennox, who would be awarded an honorary degree at Commencement the following day, spoke to a group of graduating seniors and faculty associated with the Women’s Studies Program.

POLITICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Sara Lennox

 

       I can’t possibly convey to you how astonished and honored I was when in December I received a letter from President Casey telling me that the DePauw trustees had voted to award me an honorary doctorate.   And the timing of that award seemed especially serendipitous, since I had already decided to retire at the end of the spring semester—my retirement will take effect twelve days from now—so it seemed like my professional career had begun and ended with DePauw.   So, as you might imagine, ever since I got the letter from President Casey I’ve been thinking and thinking how to explain how it was that I got from there to here, or I guess in this case more precisely from here to here.  That is the more so the case because I can confess, since I am addressing a women’s studies audience, that I now would describe myself as a leftie anti-racist feminist, and it was not at all clear when I graduated from DePauw in 1965 that that’s what I would become.  So what I’d like to construct for you today is something like my political autobiography, and because of what I’ve learned from feminist scholarship, I’m going to structure it around what feminists call an intersectional  analysis, emphasizing the ways in which the social categories of race and ethnicity, class, and gender interacted to shape the person I’ve become.   What I’ve had to ponder to tell this story is whether there was any sort of red thread at all connecting the stages of my life from way before DePauw up to the present, and what I’ve identified is a very deep conviction from the time I was in grade school that the world I inhabited was too narrow, too constraining, together with a very fierce insistence that I deserved and was determined to find a way of life that was different and grander than the one I was being offered at the moment.  At my retirement event one of the speakers described me as “relentlessly positive,” and I think that’s been true about my absolute dedication to creating a bigger life for myself, though my definition of what counts as a bigger life has changed a lot over the years.  Before I start telling you this story, I have to say just one thing:  I have to apologize to you for reading this talk to you rather than presenting it more informally, but I’m sorry to say that,  though I took a speech class, which was then a DePauw requirement, in 1962, in the fifty years since then I still haven’t  learned to speak extemporaneously or even from notes—that’s one thing that DePauw didn’t succeed in teaching me.   This is going to be a story about somebody who was shaped by the sixties and by the very beginnings of the women’s liberation movement, the social movements that helped me understand what I wanted in a different way and also why I wasn’t satisfied with the way of life presented to me, and I hope my story will be both interesting for you and maybe even illuminating about what can happen to DePauw alums after they graduate.

     I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, on the wrong side of the tracks class-wise, though still in a better part of town than the one the Black people lived in.  You probably all know, maybe some of you from real-life experience, how brutal it was to be socialized as a girl in the 1950’s, and those are scars I’ll always bear.  It was especially unacceptable then to be a smart girl, so I modeled my ambitions on what was available to boys, refusing to take home economics and typing in high school because those classes were targeted at what girls were expected to become, but of course I couldn’t really be a boy either, so I didn’t meet anybody’s expectations.  My family was just barely, or maybe not even quite lower middle class, though of course we were white, WASPs even, and that gave me advantages that I would later be able to put to good use—for somebody who was a quick study class background mostly wasn’t hypervisible like race was, and I could learn how to pass as middle class.  Back then it didn’t make things any better that my father was an FBI agent and contributed to the implementation of McCarthyism.  He wasn’t so much a super-patriot—he was more cynical than committed to anything—but what he communicated to me was the necessity of conforming to what those in power demanded and accommodating oneself to conditions as they were.   Because of my dad’s job, discussions of politics and history were taboo in my family, so the way we lived was completely abstracted from any context, and I was also given the impression that the way it was now was the way it had always been and would always be. Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I couldn’t bear the limitations of that way of life, and so I lost myself in the world of books, where life seemed so much grander than it was in South Bend.  Then as now I read a lot of science fiction, and I now understand that I loved science fiction because it allowed me to imagine a world that was completely and utterly different than the one I inhabited and also held out the hope that it would be possible to get from here to there, if only in the far distant future.

        So I went to DePauw for the wrong reasons.  What DePauw meant for me was class mobility, because I imagined, maybe even correctly, that members of the middle or even upper middle class had bigger lives than the one my family could access in South Bend.  And for smart girls in the 1950s, there were two routes to upward mobility.  One was the girls’ route:  they could “marry up.”  There were in fact suitable husbands from a better class background at DePauw, and indeed I secured one—“ring by spring” was the watch word back then of DePauw girls in their senior year.  And there was also the boys’ route:  because I was smart I was pretty sure I could achieve upward mobility through my own efforts and haul myself up out of my class via education, as the American dream promises.  I was a National Merit Scholar, and I suppose I would have been admitted to any college in the country, but four other valedictorians from South Bend besides me enrolled in DePauw our freshman year, so it appears that if you were a smart kid from South Bend in 1961, you went to DePauw—it was the biggest leap out of South Bend anybody from any class background could imagine back then.

        In fact, initially DePauw was a place that just imposed different kinds of constraints on me.   In those days college campuses were not exactly liberating locations for women students; we were required to be in our residences by 10:30 on weekdays and 12:30 on weekends, though there were no hours for male students.  I desperately wanted to be cool while simultaneously convinced that I would never be, so I devoted lots of effort to conforming to other people’s standards of beauty and behavior and trying to date only boys from the right fraternities.  I thought joining a sorority would make me cool, but it was the wrong thing for me, and trying to live up to the sorority’s expectations ultimately made my life narrower rather than more expansive. I’m also sorry to say that during the time I was at DePauw my sorority refused to rush a Jewish woman and my sorority sisters also were also dismayed that a woman who was one-eighth Black had been pledged to the sorority at another university.  That upset me even back then, and I regret very much that I didn’t resign from the sorority in protest—but I didn’t.  My substandard high school education had not prepared me at all for DePauw, so I got good grades only by working all the time, not at all a cool thing to do, and I didn’t understand that there was any point in learning except to get good grades so as to shine in somebody else’s eyes.  I remember very little of anything I learned in my first two years at DePauw, though I also remember that I became a German major for the wrong reasons too.   I had entered DePauw as a chemistry major because after Sputnik smart kids were supposed to become scientists to beat the Russians.  I was terrible at chemistry, destroying my clothes by spilling chemicals on them, but I was good at German, which I’d enrolled in because German was supposedly the scientific language.  And then a boy I’d dated my freshman year told me that if I were a language major I could spend my junior year in Europe, and that meant that I could leave Indiana and find out what was out there in the world.

       Now I am still baffled to recall that, only sixteen years after the Holocaust, it did not at all occur to me that there might be something problematic about choosing to devote my life to the study of German culture.  But my junior year of study in Germany opened my eyes to that and many other things.  I discovered many layers of history about which I had hitherto known nothing, great natural and cultural beauty not to be found in Indiana, the exhilaration of defying gender and sexual conventions by hitchhiking around Europe with my DePauw boyfriend (later to become my husband), freedom from the pressure to study for grades, and most importantly the existence of a world of ideas and a community of intellectuals who devoted their lives to examining those ideas, along with the dawning recognition that I might just be an intellectual too.  So when I returned to DePauw my senior year, I was finally prepared to take advantage of all it had to offer.   I especially remember my course in twentieth-century philosophy from Dr. Gustafson, my courses in early modern and twentieth-century European history from Dr. Baughman, and several German literature courses from Dr. Welliver, all speaking to my newly-discovered love of ideas, expanding my life immeasurably, and providing me with knowledge that I still draw upon to this day.  And for all of that I will be forever grateful to DePauw.

      In 1965 I graduated from DePauw and went off to the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a fellowship to study German literature—and ran head-long into the sixties, which up to that point had not made much impact on DePauw, though I imagine that changed later.  What the sixties taught me was a social analysis that explained why the United States of the 1950s and early 1960s was so enormously constricting—you may know the Malvina Reynolds song that Pete Seeger made famous in 1963 about the suburban houses that were little boxes all made out of ticky tacky and all look just the same—and connected that to what the US was doing to its own people at home, including Black people, whose activism in the Civil Rights Movement had been the real catalyst for all the white student protest movements later, and to what the US was doing abroad in Vietnam.  So even before feminism I grasped that the personal is political and that there were larger political causes for the limitations to the life I so desperately didn’t want to live.   What the sixties also offered was a vision of how life could be different as well as a commitment to what feminist scholar Wini Breines called a “prefigurative politics,” an effort to build the alternative institutions and social relationships of the new society within the framework of the existing society.  Such prefigurative politics were later pursued even more emphatically by the women’s movement, which strove for non-hierarchical and more humanized forms of interaction in all spheres of life that conformed to feminists’ vision of a different and better social order.   This conception of a more liberated way of life, oriented towards joy rather than duty, sensual satisfaction rather than denial, and play rather than work, as the German social theorist and sixties guru Herbert Marcuse had put it, is one that I still cling to today.

       In Madison I may have learned more outside the classroom than inside, but I was after all in graduate school.  Though it would later become famous for its radical politics, in 1965 the German graduate program at Madison was way too authoritarian, masculinist, and boring to make me happy.  Except for one other woman in my entering class, my fellow grad students were ambitious men who worked nine to five and then went home to their dutiful wives in ticky tacky graduate student housing at night, not at all the expansive life of the mind I had imagined graduate school to be.  So after completing my master’s degree in a year I entered the Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature, a field inhabited by eccentric non-conformists more to my political taste.  In 1969 I received a Fulbright to do dissertation research in Frankfurt, Germany, which my husband the DePauw grad, now studying Germany history, and I had chosen because of the social theory of the Frankfurt School, thinkers like Marcuse whose ideas had underwritten the sixties rebellion.  In Frankfurt I learned the theory that supported the sixties activism I’d been exposed to in Madison, and that thought has shaped my politics ever since—in fact, the very last course of my UMass career that I taught this past semester was on the Frankfurt School.  Though our time in Frankfurt was otherwise more devoted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll than research, we nonetheless succeeded in completing our dissertations, my husband in 1972, and me a year later while having a baby in the process.  My husband got a job teaching European history at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college quite a lot like DePauw, but located in Canton, New York, a small town not far from the Canadian border that was not so very different from Greencastle.    Three months after our son was born I also got a job at St. Lawrence teaching English, which was a wonderful teaching opportunity, but, meaning no offense, I thought I would shrivel up and die if I had to spend my life in Canton, New York.  So when I was offered a one-year post doc co-sponsored by Comparative Literature and German at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I jumped at the chance to leave.

        I found Amherst and Northampton, home to the Five Colleges, a consortium of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges as well as UMass now directed by Neil Abraham, DePauw’s former provost, to be a place optimally combining the leftist politics, range of alternative life styles including a lively lesbian community, and enormous intellectual and cultural vitality that I was looking for—I can’t imagine any other place in the country that I would more prefer to live.   After receiving my doctorate in Comparative Literature, I hadn’t really planned on a career in German, but when a job came open in the German Department at UMass and it was ultimately offered to me, I realized that accepting the position would mean I could stay in Amherst, and I took it.  One eventual consequence was the end of my marriage, since my husband, who had followed me to Amherst, never got another academic job after higher education contracted due to the oil crisis-occasioned economic downturn of the mid- seventies.  So as I was trying to get tenure I also became a single mom.  I always found motherhood a joy and an adventure but also extremely difficult.  I belonged to the first generation of feminist women who tried to have it all, and it’s never been easy, then or now. 

       As it eventually became clear that I would in fact get tenure at UMass, I confronted with dismay the prospect that I would spend the rest of my life teaching “der die das,” so I was entirely delighted when in 1981 I was asked to assume the directorship of the Social Thought and Political Economy Program, STPEC for short, a lefty interdisciplinary program for undergraduates.  Ever since then I’ve run STPEC, which now has about 150 majors, as a half-time administrator  while continuing to teach and do scholarship in German Studies.  So in some ways my career bifurcated in 1981, and in some other ways not at all, as I’ll tell you in a moment.  STPEC is where my heart lies, because within STPEC I’ve tried to implement the vision I brought with me from Madison and pass that vision on to successive generations of students.  STPEC’s governance structure  is premised upon consensus-based decision-making, with all members of the STPEC community granted an equal voice, thus allowing students themselves to make decisions about the shape of their own education, a principle for which we’d fought in the sixties;  STPEC’s curriculum is founded upon an intersectional analysis that insists on equal attention to all categories of oppression;  STPEC’s core seminars attempt to counter Eurocentrism by juxtaposing Western ideas and critiques of them advanced elsewhere in the world;  STPEC’s instructors promote critical thinking and academic rigor because they are convinced that ideas matter; STPEC’s major requirements insist on the connection between theory and practice because, as Marx put it in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, the point is not just to understand the world, but to change it.  And in an era in which students’ interest in a program committed to ideals of social justice cannot be presupposed, STPEC continues to attract some of the most talented students at UMass.  Last October, as STPEC’s dean and I were discussing my successor as director, he wrote me in an e-mail:  “I continue to be thrilled with every STPEC student I encounter.  They are so wonderfully thoughtful and intellectually-driven that I never feel anything less than inspired after talking with them.”  In my thirty-one years as STPEC’s director, I’ve tried to make STPEC the embodiment of prefigurative politics and an example of what German theorist Ernst Bloch called a concrete utopia, a small model now of the way I hope education, indeed, all of society, might be organized in the future, and that is the most expansive life I can envision.   STPEC has helped me to keep hope alive and to continue to believe that it is possible to realize theory in the real world, and that is why I love it so much.

       On the other hand, as I directed STPEC I also learned from it, and I brought what it taught me back into my own academic discipline—so STPEC and German turned out not to be so far apart after all.  Since I’d, faute de mieux, cast my lot with the discipline of German Studies, I invested my energies into expanding it into a field in which I would feel comfortable, and that meant in consonance with my sixties values.   I was already engaged in those efforts pre-STPEC, and the organization Women in German, which I helped to found in 1974, has continued since then to practice prefigurative politics as it advances feminist scholarship within German Studies, supports feminist Germanists in departments not always so friendly to their work, and helps women in the academy to connect the personal and the political in their work and private lives.  Much of my German Studies scholarship has focused on women writers, and I am particularly fascinated by the generation of writers who came to maturity in the 1950s, a time when, as my own experience had shown me, it was very difficult to be a woman intellectual. As its title might indicate, that is the focus of my 2006 book Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters:  Feminism, History, and Ingeborg Bachmann.  Though white feminist scholars were only dragged kicking and screaming, as Donna Haraway put it, to consider race and their own complicity in racism, by the mid-eighties most American feminists conceded the importance of attention to race as well as gender, and feminist Germanists eventually took on that charge too.  Influenced by the intersectional analysis I was trying to promote in STPEC, I think I was one of the first US Germanists to address race in German literature, a topic that still remains quite taboo in Germany today.   My work in STPEC, which draws its courses from the social sciences and history as well as from Women’s Studies and African American Studies, compelled me to remain aware of developments outside of the field of German and of literary studies, and I also brought that interdisciplinary focus to my scholarship in German Studies.  That interdisciplinary background enabled me to create a foundational graduate seminar called “German Studies/Cultural Studies” that teaches our German graduate students cutting-edge interdisciplinary theory and is, I think, one of the reasons that our program ranks third in the country in job placements for PhDs.  My interdisciplinary interests also led me to become increasingly involved in the German Studies Association, a professional organization bringing together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences who focus on the German-speaking countries, and my interdisciplinary emphases bore fruit when I was elected to serve as GSA president in 2007-2008.  In 1998, together with two colleagues, I drew on the postcolonial theory I had learned in STPEC to co-edit The Imperialist Imagination:  German Colonialism and Its Legacy, the first-ever study of cultural production deriving from or related to German colonialism, and I think that that book then shaped the field of German postcolonial studies as it subsequently emerged both in the US and in Germany.   As a new multiculticulturalism emerged in Germany after German unification, I was able to bring my anti-racist politics into German Studies through a focus on Black Germans, a population whose mothers were mostly white Germans and whose fathers were African American GIs in West Germany and students from socialist African countries in the former GDR.   In 2005 three Black Germans and I received grants from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for a collaborative research project on Black German Studies and from the Volkswagen Foundation for a research project on Black European Studies.  Those projects launched Black German Studies as a field and promoted increasing collaboration among the range of scholars working in different national contexts on populations from the African diaspora living in Europe.  As soon as this semester is over, I will finish worked on the edited volume Remapping Black Germany:  New Perspectives on Afro-German History, Politics, and Culture.  Finally, the decolonial perspective that STPEC attempted to elaborate to combat Eurocentrism helped me to understand the importance of scholarship that transcends the limits of the nation-state, and a transnational approach is one that I have also tried to teach my German graduate students and have promoted within the German Studies Association, focusing my presidential address on the topic “Transnational Approaches and Their Challenges.”  Should I decide to continue to pursue scholarship after retirement—I haven’t decided yet—my post-retirement project will be a transnational one focused on race and class in really-existing socialism, exploring the relationship of African American writers and the German Democratic Republic.   By the time of my retirement German Studies had become a field large enough for me to pursue all my interests, and I think that is in some part because my own efforts helped to expand it into an area of study in which I could feel at home. But I am also proud that I have always used my teaching and scholarship to promote the ideals of social justice to which I am committed, also in the field of German Studies working to bring about a world that would be larger and grander for everybody, not just for myself.

     So that takes me up to the present day, and the question for me after my retirement on May 31 is, what comes next?  The life of a faculty member is one of extraordinary freedom but also constraining in its own way.  As Foucault has taught us, we are disciplined by our discipline, the master is inside our own head, we are never off duty, and we feel guilty if we are not working all the time—or at least I do.  So now what happens?  When people ask me about my post-retirement plans, I tell them that I plan to NOT WORK!  But what else will I do when I am entirely free to expand my life in any direction I choose?  I just don’t know yet.  The executive director of the German Studies Association concluded his introduction to my GSA presidential address by saying:  “South Bend can be proud of her.”  Whatever else I do, I hope I will continue to make DePauw proud of me too. 

 

  ##

6/12