Exploring Alternative Feminisms

“We are all nonstandard”

Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics”

We have nurtured several “transminded” initiatives on our campus over the course of the past few years, each one shifting our understanding of “madness” from an anchored category to a more open, mutable one. Anne first began to engage this dance of disabling achievement in a small Faculty Working Group on Assessment, where a year-long conversation about varieties of academic appraisal and evaluation led to an appreciation of the wide diversity of our students, and multiple discussions about how better to recognize and evaluate their work. Slowly this conversation shifted to imagining educational structures that might allow more space not only for the various modes of student achievement, but also for life’s interruptions and challenges.

Because a recent study of the “campus climate” had made it clear that the portfolio of the ideal Bryn Mawr woman—an ambitious, capable and high-achieving student—emphatically excluded mental illness (and with it multiple, valuable forms of human and academic expression), we began to explore the possibility of bringing a discussion of student mental health to the faculty floor. The Advisory Council to the Faculty Chair thought the topic important—but also dangerous enough that it need to be handled with extreme care.

The prospect of a faculty-wide discussion evoked a range of fears: of naming the problem, of being called to be responsive to and responsible for it, and of making some serious mistakes in trying to respond. In the initial stages of our conversation, the Advisory Council conceptualized “mental illness” as a distinctly medicalized category, encompassing a small number of students whose conditions threaten our shared academic work. Concerned that faculty “don’t like uncertainty,” and did not feel competent to deal with the range of student needs and challenges, the Council proposed that a panel of mental health professionals might advise faculty how to “deal with this kind of diversity,” and so guide our thinking about strategies of inclusion.

It was challenging even to label this topic: saying that we wanted to “address the mental health needs” of our students already framed the conversation as being about a medical problem. Over the course of our planning discussions, however, the Advisory Council became eager to facilitate a process that might help the campus move beyond the paradigm of trying to “fix” those students who are challenged by our classrooms. The productive large-group conversation that eventually ensued in late March 2012 was not framed by the topics of “illness” and “disability,” but presented rather as one in a sequence of discussions about “meeting the needs of our diverse student body.”

Those who teach in classrooms were joined in this conversation by athletics faculty, deans, and staff members from the Health Center and Office of Public Safety. A member of the Graduate School of Social Work prepared us for the conversation by sharing some statistics and offering three frameworks to help us begin thinking specifically about mental illness: we could understand it as a medical issue, the result of biological malfunctioning; as a social construction that serves to maintain the status quo (Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne argue that the culture of schooling creates particular syndromes that then need accommodation1 ); or as “desire-based,” a formulation that replaces the language of “damage” and deficit” with the complexity, contradiction, and self-determination of lived lives.2

We began with writing and then speaking in small groups, before gathering together for a wide-ranging discussion reflecting on what the institution rewards, and at what cost: how to begin talking about ways in which the culture at Bryn Mawr contributes to mental health problems for everyone on campus, including staff and faculty? The distinct identities of the “mentally ill” and the “healthy” began to blur as we considered structures that might better enable us all.

Margaret Price explains that discussions like these often fall into two clearly divided camps, with those personally affected by issues of mental disability set against those concerned with “falling standards” and maintenance of the academy’s drive for “able-mindedness.”3 Our intervention in that distinction meant naming the dialectic in which each “camp” undergirds, and so defines, the other. ”Protecting standards” predicates achievement on the existence of a population who cannot meet those goals; advocating for the “disabled” sets that distinct identity against those who are “enabled.” Both acts of “exclusion” are caught within what Lennard Davis identifies as the “larger system of regulation and signification” which disables us all4—a system that Bryn Mawr faculty and staff will continue to interrogate in the months and years ahead.

Multiple student activities are also aimed at ending the culture of silence and shame surrounding mental illness on campus. This is a particular focus of Active Minds, a national organization, founded in 2000, which now has chapters on over three hundred college campuses.5 In the spring of 2010, when Clare first began serving as one of the co-presidents of Bryn Mawr’s chapter, we could not seem to build up our membership, and our events were poorly attended. We imagined a dynamic and interactive community that could replace the normative public discourse about strength and autonomy with discussions about shared vulnerability, but we were finding it very difficult to talk openly about feeling weak, frustrated, vulnerable, tired, irrational. It seemed to us difficult, if not impossible, to create “mad spaces” amidst the Bryn Mawr culture of achievement.

Bryn Mawr is mostly welcoming to those who are gender variant: a range of identities are explored and celebrated, among friends, in courses and student groups; organizations pertaining to bodily variety, gender identity and sexuality have a large presence on campus. Active Minds had been trying for several years to promote a similarly inclusive environment for all types of minds, but mental illness carries a particular stigma at Bryn Mawr, serving as the shadow side of the strong, independent, and productive women the students are striving to be. Although gender variance may destabilize the traditional notion of a “women’s college,” it does not threaten the image of the “intellectual sister” that is so essential to Bryn Mawr’s vision of itself and others’ vision of it. Raising questions about the mental health costs of this intellectual work complicates this vision tremendously—although we are arguing here that doing so can offer a richer, more creative version of what an “intellectual sister” might mean.

In keeping with the character of Bryn Mawr, where intellectual work is so highly valued, we began connecting activist objectives with more theoretical ones. With Anne as our faculty advisor, we formed a network linking the “top-down” organization of “Active Minds” with the “bottom-up” structure of “The Slippery Brain Sodality,” a group composed of individuals with “brains that change states frequently/rapidly,” who were rethinking existing approaches to stigmatization, cultural dependence, and the very basic contrast of “health” with “illness.”6 We also created a documentary entitled “Stomping Out Stigma,” featuring students and faculty talking about their experiences with mental illness on Bryn Mawr’s campus. Modeling our video after the “Pink Glove Dance,” a YouTube sensation created to raise awareness of breast cancer, we asked each of our participants to wear a silver crown, as they danced in their dorm rooms and shimmied in their offices, physical education classes, and gymnastic practices.

We followed the campus premiere of the documentary with a panel discussion that explicitly aimed to break down the conventional distinctions separating the personal from the theoretical, and mental health from mental illness. The panelists included Anne; another professor who specializes in film studies, and has lived with depression; and two psychologists from our on-campus Child Study Institute. Our conversation centered around the unhealthy demands for performance to which Bryn Mawr holds its students, and the high standards to which these student “Mawrtyrs” hold themselves. We discussed the widespread student culture of “passing” as abled and achieving. One student described the professors as “another species” of “accomplishment and achievement,” who were unable to understand her struggles. We challenged the divisions separating those who achieve from those who fail, the capable from the incapable, the mentally fit from the mentally ill, acknowledging that all of us operate on a spectrum of difficulty and possibility.

Our most successful venture in this regard was an event, suggested by our national organization, called “Post Secret.” Placing a blank index card in each student’s mailbox, asking her to write, draw, or “craft” a secret, we collected over two hundred responses for display in the student center. We were heartened to learn, from a survey we conducted later, that many students felt grateful to have suppressed, often shameful, experiences pulled to the surface, to see what they knew reflected in the words of someone else. In contrast to the closed system of Edward Clarke, our Post Secret project figured an open structure that highlighted multiple forms of mental variety. Each postcard was detached from the person who wrote it, intermingled on the display board with secrets of very different types. The link between behavior and identity was thus disrupted, as was the hierarchy of importance governing the relationship of different secrets to one another. Stories of severe mental illness appeared next to sillier tales; the network of secrets was utterly horizontal in its distribution.


A black poster board, featuring an arrangement of post secrets, in many different shapes and colors, on display in Bryn Mawr’s campus center.

The aesthetic form we created, with postcards separate yet connected, was that of a collage. Halberstam terms this mode “self shattering,” because it models the depth of interdependence and “interbeing” in individual trajectories, and so challenges the “deeply disabling” mode of the self-sufficient individual.7 By connecting all parts, we featured a collective representation, which may have made individual authors of the postcards feel less vulnerable: they could see that these were perturbations they did not have to absorb on their own. The scattered world we put on display illustrated, too, what we mean by the act of “maddening”: unsettling the distinctiveness of dis/ability.

Our understanding of what we accomplished in this project is still incomplete, as are the possibilities that might be opened up by its further iterations. For instance, a student in Anne’s Non-Fictional Prose class, who posed some questions on-line about the viability of the Post Secret initiative, queried the degree to which “anonymity allows the truth, or facts, to become clear.” She troubled in particular the “truth claims” of the display: “I wonder how many of these are true, how many are exaggerated truths for the sake of public recognition/publication”?8 Transforming a “closed system” of shameful secrets into an open form of posting is a means of advocating extension and claiming lateral space. But what other dangers—and possibilities—lie in open networks?

We have learned a lot from our several years working with Active Minds, both about the strong fears that animate any conversations around questions of mental difference and dis/ability on campus, and about our own preferences for activism with a clear theoretical base, which both understands why it is acting, and is savvy about the limitations of that action. We have also recognized our particular investment in forms of activism that refuse to privilege the needs of one group over those of another, and signal as well the instability of any category that we might use to separate ourselves from others. We acknowledge, too, the fluidity of the categories we have used to separate parts of ourselves from other parts: the “capable” from the “mad,” the “achieving” from the “failing,” the enabling from that which disables.

the project of disability studies… has become much more than a mere call for accessibility: not a one-way request, but rather a multiply-positioned, “transminded” exchange. Our largely practical discussions with faculty, as well as our advocacy activities on campus, have certainly complicated the project of disability studies at Bryn Mawr, where it has become much more than a mere call for accessibility: not a one-way request, but rather a multiply-positioned, “transminded” exchange. We are now dreaming together about a more capacious vision of what it might mean for us to create a shared community out of these multiple interacting parts. The cross-disciplinary approach we see emerging is that of community intent on expanding itself, combining creative, literary, educational, political, psychological, sociological, and scientific perspectives.

Some of the actions we envision have a pragmatic dimension: establishing chapters of Active Minds on each of the five “sister” campuses (Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke), with representatives convening each year to discuss past events and plan future ones; reaching out to the first-semester students who are facing the challenge of leaving home; creating a website for this population that not only lists the symptoms of various disorders, and valuable resources for treatment, but also information about the fluidity of identity, as described by disability studies, crip studies, and mad pride activists. We imagine more on-campus events like “The Female Orgasm Project” co-sponsored by Active Minds and Rainbow Alliance (an LGBTQ advocacy group), which showcased the usefulness of conceptualizing our identities as multiple and positively intersecting (“orgasms are good for mental health!”).

Other projects might focus on larger, perhaps-surprising questions, such as the disabling quality of our current conceptions of time. In accord with such possibilities, we turn now to speculate on the degree to which all preoccupation with achievement—itself dependent on futurity—is inherently disabling.

  1. Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, “Culture as Disability,”Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-348.
  2. Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, 3 (Fall 2009): 413.
  3. Margaret Price, “Killer Dichotomies: Ir/rational, Crazy/Sane, Dangerous/Not,” University of Michigan Press Blog, February 14, 2012, accessed August 28, 2012.
  4. Davis, “End of Identity Politics,” 240
  5. Active Minds: Changing the Conversation about Mental Health,” accessed August 28, 2012.
  6. The Slippery Brain Sodality,” June 25, 2009-November 8, 2011, accessed August 28, 2012.
  7. Halberstam, Queer Time, 136, 139.
  8. FatCatRex, “Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing: Secrets of Truth-Telling Revealed,” October 29, 2010, accessed August 28, 2012.