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Women's History Month, State Historical Society, and Minot Curling

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Dr. Michelle Lelwica
Concordia College
Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Today's Segments:

  • Women's History Month: John Harris visits with Dr. Michelle Lelwica.
  • State Heritage: Bill Peterson, Director of the State Historical Society of ND.
  • State Fun: Great American Folk Show and Curling in Minot.

Transcription: Excerpt of Interview with Dr. Michelle Lewica

John Harris

As we get started, tell the folks a little bit about yourself and maybe your background and where you're originally from.

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Well, let's start with where I'm originally from. I grew up in Staples, Minnesota, and I spent the first 18 years of my life there. Then I went to the College of St. Benedict and kind of fell in love with learning. Felt like I couldn't stop and went on to graduate school at Harvard Divinity School and did my Master's of Theological Studies there. And then I was the first student to graduate in a program, a Ph.D. program focused on religion, gender, and culture.

John Harris

March, of course, is Women's History Month. Can you talk about some of the classes you teach at Concordia that focus on women's history and roles in society and things like that?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Yeah, probably the course that's most relevant to Women's History Month that I teach is Women's Religious History. So, religion is my home field and I have an emphasis in gender and women's studies. And that class is, I say this about all my classes, but it really is one of my favorite classes to teach.

I usually get a handful of men in the class. It fulfills a requirement, so that helps. And lots of women, some in between, students who are non-binary.

And it's just a wonderful class for me to teach because I get to witness students encountering the history of women in a way that they haven't. We don't send students to high school and they learn about the history of women. They learn about history, which is so often his story.

It's not really her story. So much of what we inherit historically is written by the historical winners. Men have been in the dominant position.

And so women don't learn about their own history. And especially we start that class looking at the history of women in early Christianity. And many of the students, not all of my students, are Christian.

I would say about 50, maybe 60 percent of them are. But whether or not they're Christian, they're shocked to really find out about women's active role at the beginning of Christianity because that's not a history that we learn about, either in the context of religion usually or more broadly. So, I think one of my favorite things about that class is students start to really see how patterns, specific patterns of gender norms and gender narratives that are historical continue to echo in their own experiences.

So, for example, a lot of the writings we have about women are just that. They're about women. They're not by women.

And they're often very demeaning towards women. The early church fathers talk about how women are not very rational and they're not very trustworthy and they are profound sources of temptation, always leading men off the path. These are narratives that are still alive today.

A lot of women doubt their own intelligence. They doubt their own ability to lead. They doubt their own sense of self.

And the self-doubt that these historical narratives generate about women echoes in my students' experiences, particularly the young women who want to feel brave and want to feel confident, but they realize they struggle with self-doubt. And where does that come from? They weren't born with it.

That's a historical legacy.

John Harris

Why is it important to mark and observe Women's History Month?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Yeah, because if we don't know our history, we don't know our experience. We don't know how we came to be who we are. Simone de Beauvoir, she was a groundbreaking feminist in the middle of the 20th century.

She was responsible for saying, one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman. In other words, so much of gender is socialization. Of course, there are physiological differences, but so much of what we learn about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, these are social narratives.

That's what it means to say gender is socially constructed. So Simone de Beauvoir said that if we don't know our history, there's a whole piece of self-knowledge that's missing collectively as women. And so understanding our history and understanding not just history from the perspective of what men said about women, but the more we can even dredge up stories and self-representations that women in history had about themselves and their struggles in what predominantly has been patriarchal cultures.

We learn about our own agency. We learn about the other women's agency. We learn about how they challenged social norms in ways that made it possible for us to be on this trajectory, hopefully, I'm hopeful, that we continue transforming society towards a more equal future.

John Harris

Can you talk about maybe how in our lifetime jobs and roles have changed for women?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

I see more and more young women being more audacious in the best sense of the word, like brave, courageous in charting their own paths. But certainly doors have opened to women in jobs that used to be almost exclusively for men. If you look back in the 1950s and you went into the jobs wanted part of the newspaper, you'd see jobs for women and jobs for men, gender segregated jobs.

That's how it used to be. And now we don't do that anymore. Women are getting college degrees at a rate even slightly higher than men.

And so they're going into jobs that were exclusively male territory or almost exclusively for much of human history and Western history. Think about women becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers. And at the same time, men are going into fields that have traditionally been relegated to women, nursing, teaching, etc.

Still not at the rates where it's 50-50. But I see young women also being going into like jobs that involve technology. And some of those things that people in my generation have less fluency in.

A lot of young women are very confident with those types of jobs, and I see them being very entrepreneurial about them.

John Harris

So it sounds like you believe progress has been made in recent decades for equal pay and opening doors for women to careers that maybe they weren't. But what more can be done, in your opinion, in the coming years?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Lots more needs to be done. I don't want to give the impression that we're there yet. And when we think about it, think about even women leadership positions.

In Congress today, we have 28% of Congress's women. Now that's progress. But is that even close to half?

No, it's not even close to half. So what can be done? I think we need to first of all understand that there still is a problem.

We've made progress, but there's still a problem of gender inequity, systemic gender inequity. And when you talk about sexism as something that's systemic, what that means is, it's not a matter of our personal intentions. It's not that some people don't like women.

There are people who maybe don't like women, but not many. Most of us have mothers and sisters and partners. But what can be done is we can admit that there still is a problem.

There still is systemic gender inequality. And once we recognize that problem, we can look for ways in our own daily lives that we cannot be complicit with that. The same is true with racism.

We're asking these questions. As a white person, I'm trying to understand, what are the ways I've been complicit with racism? One of the ways is, I haven't had to think about it.

You know, I've had the privilege, part of white privilege is not having to think about it. So I think one thing that can be done is men can join the struggle against sexism and see it as their problem too. I'm not just a women's studies professor, I'm a women and gender studies professor.

So the men in my class, we talk about how patriarchy, namely the system of male dominance, is not good for them either. I had a really interesting conversation two weeks ago with students in my Christianity and Religious Diversity course. And we were reading this book where the author is making the case against sexism, but she's also saying that patriarchy is not good for men.

And I asked the male students in the class, what do you think about this? And they opened up so beautifully about the struggles of what it's like to be having to live up to this image of manhood that feels really oppressive to them. And what if they don't fit into that?

And think of all the pressure to be successful, and what if you're not successful? So I think until people who are in the dominant group see the kind of oppression that they're implicated in as their problem too, until white people see racism as their problem, until men see sexism as their problem too, and not just a women's issue, we won't make progress. But I'm hopeful when I teach, this may be why I teach college students, they're at a place in their lives where they're open to seeing things change, and seeing things differently.

And when we see things differently, then we have a chance to change.

John Harris

Talk some about your publications and research. I understand you've done some on body images for women.

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

You know, it's funny, it strikes some people as funny that as a religion scholar, my focus, primary focus for the past three decades has been looking at body image and eating disordered behavior among women. And then I remind people who find that to be peculiar, about the story of the second creation myth, the story of Adam and Eve, and how sin comes into the world. Do you remember that story?

How does sin come into the world? Eve takes a bite, it's actually a fruit, it's described as a fruit, but the artistic tradition makes us all believe it's an apple. Anyway, it could have been, who knows, it's a story.

Religion scholars see this as a myth, not as something that really happened. But yeah, she eats, she eats. So sin and shame and death come into the world through a woman's disobedient appetite.

This goes back to the first question. If we don't really study the way that these historical narratives continue into today, we're missing something important. And so my interest in women's eating issues comes from my own experience having an adolescent eating disorder.

But I started studying, when I was at Harvard Divinity School, what many of the religious authorities who were male were saying about women's bodies, and about women's appetites. And the constant narrative kept going back to Eve, and women couldn't control their appetites, and women were out of control, and their bodies were unruly, and they needed to contain their bodies, and they needed to contain their hunger. I was like, this is so interesting, connecting the dots between this.

One of the most influential myths in Western culture, right, is the creation myth. And at the heart of that myth is sin and shame being associated with women's bodies, and in particular, their bodily appetites. And so when I started doing research on this, it was so clear to me that that shame, that legacy of shame still is alive.

I talk to my students about this all the time. It's one of my favorite topics is, you know, are you still all struggling with body image stuff? Oh yeah, oh yeah, they are.

Even though they know it's toxic, even though they know that they've been fed a bed of lies about their bodies, they still really struggle. And now with social media, of course, that isn't helping the situation because they're exposed to all kinds of curated, edited, perfected images, and they struggle with shame.

John Harris

Do you feel teachers, counselors, and others are better now than in past decades at spotting eating disorders and eating issues among women and young girls?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Yeah, to some extent, maybe, but also, you know, one of the most prominent eating disorder is binge eating disorder, and that's often done in secret, and so that's hard to spot. My own experience as an adolescent started off with a lot of self-starving, but then I became bulimic, and that's pretty easy to hide. You know, I went for three years with nobody knowing what was going on for me, and I think it's hard to spot certain eating disordered behavior, especially in a culture where eating disorders we have on the extreme part of the continuum, but then we also celebrate diet culture and weight loss.

We compliment a woman who has lost weight until she's gone too far, and then we pathologize her. So to some extent, I think we've gotten better, but I also think it's hard to spot disordered eating in a culture that's already got so much disordered eating.

John Harris

Who are some of your heroes as we celebrate Women's History Month?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

I think about Sojourner Truth, a mid-19th century former slave who was, her slave name was Isabella, but she didn't like her slave name because that was not a name that she gave herself, and so she chose the symbolic name of Sojourner Truth, Pursuing Truth, and she went up and down the coast lecturing about the brutalities of slavery, and at a famous convention in 1851, there were some ministers, some Christian ministers there. It was a women's rights convention, and she was one of the few black women there, and these ministers were talking about how women shouldn't have rights because Jesus was a male, and women weren't smart enough, and Eve caused the whole downfall of humanity.

So those are the reasons, and in the context of that conference, Sojourner Truth stood up and said, basically, I hear a bunch of people talking about women's rights, but am I even included in that as a black woman? And I think we're still struggling with that today, right? But then she went on and gave these brilliant responses to the ministers saying, you know, you're saying women can't have rights because Jesus was a man.

Well, where did Jesus come from? Jesus came from a woman, and then she says about the argument against women's intelligence, she says, you know, if she makes a clever argument against what the ministers are saying, and finally she's arguing against their claim that women can't have rights because of what Eve did, and she says, you know, if Eve was powerful enough to bring down the whole of humanity, she must be pretty powerful, and I think she has the power, and women have the power to flip it and make it right again. So she's a hero of mine because she's brilliant, she's audacious. Her legacy, I think, lives on in women who are willing to be brave and audacious today against those kinds of ridiculous arguments that want to contain us.

John Harris

What are some of the shocking things young women who attend your classes learn about things that women couldn't do not that long ago? I mean, you back up a hundred years ago, the right to vote, but even a bank account or having their name on a credit card.

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Yeah, you know, women were not able to have the bank account in their own name until like 1950. Think about credit cards. It was 1974.

A woman could have a credit card in her own name, and this goes back to the legacy of women basically being property. It's not that long ago that these things were happening. I was saying I was about 10 years old when women could get a credit card in their own name.

So that's during my lifetime. I want to bring in intersectionality, which is a way of talking about the way you can never talk about gender in isolation from talking about race and class and sexuality and other ways that we create identities in our culture. And women were, black women, were not even allowed to be in the Miss America pageant until the late 60s because black was not considered beautiful.

This speaks the power of Sojourner Truth's legacy, this power of claiming herself in that category of woman as a black woman and saying, we belong here too.

John Harris

So if people are interested in getting more information, where can they go? Who can they contact?

Dr. Michelle Lelwica

Concordia has a wonderful Women and Gender Studies program. In fact, we have a number of Women and Gender Studies minors, and they connect their minors with whatever their major is. Our director is currently on sabbatical, so I'm happy to field any questions or have more discussions about these conversations. And I'm just on the website at Concordia College.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.