Rebel Girls: Women’s Studies Saved My Life, And I Want It To Change Yours, Too

Welcome to Rebel Girls, a column about gender and feminist theory and the founding mothers of the women’s movement. It’s like a women’s studies class, but better! Mostly because nobody has to wear pants.

I think women’s studies saved my life, but I don’t know what that means. Maybe that I’m not good at anything else – that I failed at being normal, that I failed at falling into line, that I failed at being everyone else, that I’ll never talk to God. Maybe it means that the closest I will ever get to mightiness is uncovering everything that’s damaged me and smashing every surface standing in my way. Maybe it means nobody’s invented the right hero for me yet, or that I need to be a hero for someone else.

Maybe we should find out.

When I was 17, I took my first women’s studies class. I was still in high school, but I had elected to take courses at the local community college. I was terrified and excited and absolutely unprepared, but it didn’t stop me from signing up for “History of American Women (Honors)” and showing up with all of my books 15 minutes early on the first day of class.

The woman at the helm of this experience was named Bonnie. “I try to remain impartial about most things,” she told us, “except for two: Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schafly.”

That was when everything changed.


I was raised a feminist – albeit one who, before this class, knew almost nothing of my foremothers or the movement I would come to call home. I grew up with a working-class single mom who dropped everything to give my brother and I anything, and beside her stood the countless other strong, fierce, totally independent women in my extended family. Somewhere inside of me, I knew what feminism was and I knew that I believed in it, but nobody had ever taught me its language or its history.

Then one day, I was 17, and Hillary Clinton was running for President, and every day I would eat yogurt with granola at the café in the student center and swing my legs while I read from our textbooks for my course. I started to realize how connected I was to something so much larger than myself, and how important it was for me to recognize that, to own it, to live it. I adopted the label of “feminist,” almost outright, and committed to studying it in its entirety. This one course had shifted my core. It had shattered my entire understanding of the world. Although it never felt like an earthquake, I look back now and see it that way. It was my awakening. Seeing the women who had come before, defiant and demanding, and the women who came after, theorizing and hypothesizing and giving language to an entire part of the human race folks had literally erased and ignored – all of it motivated me to be a revolutionary. I wanted to push the Earth. I wanted to be remembered for bringing good and insight and opportunity into the world. I wanted women to be people. I wanted women to have destinies. I wanted my own destiny.

I tried to write Bonnie a thank-you letter years later, sitting next to my WGST coursework and immersing myself in some theoretical writings in the library. I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” I kept writing, “for everything.”

For me, the rest is herstory: I graduated high school, became a women’s studies major and a raging lesbian feminist in college, and moved into the non-profit sector. I went into that movement and never came back out – and now, I do my best in my professional life to bring it to everyone else.

I say that women’s studies saved my life – but that’s not fair. An ivory tower can’t save anyone. A theory can’t save anyone. There’s tons of people across the country and around the world who identify with the word “feminist,” and we can’t all go to college, or major in women’s studies, or stay up at night reading philosophy and undoing our socialization. For a lot of women, feminist doesn’t look like a classroom. For a lot of women, feminism is the difference between a half-life and a shot at a whole one.

In putting theory to practice, I’ve realized that often the most successful solutions are, often inadvertently, rooted in a critical analysis of our broken world. But in becoming an activist, I also realized that the theories and philosophies which brought me here are still largely inaccessible – and thus, the version of history we’ve re-written for ourselves is, too.

The Internet has revolutionized the women’s rights movement, if only by bringing us together and giving us access to what was once fenced off in textbooks or explained laboriously at academic conferences. The Internet has democratized this movement. The choir is bigger than ever and ready to be preached to. We’ve changed the world through hashtags, taken action through web pages, and made noise on our blogs.

The Internet is the new Capitol. And the Internet should be the new classroom.

I’m here today with a small and humble offering: an explanation. A common understanding. I’ve realized that there exists a gap between academic feminists and the activists who don’t have the time, money, or energy to read them – and I’m here to do my part to close that. I’m here to share everything I know, just in case it all ceases to exist. And I’m here to answer your questions, too. I think a feminist community that can marry its theory to its radicalism is a healthy one; I think challenging ourselves to think critically about our culture over time is a stronger way to change it than simply attacking the problems that are most evident. Feminist theory opened my eyes – but for too many women, an understanding of the movement is based only in lived injustice; they’ve never had the chance to learn about it in an air-conditioned classroom. For too many women, understanding feminism comes only from witnessing disempowerment and inequality, without an opportunity to explore the theories, philosophies, and critical analyses that gave me hope for a better, more equitable, world.

For the next while, I’ll be writing about women’s studies concepts in normal people language – and I’d love to have you in class each session. Let me know in the comments of this post if there are concepts you’ve yet to dig into, or if there’s something you’d like to see covered. I’ll be talking about everything from herstory to Judith Butler, and entire cosmos exist in the middle of that – so I’m open to suggestions!

In the meantime, get ready to get schooled.

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. I am so excited about this, Carmen! Especially as a seventeen year old Latina feminist who is always up for learning some herstory. I am less educated than I’d like to be!

  2. I’d really be interested in a Judith Butler 101, also Luce Irigaray and Foucault.
    My attention span and vocabulary are too meager for me to actually get around to read them.

  3. SO SO EXCITED! Is there any recommended reading? Would it be inappropriate call you Professor in a sexy voice?

    In terms of topics, I would love a breakdown of the different waves of feminism. I feel like this’s probably super basic stuff, but I would love to be able to contextually locate your columns!

  4. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I love this, I love this, I love this. My identity as a queer woman is so wound up in my history with and as a feminist, so THIS IS OFFICIALLY THE BEST NEW THING IN THE WORLD.

  5. Yay Carmen!!! As someone who was pretty immersed in feminist/women’s studies in college and now works in non-profit/activism, I completely agree with what you’re saying! Excited to see your future articles! I love talking about theory but I love it even more when applying it to the real world and hearing real people’s experiences.

  6. Hey Carmen, very excited that you’re writing about this! I also have a degree in Women’s Studies :) I totally relate to your desire to bridge academia and activism, which brings to mind Paulo Freire’s concept of “Praxis” in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (pretty much one of the most amazing books ever, definitely check it out if you haven’t), which inspired bell hooks. Women’s Studies/feminism, in it’s ability to critique systematic oppression and dualistic ways of thinking, is a perfect place to start bridging this gap.

    I’d love to see a variety of things discussed including continuing to examine how we can enable “Praxis”, how feminist theory can help us to understand lesbian separatism and bi/trans-phobia in the community, and also eco-feminism.

    Would be thrilled to help research/collaborate on any future topics, and thanks again :)

    • Oh man, just seeing the word “praxis” makes me break out in hives.

  7. I can’t wait for the next article in this series! I’m basically majoring in women’s studies (democracy and justice studies with women’s and gender studies emphasis) and this is gonna be my jam. Sticky, sugary strawberry jam holding together the activist I want to be and the history I want to read.

    I think I might be hungry.

  8. Carmen, I am SO EXCITED that you are writing this. I also feel super fortunate to have found women’s studies and the amazing community that comes with it, and I can’t wait to read all of the wonderful things you are going to teach us!

  9. Really stoked for this! I missed my opportunities to take any women’s studies classes when I was in school, for a lot of complicated reasons (but mostly because I thought I was a dude (yes I know men can do women’s studies too; it just didn’t seem so relevant to me at the time)), and I’ve thought a lot lately about wishing I could get a slightly more formal education on this stuff. So please: bring it!

  10. I am really excited about this series. I took a few women’s studies courses in my senior year, but it wasn’t my major and I literally jumped from an intro one semester to a seminar the next and I feel like I missed out on a lot in the middle. I wish I had discovered the academic side of feminism sooner so I had more time to explore.

    Now, not to be a creep, but… did you go to Simmons College? Your dorm room selfie looks familiar, not in a “all dorms look the same way” but a “this looks exactly like my dorm room” way.

    • I happen to know that Carmen went to American University, but wanted to tell you that I went to Simmons!

  11. Hey Carmen, I absolutely love this new column. Can this somehow turn into a feminist book club? Idk how you would feel about assigning a book that corresponds with the theme of the month, or however often this column will be published. Then the following publication could be a summarization discussion?

  12. Having studied at a UK university that didn’t really offer opportunities for students to take courses outside the field(s) they chose before they started uni, I didn’t get to do any women’s studies classes – but reading for a linguistics essay on language and gender was kind of what set the ball rolling in terms of my becoming a feminist and caused me to start opting for gender-related essays pretty much whenever they were available. I’m looking forward to learning new things from this series!

  13. Autostraddle has been my classroom, and Carmen has been one of my favourite teachers.

    Seriously, most people I meet are gobsmacked that I’ve never once taken a gender studies course. My approach is: “If I want to know about trans women of colour, I’ll read personal stories from a trans woman of colour, not a textbook written by some straight white cis woman.”

    • I’m writing a final paper right now on my journey to feminist consciousness, and Autostraddle is such a huge huge part of that. I can’t even recount all the things I’ve learned.

  14. Can’t wait! Is there any recommended reading to help supplement this herstory lesson?

  15. I’m definitely looking forward to this column.

    I didn’t get a chance to take women’s studies classes in college. And honestly, I would of never even thought to take one. I have a conservative background (I feel like a broken record whenever I have to say this) and despite coming from a matriarchal family, feminism was viewed as an irrelevant/dirty word.

    I have the internet and Autostraddle to thank for shedding light on and peeking my interest in feminism.
    So yeah, I’m all about the increasing of my knowledge of herstory.

    • Omg, I completely feel the matriarchal family but conservative, feminism-hating at the same time. Even when I was little, I thought it was such a weird state of affairs/thinking.

  16. Great post – I’m excited for the future ones!

    Women & gender studies classes really saved (or, at the least, changed) my life too. I only wish I’d taken my first WGS class sooner. I’m finishing my WGS minor in a couple weeks and I’m actually really sad about being done – I’ll miss the classes so much!

  17. This is such a great idea for a column! My formative years were spent losing it over zines and singing Bikini Kill into my hair brush. Although, that was definitely not the culture of my household or community. While I have taken a personal interest and try to stay informed, there’s always room for an approachable educational space. Love this idea!

    Sidenote: for those in NYC, bell hooks is speaking at the New School next week. I believe it is open to the public.

  18. This is brilliant and I am excited to read what will follow. Could you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’? I have been reading it bit by bit but would love to hear opinions about it.

  19. So ready to be schooled, and to learn how to better school others. I teach high schoolers and still haven’t figured out how to share feminism with them. The boys slut shame the girls, the girls slut shame each other, and I always try and intervene but never know quite how to help make them understand and get excited about equality without just lecturing at them.

  20. Can we start at the beginning beginning? Like, what technically is women’s studies? I have a lot to learn. :-[

  21. I don’t know much of anything about feminism…. I’ve tried to get in to it but I really have no clue where to begin. I’ve watched a doc or two and loved those but beyond that I’m lost. I’m PUMPED about this!!!
    If you, or anyone, could tell me why feminism/feminist carries such a stigma? At least the people I’ve brought it up to scoff and respond along the lines of “that’s gross” or “feminism is unnecessary.”

  22. I’d love to see a list of recommended feminist books, especially since I’ve never had the chance to take a women’s studies course!

  23. Looking forward to this so much but also want to say…women in academia IS activism!

  24. I’ve never taken a women’s studies or gender studies class, everything I’ve learned has been from the internet or from books I saw recommended on the internet. I’m super excited for this, it’s sound really promising.

  25. I would like to see an article about how feminists participated in/ informed other movements in history, ie the civil rights movement. I started taking a Coursera course about that but never really got into the way it was taught. Excited for this column!

  26. I think I may have been waiting for this column my entire life?

    This is gonna be the best. It already is.

    • Oh also I would love it if you would tell me about Phyllis Schafly. I’ve never heard of them.

  27. I have always and will always be a feminist, but my experience with Women’s Studies was…very different from yours. I got my MA in it and it was a huge fucking mistake that I still kick myself for nearly a decade later. Undergrad was alright I guess, frustrating but I believed my professors who swore up and down I’d figure out what, specifically, I wanted to do soon enough and Women’s Studies would allow me to change the world. Then grad school promptly ruined my entire fucking life. Both the structure of school itself and the subject matter.

    It’s a long story I’m too tired to get into right now, but I’ll just say be very, VERY careful what major you choose and don’t listen to ANYONE AT ALL other than yourself when making that decision. You may be tempted to go along with others, because there are so many more of them than you and many of them are experts in their field, so they must know better, right? Wrong.

    Also, if I ever meet Judith Butler in person, it’ll take every ounce of my self control to keep from screaming obscenities and yank out handfuls of her hair. JUST TALK LIKE A NORMAL FUCKING PERSON, BITCH! JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!

    • Ok but was it really necessary to call a woman a bitch in all caps in a comment on an article about feminism and women’s rights?

      • I mean, I understand your frustration about grad school and I was about to like your comment, but using misogynist slurs seems completely unnecessary and out of place given the context.

        • Okay, yes, that was my bad. I apologize and won’t do it again.

          So instead, I’ll just say she’s an obnoxious, pretentious, deliberately obtuse fuckwit. Better?

        • This conversation right here is why I love autostraddle and never want to leave. Its always so disappointing to go back to real life and not have such awesome people around all the time….

  28. My parents neighbour was a co-owner in a independent women’s bookstore in NZ, and it was like Portlandia’s Women and Women first, lots of serious women doing wholesome indoors and outdoors earnest empowering things such as self sufficiency, cooperation, environmentalism and general lesbianism. I wanted to be one of them. Before I knew I was a lesbian I used to “cruise” the shop in the sexuality section and check out who else frequented that aisle (ok it was one shelf), a shelf which shared the spirituality section also so I could never exactly tell who the other lezbians were from the light and love crowd. To be honest there was a lot of crossover, which confounded my tentative and tender gaydar. I also met a lot of women’s studies students who found themselves, sooner or later, subtley browsing for science, the sexuality shelf. It was the days before bookshops had cafes and as my neighbour was involved behind the till, I had to make up lots of ongoing complicated decoy stories as to why I was spending equal time in the sexuality and spirituality shelf of her bookstore. She knew. The store also had lots of flyers.

    I also was a hopeless women’s studies student. After nursing school I attended two women’s studies classes at my local university but simply just wanted to get laid by a hot chick. I didn’t want to have to work and hand in the essays to get grades – I didn’t care, that wasn’t the point. If I could just fake the language enough to get laid by a chick that was all that mattered. So that’s why I’m here. I’m curious who attends and I’ll pretend to be taking notes while checking you all out. No seriously, I’m excited for this Carmen, I love reading your stuff and I know that you will manage to bring the laughs to the subject too.

    I’m looking forward to this, Carmen. Waves at everyone! If there is a practical labiaoratory let me know in advance, ok?
    Sorry for the verbal diarrhoea, this is my flashback.

  29. Yay! I could never fit a women’s studies class into my schedule in college and really wanted to.

  30. Taking a women’s studies course was what made me fully comfortable with refusing to identify as feminist.

    It isn’t necessarily a positive experience, especially if you are trans and all the readings that aren’t overtly transphobic and transmisogynist are subtly so or pretending that only cis people exist.

    And so many white students complaining that WOC’s writings were so unfair to them and everyone should just get along.

    And a teacher who thinks that telling women not to rape people is completely unnecessary (laughable even) and it is all right to call feminists whose theories she doesn’t like “hysterical.”

    A life changing experience, yes, but not an affirming one.

    • Oh yeah, I’ve heard some pretty bad stories from friends who took women/gender studies courses at universities at how the professors were very narrow-minded in certain aspects but yet still claimed to be experts in areas that they were grotesquely bigoted in (especially in trans identities). Reason #1 that I’ve never entertained going the academic route for my feminism.

    • Aha, the net worth – you just learn from underneath which stone each variety of bigots and ludds have crawled, topographical so to say.

  31. Ah yes i’m also interested in the venerated founders. Because at some point in time i may end up having a wonderful friend looking like Helena Bonham-Carter (she can be others, just will be the nice lady by choice) and we will get along so wonderfully we will be able to understand each other without actual speech – and she will ask me to meet the heroes and pass her greetings. It’d be such a fail if i didn’t know what they look like and couldn’t recognise them.

  32. i can totally relate to your awakening, as my first women’s studies class was possibly the most important course that i took in university. it was incomparably eye-opening and inspiring. at the time, i was an insecure, ignorant 18-year-old with confusing sexual thoughts. i hadn’t yet discovered autostraddle. it was the first time i was told by an educator that anatomy, gender identity and sexual orientation are three separate things. it was the first time that i was expected to question “history” and consider the perspectives that it ignored. it was the first time that i heard the words intersectionality or consent. it was the first time that i learned about alternative menstrual products, and my divacup and i have been inseparable eversince. i remember thinking, why did i not learn these things in high school?

    i majored in art theory and my education has had a great influence on my worldview. however, i struggle to find a practical function for the knowledge that i obtained. i understand the discourse, but i am disconnected from the lived experiences of activists who are seriously making a difference. i recognize that my post-secondary education was a privilege that a lot of people can’t have for various reasons. i feel elitist and arrogant when i try to relate to issues based on what i’ve learned, compared to what others have lived.

    i love that you’re seeking to explain these theories in “normal people’s language.” butler is brilliant but the academic jargon makes her ideas inaccessible to most people.

    • I know that I don’t know you, and I want to say first that this isn’t directed at you. Language is my passion, and I just want to expand on a couple things you brought up; I keep seeing them pop up.

      In response to “i feel elitist and arrogant when I try to relate to issues based on what I’ve learned, compared to what others have lived,” I’d like to parse out where this feeling sometimes comes from. Different disciplines (inside & outside academia) use different lexicons, discourses, and [in a way] languages. Part of getting a college degree is learning the language of your major/discipline. Those specialized languages are needed to understand dense/intricate/complex topics. Humanity wouldn’t have most of the knowledge it has today if it weren’t for specialized language[s]. (Am I talking about discourse without talking about discourse?) Many people feel “elitist and[/or] arrogant” when speaking their language to someone outside of or unfamiliar with their discipline, when the real issue is most likely miscommunication.

      An individual cannot learn every term/concept/language of every discipline (but like, how awesome would that be?!), but that doesn’t mean we should be embarrassed by the languages we don’t know or feel arrogant about the ones we do. I will agree that we totally still need to develop scripts & spaces for translating between languages (which is kinda what this column is going to do!).

      These specialized languages do extremely important work–grammar and syntax do more than assist communication of ideas, they also help form them–which brings me to the other thing that was mentioned: “butler is brilliant but the academic jargon makes her ideas inaccessible to most people.” In my opinion, many critiques of Butler’s language aren’t considering the in context in which she wrote and who her audience was. I definitely agree that there are ways in which her works are horribly inaccessible.

      Butler approached Gender Trouble with a background in [and consequently, the language of] philosophy and critical theory. Her intended audience was academic, so regardless of the potential non-academic applications, she wrote to an audience which presumably would be at least semi-familiar with the languages/disciplines she specialized in. It makes that some people (in this case, a very large group of people) would find her language almost foreign. It was unique, and thus difficult, but necessary to parse out such intangible ideas.

      Yes, I can now say that performativity is where ‘doing the thing is the thing itself’ but that concept could not have come into being without a specialized language. I believe it’s extremely important to translate works like Butler’s into something more accessible but she shouldn’t be critiqued for that when that wasn’t her project. Some see “academic jargon” as some sort of linguistic gate-keeping (and it TOTALLY is sometimes!), but it’s capable of the opposite, of building new ideas rather than blocking them. These nuanced, specialized languages give us the space, form, and opportunity to expand ideas and create new ones. [/end rant]

  33. Well women’s and gender studies programs stemmed from sociology, it would be super cool to discuss Dorothy E. Smith’s “..Radical Critique of Sociology”. Some other concepts that really overhauled my feminist mind were Donna Haraway’s ‘partial perspective’, Patricia Hill Collins’ ‘outsider within’, and Uma Narayan’s ‘epistemic privilege/double vision’.

    I’m ultra pumped to see where this column goes! :D

  34. As someone else said above, I’m at a UK university and my subject means I havn’t studied anything but my subject for the entire time I have been here. As my exams should be finished in a month or so I’m looking at the series as a summer-class-like project – and looking forward to it immensely!

  35. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about + doing activism, I hugely support this. I think it is really important to spread ideas and concepts which are usually restricted to academic arenas to a broader audience. It’s important in order to build a movement and momentum, and it’s also important in terms of justice: such vital and intelligent ideas shouldn’t be accessible only to people who are willing and able to engage in academia. Resources to educate ourselves are SO great, and I have a lot to learn so I’m looking forward to keeping up with this column. Thanks!

  36. Nice, and just as I’m working through Nancy Fraser’s feminist critiques of the public sphere. Bring it on!

  37. As a Women and Gender Studies major (who is angling toward a masters) I adore this idea. When I started my undergrad career I was at the very beginning of my life as an out (and terrified) trans woman and WGS scholar. Through the wonderful and supportive WGS dept. of my school and the insight from a host of amazing speakers like Dorothy Roberts and Janet Mock, I have been super privileged to get a heck of a wide view of both theory and practice.

    Like Carmen mentioned above, It’s pretty much saved my life. :)

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