When Leandra Preston ’98 ’02MA ’15PhD registered for philosophy Professor Shelley Park’s introduction to feminist theory class as an undergraduate, she said it turned out to be one of the best decisions she ever made.
That one course set the Orlando native on the path to becoming the university’s first full-time women’s and gender studies instructor 15 years ago.
“It’s so exciting to see students today take that class because it changed my life. When I took feminist theory, it just clicked,” Preston says. “I see it happen to students all the time where they just realize, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t just the way things are. People are making things like this. That’s why I can’t do that and my brother can.’ Things just started making sense to me in a way they never had before. It’s almost like an awakening, and from that moment, I couldn’t get enough.”
Preston earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and her doctorate in texts and technology. Her research encompasses various aspects of technology and bodies, including studying the use of beauty technologies, such as airbrushing in photo-editing programs or cosmetic procedures, to uphold or resist gender norms.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Preston discusses the evolution of women’s and gender studies, how Wonder Woman is more relevant than ever and the future of the women’s movement.
“Women have made tremendous progress resulting from years of struggle and activism, but there is still so much to address.” – Leandra Preston ’98 ’02MA ’15PhD, UCF instructor
Why is it important to celebrate Women’s History Month?
Because women have been largely ignored throughout history in every aspect from arts to science. It’s nice to have any time period devoted to women and their incredible accomplishments, particularly given the challenges they face in a sexist society. Women have made tremendous progress resulting from years of struggle and activism, but there is still so much to address, including pay equity, gender-based violence, bodily autonomy, global oppression, microaggressions, street harassment and more. Women’s History Month brings attention to issues and individuals most folks don’t think about unless it directly affects them. With a feminist emphasis on intersectionality, the month also brings light to myriad other issues, such as LGBTQ+ and race issues.
What have been some key moments throughout history that have been big wins for women?
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was the first documented account of a women’s rights meeting in the United States. It was one of the first times in American history that women gathered to demand something just on the basis of their sex.
Women gaining the right to vote in 1920 propelled women forward because it gave women access to much greater power. Our voices were going to be heard in this whole other way.
The FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960 and that was huge. That gave women more sexual freedom without the consequence because the fact that men don’t get pregnant gives them much more freedom sexually and economically. The civil rights movement was a tremendous influence on the women’s rights movement and vice versa so black feminists were organizing around intersectional issues.
In the 1970s, what we call the second wave, feminists were doing a lot of marching and legislative equality for women in the work force, for reproductive rights, and addressing domestic violence It’s not that nothing was happening in between these years, but when legislative action and/or media attention is factored in, that’s when you see what we’d call the top of a wave.
“#MeToo is the most recent high point in the movement, and it will no doubt go down in history.” – Leandra Preston ’98 ’02MA ’15PhD, UCF instructor
#MeToo is the most recent high point in the movement, and it will no doubt go down in history. I didn’t think I would see so much progress and change in the period that we have. I’ve never seen social movement have such rapid and specific, concrete consequences. I’m grateful for social media because this could never happen without it. Fifty years from now, we’ll be talking about this moment we’re in and what it accomplished for women.
How do you define the word “feminism”?
There are many definitions. I would define feminism as equality and justice for women and human rights for all people. It’s about recognizing how different institutions affect our realities and what we can do to make things more equitable.
In our society, gender is becoming more ambiguous. How does that affect the content of your courses?
The content of my courses is constantly changing because we’ve evolved so much. Our program used to be called Women’s Studies and now it is Women’s and Gender Studies. My own beliefs and values have evolved too. It’s challenged so much for me, but I’m thrilled about it. I’m self-conscious about some of it when I talk to my students. I’m learning things with them. Transgender issues are not something I previously addressed sufficiently in my field, and you really cannot have these conversations without talking about transgender issues. I think it’s an awesome mark of progress. But a key challenge is to continue addressing girls and women’s issues while also acknowledging the importance of gender as a larger conversation.
How does masculinity fit into this conversation?
I created a masculinity course at UCF because of work I’ve done in domestic violence. I started realizing how domestic violence is a product of gender roles and constructs. If we teach boys who have emotions that they can’t express them — they shouldn’t cry, they shouldn’t communicate — of course they’re going to find some way to express it, and it’s usually physically and violently. On the other side of it, we teach girls to be submissive. We’re creating the perfect equation for domestic violence with the way that we teach and construct boys and girls to behave together.
“It’s important to see diverse representations of women in popular culture to counter the firmly entrenched stereotypes. We are truly progressing.” Leandra Preston ’98 ’02MA ’15PhD, UCF instructor
How do superheroes like Wonder Woman and most recently Captain Marvel have an impact in the movement?
Strong female leads and superheroes can be powerful cultural forces, particularly when they are mass marketed and celebrated like Wonder Woman. It’s important to see diverse representations of women in popular culture to counter the firmly entrenched stereotypes. We are truly progressing — the #MeToo movement is a major force for change right now — and media representations are one piece of that progress. Wonder Woman has a rich history in American pop culture and was a big part of my childhood. It’s been exciting to see her resurgence during my own daughter’s childhood. I have no problem finding positive female characters for my daughter to look up to these days, and for that, I am grateful to feminism.
Where do women go from here? What’s still ahead?
The Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been fully ratified. Would it matter? I don’t know. But why hasn’t it? Why can’t we put something in the Constitution that says men and women are equal on the basis of sex? We’ve made significant progress but it’s kind of like going up a down escalator.
Body image is changing a lot in terms of what’s presented in the media, but that still has a long way to go. There are pockets of resistance in seeing normal, average bodies in the media untouched. We’re seeing each other as more real. But at the same time we’ve got this Pinterest and social media world where we see everyone’s edited lives. It’s a tug of war. As we make progress, we come back a little. It’s a struggle still underway but with more tools thanks to technology.