Lessons I learned from Alison Piepmeier 

Feel free to say fuck

click to enlarge Dr. Alison Piepmeier died of a brain tumor on Fri. Aug. 12

Jonathan Boncek file photo

Dr. Alison Piepmeier died of a brain tumor on Fri. Aug. 12

The moment we walked into the classroom looking for a Dr. Piepmeier, there she was, right inside the door, shaking each of our hands and making it clear to us that she would just be Alison. "Hi, welcome, I'm Alison!" No longer was it relevant that we'd been mispronouncing her last name all summer.

I'd signed up for the Introduction to Women's Studies course when my friend came back from class the semester before and asked whether we knew there was no Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing fair treatment for women under the law. She was appalled; I was intrigued.

That is, until there was a new professor assigned to teach my time slot. "Alison Piepmeier" I furiously Googled, annoyed that that I couldn't find any campus gossip about this mystery professor. The search result yielded a Vanderbilt page with a wide-smiling woman (with even bigger hair) who wrote books on third wave feminism and volunteered with an organization that offered housing and support for former prostitutes and drug addicts. This was her first year in Charleston and mine would be one of the first classes she taught as she took on the directorship of College of Charleston's Women's Studies program.

Alison stood at the front of the classroom each day in slouchy T-shirts, jeans, and Chacos and gave a room of floundering 20-year-olds a semester of awakening. We read Ehrenreich and Kimmel and hooks and Wolf and Cisneros and Alcott. When we'd open our mouths to share, or ask, or disagree, Alison would light up and nod, all those dark curls shaking around her shoulders. She'd pace the front of the classroom, arms thrashing and eyes fixed on us as she urged ideas out of our uncertain mouths.

Through Alison we were given space to consider our lives, the vocabulary to talk about our experiences, shown the gravitational force of knowledge — that there was more that we needed to consider, to discuss, to challenge, to in fact re-consider. And none of this was limited to three hours of class a week — in fact it was expected that we take this knowledge outside the flat walls of the classroom.

We learned to look at the world in a different way and slowly became aware that we'd been bound to a society with certain expectations and that so often when the world found fault with us, it wasn't something we did wrong. As we navigated our way toward clarity and conviction, students turned to Alison for conversations outside of the classroom. We suddenly had the words and the context to identify what had been happening to us all along. Rape, abuse, harassment, discrimination — the walls of Alison's small, dank, campus office heard the deepest crevices of our souls between classes.

It sounds trite to say that you expect to grow in college. But to find someone who shows you all the ways the world will break your heart and then gives you the tools to start to make it whole again? That's not on the syllabus. What Alison did for me, for my class, for the ones after me, and in so many ways the ones still to come, was to validate our experiences — a simple, revolutionary act that we hadn't been granted by others.

In her presence we grew thoughtful and strong, smart and fearless. With her we built and grew a community that didn't need a secret handshake — we just stood up a little taller.

Feminism, to those reticent to pick up a book or talk to another human, is terrifying. It's a disruption, a challenge of the status quo, a push for justice that never feels finished. You're damn right it's terrifying.

And yet, Alison's definition of feminism was firm and simple: A movement to eradicate all forms of oppression that keep people from achieving their full humanity.

While her students' impact on the world often began as a flicker of assigned activism projects, Alison's impact on campus was in the works. When she arrived at the College of Charleston, my class was categorized as a Women's Studies course. The next year, it was re-named to the Women's and Gender Studies program. In the midst of those old oak trees, she was fighting for changes that would align the College of Charleston with academics across the country. Soon after I graduated, Alison was able to expand the program so that you could earn a major in Women's and Gender Studies instead of just a minor. Some students in the program were so eager to be part of that moment that they stayed an extra year to add the degree to their diplomas.

At the College of Charleston, Alison's optimistic approach to empowerment and her cavalcade of enthusiastic students and brilliant faculty attracted like-minded citizens from off-campus. A community advisory board, one of the first of its kind for the College, formed around Alison to support her department.

When the Women's and Gender Studies program wanted to grow despite state budget cuts, the community advisory board decided to have a party, the annual Yes! I'm a Feminist Party. Suddenly the rest of our city could be part of the program, could claim the F-word all over Facebook for friends to see. Every year Alison spent the months in the lead-up to the party checking and double-checking that our attendance would be bigger than last year's. But every year she'd be amazed at everyone who showed up — genuinely moved by the diverse crowd that dodged downtown traffic or rain to celebrate feminism and provide more opportunities for education. After the guests left, board members would sort catering trays and heave trash cans while Alison would recount all the new people she'd met, exclaiming how proud she was that the president of the college had attended or how faculty in other departments had stopped by and been impressed (and dare she say, jealous).

As Women's and Gender students graduated year after year, more and more took jobs in the field doing work in human rights, community organizing, women's health, political advocacy, education, founding their own companies, joining growing organizations, or becoming professors themselves. Alison's students have lived her legacy of advocacy.

What she always saw in us was the power to transcend limitations when given the opportunity to do so. She told us to pursue justice and encouraged us to take leadership roles; to have difficult conversations and use the best words we could — or to feel free to say "fuck" a lot.

Alison loved swearing. Sometimes when there weren't intelligent words that precisely expressed the ways in which we were disappointed or angered, fuck was the way to go. So when Alison had seizures and brain tumors, then surgeries and faltering abilities, fuck was all we had. That fucking tumor fucking up her brain. Every blog entry, every column, every email update to her circles — we all sucked in our breath. Fuck.

Over the years, Alison's name and stories went around the globe — frequently written-about topics like her brain and her daughter, yes, but readers came to know about her whole self, too. She never shied away from raw honesty, vulnerable introspection. Every experience was something to learn from, to use as an example. Her personal blog chronicled musings on Charleston, teaching, politics, feminism, pregnancy, parenting, and disability. Her writing in the City Paper and the New York Times gave her an even bigger platform for the same and she continued to attend conferences and take speaking engagements. In her years of teaching, Alison opened minds and strengthened resolves. In her column inches or at a podium, she could make an audience into students too.

And here we are now, without Dr. Piepmeier, who was always just Alison.

If you never met her, you might think you didn't know Alison, but there's no doubt you're a part of a community that she built. It's a dark day without Alison, but it's a brighter world because of her. She is missed, but not gone.

Margaret Pilarski graduated with a minor in Women's and Gender Studies in 2007. She has served on the program's community advisory board for 10 years — first as a student member, and later as chair. Alison always sought more opportunities for her students' education and in lieu of flowers, a scholarship has been set up in her name at giving.cofc.edu/Piepmeier.

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