Interview with Britt Abel


Interview with Britt Abel


Congresses; Germanists; Feminism


Interview between Britt Abel and Julia Gruber


Teams digital recording


Beth A. Muellner


March 24, 2023


Abel; Gruber


Release form signed






Oral history of experience of Women in German


Brigetta (Britt) Abel Interview
March 24, 2023
Transcribed/Edited by Elizabeth Heatwole- Summer 2023
Gruber: My name is Julia Gruber. I am also a WiG member and an associate professor of German at Tennessee Tech University. And I have invited Britt to do this interview today. So Britt, can you please introduce yourself? Tell us your name, where you work, and what country you’re- Are you in the US, are you, are you abroad? And uh, also from your country of origin. And please also tell us what year you first joined WiG and how you first heard about it.
Abel: Yes. Hi everyone. I'm Britt Abel. Brigetta Abel is my full name. I go by Britt. She, her, hers pronouns. I currently work at Macalester College where I am an associate professor, non-tenure track in German Studies, and also the Director of Writing. I'm from Ithaca, New York, so from the U.S., and I first joined WiG in 1992, which, the fall of 1992 was the first conference I attended, which was also my first semester of graduate school at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. And I heard about WiG through my many colleagues at the U of M. There were at that point in time in particular, and, as has continued, but particularly at that time, there were a lot of Wiggies at the U of M, so I was encouraged to attend the conference that year.
Gruber: Okay, so that's how WiG began for you and … can you tell us about your career before you joined WiG?
Abel: I can't really, because I, like I said, I came to WiG in my very first semester of graduate school in German Studies, so my career was that I was an undergraduate. I did a Fulbright in Hamburg after I graduated, and then I started in graduate school. So really becoming a member of WiG was also my entry into the career.
Gruber: Mm-hmm. Okay. That's wonderful. Describe your, the first WiG event you attended. What was that like?
Abel: Yeah, so I was a brand-new baby graduate student and I went to WiG with my colleague and roommate, Christina White. We got bumped from our flight, so we were late arriving and caused so much trouble for the poor conference organizers who had to figure out a way to get us there even though we were late and had missed the shuttles. WiG was in Great Barrington, is that right? It was this MA in 1992 WiG was in Massachusetts, and the conference itself was in this big house/inn or retreat center. So, the, the conference itself was there and there were kind of communal rooms there for people to stay in. It's true that most of the grad students stayed there and some of the more senior faculty stayed at the hotel down the way because there weren't too many- there weren't very many bathrooms, and it
was definitely a different type of experience than WiG is now when we tend to stay in swankier places, I would say, yeah. I certainly remember some things from that conference. I had lovely colleagues from the University of Minnesota there, and it was great to get to know them a little bit better. I remember not fully understanding everything that was going on, right. Just because I was just starting out, right?
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: And still figuring out what, you know, what does it look like to be a professional, a researcher, and to practice in this area. So, in some ways, that was just lovely. It was great for me to be immersed in it that way. It was a little intimidating. People were friendly. I remember seeing Sara Lennox and as an undergrad I had read an article of hers and I was just like starstruck. I think I also remember that that might have been the year when Helga Thorsen was elected to the steering committee, and she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, and she coordinated the language program at that time. So, there was a personal connection there. And I was in awe of Helga as well.
Gruber: I remember being in awe of both of them too when I came to WiG much later in my career, but I was just as starstruck by them as well. What role has WiG played in your career?
Abel: Yeah, so let's see. I went to WiG maybe twice in Massachusetts or maybe once, and then I went- when I went in Florida, I think I just decided that what was really cool is if you went to WiG every year, you started to make friends there and it felt more comfortable. Like if you didn't go every year, there was this awkward, like, I don't know people or I don't know what- kind of how to, how to do this WiG thing.
Gruber: Right.
Abel: And I just decided, you know what, I'm a graduate student who's majoring in German studies and minoring in feminist studies. This is my conference. I just need to go every year and I think I will feel more confident.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: That doesn't mean that I never felt imposter syndrome or things like that while I was at WiG, cuz I, I did all the time. I still do. Um, but that, I, I just felt like if I do this every year, it's gonna feel different. And indeed it did. So I think I attended all three years in Florida, all three years in California at Aptos, and that's when I was first, first elected to the steering committee. I think I'm gonna tell, I'm gonna answer both questions at once, like.
Gruber: That's fine.
Abel: One about WiG in my career and what roles I've played. So, I co-organized a panel for the first time in Florida. I presented, I think, for the first time in California and that year I was also elected to the steering committee. So that was exciting. I went all three years in Arizona as well, because then I was on the steering committee, and after Arizona.
Gruber: Was it in Canada too?
Abel: Yeah, but that was later after Arizona. There were kind of two cycles of WiGs that I just, I didn't go to, and basically my career had kind of stalled. I had my first baby. I was still on the job market, but I was working in my very temporary Macalester job. I had my second baby that kind of put me over the, over the edge a little bit and, and my mother got very sick, and I lived far away from my mom. So, there was a period in there where family concerns were kind of taking over. And it's partially because I was still in a temporary position and had just decided to direct attention in other directions for a while.
Gruber: Yeah.
Abel: And then, I, eventually, things became a bit more permanent at Macalester. Things became more permanent for me at Macalester, and I also started- I returned to WiG. So, in Michigan, when WiG was in Michigan, I returned to WiG. I was reelected to the steering committee, then did WiG in- in Canada for three years, and then in Sewanee and now, Portland.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: I think that those, I think that I'm remembering all those places. I think the two years that I missed were the Utah years, which I'm very, very sad about, and the Kentucky years. In other words, my kind of connection with WiG has ebbed and flowed in the same way that my profession has ebbed and flowed. Flowed, and, and I'm not on a standard academic career. You know, I started this job at Macalester for.. as a one-year half-time replacement, and now I'm, I'm full-time and I'm directing the writing program and I'm involved in strategic planning and I'm doing lots of things in addition to teaching German and in addition to occasionally directing our study away program in Vienna. Yeah, my career has just been different. I need to mention Grenzenlos Deutsch, which is the collaborative open educational resource that I've been working on for the past, I don't know, like seven years now. And that's been a way in which WiG has just been invaluable. So many of my collaborators have come through my connections at WiG. And likewise, my work with Grenzenlos Deutsch has strengthened my connection to, and commitment to, Women in German. So that's been the big thing in my career.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: And it's probably what will carry me through to retirement and death.

Gruber: So, without your involvement in WiG, Grenzenlos Deutsch would have maybe not even happened.
Abel: It would not have happened because the idea was born from a Facebook rant of a Wiggie online and where a couple of Wiggies responded. And that's really how we started the whole project. It would not have happened without WiG. And then, you know, we advertised pretty broadly for collaborators. The majority of our collaborators came from WiG, although we also had other ones who, who were not as closely WiG affiliated. … First when I, when I returned to WiG, I served, I began serving as the personal news editor, which is a super low key and really wonderful way to be involved in WiG because people are sending you all their good news. Okay, sometimes it's not good news, but in many cases it's good news, and just in the short little email exchanges it, it's wonderful to feel connected to WiG when you're not at a conference, and I'm now serving as the Vice President, president elect of WiG.
Gruber: Cool. Can you tell us an anecdote that embodies WiG for you?
Abel: Yeah. There are so many anecdotes, but I think I'm gonna share this one. There was one point where I had agreed to write a book review of a book by a very established person in German studies, and I, I really didn't like the book very much and I was struggling with what to do about it. And, and I happened to be sitting at a table with a number of more experienced Wiggies. I think now we would call them Swiggies, senior Wiggies, right. They were significantly senior to me, and I was- kind of shared my struggle about this, and they proceeded to give me the best advice. Here's some things that you can do. Here's some kind of phrases you can use. Here's some ways you can frame it. Here's what you- I mean, they absolutely understood what was going on with me. And just in that one session, uh, you know, it was informal. We were having a meal or a drink or something like that. They told me exactly, kind of, how to move forward. And what that meant is I went home, and in one day I sat down, and I just wrote the whole friggin' thing. And I just- it was this moment of informal mentoring that- that recognized the inherent power structures of our profession and that proposed honest, but realistic and pragmatic solutions for how to deal with the situation, and I am so very grateful.
Gruber: Yeah, I agree. That's really what I get out of WiG too. It's just more real and it's like women talking, right? Like that film, like have you seen that film?
Abel: I haven't yet, but I really wanna see it.
Gruber: Well, this is like, you will think of WiG because they sit there and they just talk it out and you, you become a, a stronger academic, but also kind of a stronger woman. Like you deal with life differently.
Abel: Mm-hmm.

Gruber: You get so much life advice in there.
Abel: Mm-hmm.
Gruber: What were some of the hardest discussions or debates that came up at WiG in your memory?
Abel: So there are two strands of discussions that come up for me, and the first is that WiG is continually struggling with how to not be a white feminist organization. And conversations about race have been really hard at WiG, and I have seen multiple iterations of that. And it seems like we keep making mistakes and we keep trying to do better. I think even the very first WiG that I attended, there were issues. There was a conversation about race that got heated, and I don't remember the details of that, but I remember the impression that it made, and I've seen that happen again and again. I think of a moment in which I take full responsibility for causing a problem. It was in one of our community discussions about how to make WiG a more welcoming place for scholars of color. And as the steering committee was figuring out how to have this conversation, we had an idea about reading a piece from Claudia Rankin and I read it. I was the person who kind of volunteered to read it and then we were gonna discuss it. And I realized too late the impact of reading that piece out loud, that it had been triggering for some, for at least one of the scholars of color who were there. And so even as we try and have conversations, we're still making mistakes and I personally am still making mistakes. And so those are always hard conversations. Yeah.
Gruber: Yeah. They're painful.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: I've- I'm really glad you brought up that you were involved in one of those, right? That you- I see that that still affects you. And so even when you then own it, right? Because it's happened to me too.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: Even when you own it, there's no good way to talk about it because when you express how that made you feel, because it's very uncomfortable and you know it follows you and you never stop thinking about it. And it also comes into your work, and you know, then that is interpreted as you want the attention for yourself. Right? So while you are working through what you caused, and you want to own that, you cannot really own it because when you talk too much about it, then you’re crying these white women tears. Right? And so, I've really struggled with that too. And it's shocking somehow to see that it happens over and over again. It's the same thing that happens, right?

Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: I'm thinking that we are not really clear on what the lesson should be there, or you know, what should be different.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: I think that's where it stalls.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: Right. It's like we can't jump over that. And it's been the same. I mean, I've seen some of those now too.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: And I know people who are not coming to WiG anymore because of those- how it's handled. But there is no good way of handling it.
Abel: Right. Well, and it helps me to think about that language of impact and intent. I mean, this was in a discussion in which the intent was to talk about some problematic things, and clearly the impact was not what we intended it to be. So that, I don't know, just thinking about that helps. But then of course I'm not gonna try and follow up and say, oh, but that's not what I intended. No, I think what we need to do is listen and do better next time. But I also think we come from many different places when we come to WiG and we are at different places in this journey of kind of unlearning white supremacy and thinking about all the ways in which both we as individuals and we as WiG are implicit in it.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: And that is also challenging because what do we have? We have like an hour of community discussion, right? Like, yeah, that is hard.
Gruber: I agree.
Abel: That's so, I just think it's gonna continue to be hard and I hope we, and I know we will continue, and we will continue and we will make more mistakes and we will keep doing it and we will keep trying to get better because that is what we need to do.
Gruber: Right. I agree.
Abel: Yeah. Can I say-

Gruber: Well, thank you for sharing that.
Abel: Yeah, yeah, of course. I was gonna say, there's this kind of much less significant, but I think also very interesting, right, in this time, right now in 2023 to be thinking about.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: The other big hard discussions at WiG have been around how we, as an organization, navigate the current political climate.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: So, there was a huge argument when we were in Florida, way back when in the nineties, about going to California as the next conference site because there had been some- I can't even remember what the history was. There was some ballot initiative in California that was problematic. Some proposition, you know, the way California does with those propositions. And there was a question of whether we should boycott the state, and it was a very hard thing. I think this is very much coming into play again now. We've seen this on the WiG list for instance, like do we go to places where abortion is outlawed? And what does it mean to ask a feminist organization or and or people who are pregnant to go to states where their health could be in danger? And there are many people fighting the good fight in those places and could use the support and then there's, you know, institutions getting into the fray with like, “we're not gonna give you funding if you go to certain states.” I mean, it's very complicated and it's very hard to negotiate and it's very hard to negotiate what we as an institution should do. And so, I think there have been many, many hard conversations about that. I think about, Sewanee, right, the University of the South, and the problematic history of that location and how wonderful it was that the conference organizers wove that into the fabric of our conference by having us meet with the reconciliation team working there. These..this, these are just hard conversations that we need to continue having and those tend to be heated.
Gruber: Mm-hmm. I remember that Sewanee conference, there was, I think at the second one there was, uh, an indigenous scholar who was talking about her ancestors coming through Sewanee on the Trail of Tears. Do you remember that? On the Trail of Tears?
Abel: Mm-hmm.
Gruber: And she had, I don't think if she had been exactly aware of where she, where the conference was going to be, but then in preparing, she understood that that's what was going to be. And so, I invited her then to come to our university, which is not very far from Sewanee, and she was supposed to come and do a bead workshop, you know, with her beading, and that then didn't happen. But I think that's what comes out of WiG too, that you become aware of things you didn't know before and so then you can make connections and-
and continue the difficult conversations. I think that's where we often shy away from picking up where it went wrong, and I think WiG does a pretty good job at picking up, you know, where we failed. Right? I don't, I don't think that a lot of things get resolved, but at least people keep coming to, or some people keep coming together and …
Abel: Mm-hmm.
Gruber: Trying to propel it forward somehow.
Abel: Yeah.
Gruber: But that's- I don't see that happening as much at, in other institutions, in other organizations. Mm-hmm. All right. Thank you. That was a hard question, uh, and you answered it beautifully. It was very, I thought it was very courageous to mention that, but it's necessary. Those are the hardest things to talk about. What was your favorite cabaret moment?
Abel: That is a way too hard a question. Um, okay. I'm gonna mention two again. I'm gonna cheat by saying two things, right. Related to the last question. There was a moment at a cabaret in Michigan, where there had been microaggressions going on.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: And it became part of the cabaret. And it was done really well, I thought, like I felt super uncomfortable, and it was about, I can't remember exactly how it was done in the cabaret, but the issue was that we had several scholars of color at the conference and people were misidentifying them, confusing them, and that is just such a harmful and awful, sad thing that happened. And the cabaret team took it up and made it part of the cabaret where black women were being misidentified in the cabaret. It made me super uncomfortable, as it should have. I had been unaware of this issue. It made everyone aware of the issue and we had a really good conversation about it at the Speak Out. Not enough of a conversation, but it was an example of the cabaret roasting the conference in a way that was critical and necessary. As far as I know, I mean, that's the only one. That's the only time I remember the cabaret functioning quite like that, and that's why it stands out to me, because I love the way that the format of the cabaret was used, not just to make us laugh and to kind of poke fun at all the things we had talked about, but also to hold up a mirror to us and to make us think critically about us as individuals and us as an organization. So, that is a really important moment for me. I'm gonna take just a minute because now I'm gonna go on to something totally different from the really important to the ridiculous. Um, one of my, one of the early ca-, one of the early cabarets, I mean, there are a couple things I'll always remember, but one thing is that, at a cabaret in Florida, watching a professor of mine use a beer bottle to simulate orgasm. When I was still a grad student. Kinda was like, oh my God, I can't believe I'm seeing this. Should I be seeing this? Should I be here? Is this ok? And it was so funny.
Gruber: Unbelievable.
Abel: And it was the, it was, uh, an imitation of a film we had seen as part of the conference. I mean, there was, there was a, a reason for it and, but yes, I, I think I have never laughed so much in my life.
Gruber: Yeah. Good. Yeah, that's a lovely, lovely memory.
Abel: Talk about like kind of a space in which some hierarchies kind of are, are, I mean, there's no space in which hierarchies or it's a powered space, but, right. There was this moment, I guess I should say, this moment in which it felt like, power structures were in a very different place.
Gruber: Right. A solution.
Abel: Right. I think that's what the cabaret allows, I mean, I, I think we like to think that the whole conference is like that, but we know it, it's not right. No, but I mean, I think the cabaret does create moments like that.
Gruber: Yeah.
Abel: I think it's, it's very, like I came to the, my first WiG and did not know anything about WiG.
Gruber: I mean, I had heard. I don't know why I didn't come earlier, but I didn't, and I knew about it and some people had continued to invite me, but I just, so I came as a complete virgin. I completely, I did not understand the wigs at all. So, I on, you know, during that, on that night. And so, I drove home. And I told my husband, I have no- it was really fun, but I have no idea why they were wearing wigs. I just, I don't get it. And then it dawned on me while I'm driving, I'm going, oh, okay. I felt like such an idiot. I just didn't get it. Yeah. Yeah. So, it's really good that that is not something WiG advertises because it's good to come and, and be completely surprised by it.
Gruber: Mm-hmm. And the last question is, what are the three words that come to mind when you think of WiG?
Abel: Well, community comes to mind right away. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Maybe support. Yeah. I think I just wanna say something else that I didn't say in the cluster of early questions about WiG, the role WiG has played in my career and the, the role I've played in WiG. You know, I mentioned that there was a time when I- when my career stalled and I wasn't going to WiG, and I, and also things were just weird for me personally and professionally. And when I first came to WiG, it was hard because my career had stalled and people are asking like, so what are you working on? And I'm like, I'm working on mourning and I'm working on- what am I doing in this shitty non-tenure track job and what am I-? Yeah, it, it was hard, but I still kept coming and, and I just honestly think that, you know, we talked about how Grenzenlos Deutsch wouldn't have been possible without WiG. I just think that I probably wouldn't still be in the profession if it weren't for WiG because I think at that moment in time when things were not going so well, I'm not sure I would've felt the desire to kind of push through to figure out how to make my status here at Macalester what I wanted it to be, or what it could be, I guess. And so, I think it's important for me to say somewhere I just don't think that I would still be in the profession if it weren't for WiG.
Gruber: Mm-hmm.
Abel: There's just no way for me to separate my career from WiG because they are just so closely connected.
Gruber: Mm-hmm. I think that is an important addition.
Abel: Yeah.




“Interview with Britt Abel,” Women in German Herstory Project, accessed July 15, 2024,