Column: The trouble with the women's initiative

I like women, I really do. I have come to the important conclusion, however, that I can still care about women and not care at all about "women's issues." I think I am not alone in holding this view; indeed, I imagine many women may share it. When I say women's issues, though, I don't mean things like the 19th amendment and spousal abuse. Those are human issues. All citizens should have the right to vote, and no person should be beaten. Such issues ultimately rest on an appeal to an individual's status as human, not as woman.

Rather what I mean by "women's issues" is what this University takes to be women's issues qua woman, namely those issues exemplified in the "Women's Studies" program and stupid things like our new gender initiative. These women's issues generally rest on dubious assumptions regarding the hostility between the sexes, and attempts to codify them as institutional concerns continually push the barriers of ridiculousness.

For the enlightenment of the enviable majority of students on campus that have better things to do than follow the administration's efforts at ideological self improvement, the "gender initiative" began last spring with Nan's promise to perform a comprehensive review of gender inequalities at Duke. Nan herself is chairing the predominately female steering committee, which will oversee, direct and commission the various aspects of this top to bottom examination of women's issues. Duke Student Government Chief of Staff Emily Grey is the head of the student task force constructed to aid the initiative. To get to the bottom of things, this group will host "focus groups, forums and awareness events" and examine dire women's issues like "hook up culture, social conformity and classroom dynamics." Nan has also proposed commissioning a study of the "culture of gender" by a "trained ethnographer," someone who I am sure will be an unbiased observer.

Admittedly this initiative sounds innocent enough--after all, who can disagree with "dialogue" these days. Along with Nan, Vice President for Institutional Equity Sally Dickson has observed that women's issues are not on the proverbial table at Duke, and indicated (surprise) a favorable response to the initiative saying, "What is the experience of women at Duke? Now I think the president is giving women a voice."

However, I ask you women readers: Does Duke really not give you a voice right now? Are you being institutionally silenced? Or perhaps most importantly, do you think that the voice of the gender initiative task force will at all resemble your own?

More than likely, this initiative, while not embodying the voice of the average woman on campus, will serve the administration's agenda of increasing its control over all corners of this institution in the name of progressive necessity. One thing to note is what would be the prima facie awkwardness of a gender initiative focused on men's issues. There is no men's studies department, no reservoir of concern about men's issues and no attention paid to the many fields, academic and otherwise, in which women dominate men by numbers and ability.

Perhaps that is just because we are a misogynistic, patriarchal society in which men are always aggressors, or perhaps couching the gender initiative in the perfect analogue of men's issues indicates how weird this project is. If there were a study of men's issues, one of the things that an honest committee would reveal is the devastation of men's sports wrought by perverse interpretations and applications of Title IX, the likes of which are documented in Jessica Gavora's new book Tilting the Playing Field. Her conclusion, like the lived experience of so many others, indicates that far from promoting truly equitable treatment of the sexes, the resulting policies of gender initiatives tend to simply discriminate against some groups so that others of lesser merit can advance while the former are held back.

There is a presumption among the gender crowd that any difference in outcome among the sexes indicates the existence of some sinister prejudice along the way. The thought that different people might have good reasons for succeeding in or choosing to pursue different activities is simply anathema. The answer is always to force an equality of outcome regardless of the cost.

Last week, April Brown, a female department chair in the Pratt School of Engineering, took her outrage over the fact that young women are not choosing to become engineers like her to the U.S. Senate, arguing that, "Title IX might be applied to increase the number of women engineers and scientists." Translation: We can use the checkbook and coercive power of the government to bribe more women into this field or hold back talented men from advancing into positions earmarked for women. She was particularly keen on increasing the number of women engineers so that they can serve as role models, which she explained will, "show young women that they, too, can become engineers and scientists." Excuse me, but is any woman undergraduate on this campus unaware that she, too, is allowed to become an engineer? Are you kidding me? Is there some conspiracy over in Pratt or are women just stupid? Neither, I submit, is the case.

If there is a compelling reason for treating women radically different than men it likely comes from the fact that women do have the unique ability to bear children. I agree that issues like maternity leave do constitute very legitimate considerations and should be a concern of women and men alike. Should we also make a detailed study of sexual assault and try to understand aggravating factors? Absolutely. We should be concerned about the safety of all members of the Duke community, and since women appear to be a particularly vulnerable group in some areas their needs should receive particular attention. What we should not do, however, is look down upon Krzyzewskiville and call students sexist because they don't show the same enthusiam for any women's sports. Regardless, talented female athletes, like talented female engineers, are perfectly able to excell without someone holding their hand along the way.

Finally I would note that from my own experience the most brilliant female students at Duke do go into engineering/science/math fields with great success and, interestingly, do not seem to major in women's studies. All I can offer is this modest proposal: Let's stop treating women like they are idiots unable to excel in math and science as it is, realize that they are not incapable of navigating the sometimes rough world around us and respect the career and life decisions that they do make. Let's call out unfair treatment wherever it exists regardless of the sex of the victim and not cripple one portion of the population so that another segment will appear artificially more capable. And let's call women's issues what they actually are, a Trojan horse for administrative politics.

Bill English is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


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