“Women’s Studies? Why don’t we have Men’s Studies?”
We do. It’s called history.
“I know you are a Women’s Studies major, but maybe try to use the F-word less often?"
Newsflash, feminism is not a four-letter word.
“You’re not one of those feminists, are you?”
You mean the ones who fought for my basic rights like voting, attending college and having a right to my own body? Those feminists?
Normally, I wouldn’t begin this dialogue by dropping the f-bomb right at the start. The deer-in-headlight stares from some girls and the I’m-just-going-to-pretend-I-didn’t-hear-that half-second pauses from guys are enough to remind me of the stigma the word holds. In fact, I remember the stigma I once held against that word all too well. So I’ve learned to consider my audience when asked what I’m majoring in, thinking twice before stating “Women’s Studies” after “Public Policy.” If it’s a frat party or Shooters, it’s usually a big no-no.
But I’ve started doing it anyway. I think it’s important to challenge people’s notions of what a feminist looks like and who can be a feminist. Hi, I’m a blonde sorority girl who likes wearing “girly” skirts and dresses. Guess what, I don’t hate men and I’ve spent far too much on my Victoria’s Secret bras to even consider burning one of them. That being said, I also understand that true feminism extends beyond my scope of what it personally means to me to be a woman to include the intersectional experiences of all races, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, religions and abilities.
Stereotypes aside—because we are all aware they exist—what is so important about the term “feminist” that I choose to hold on to it despite the stigma it carries?
1. The word carries a deep historical meaning. So many of the basic rights I consider givens only exist because women before me fought for them. We were not just “given” the right to vote, women rallied and marched and struggled for it every step of the way. To discard the word “feminist” simply because it’s not always popular would be a disservice to these women. I refuse to forget the shoulders I stand on.
2. Just because some laws have changed does not mean that our society’s culture has changed along with them. Sexism continues to be a real issue, with real everyday consequences. Take the Heidi-Howard study—two Harvard professors wrote up a case study about real-life entrepreneur Heidi Roizen, describing how she used her professional network and outgoing personality to succeed as a venture capitalist. Half a class of students read the case study with her real name attached and the other half read a case study that was identical except that the name had been changed to “Howard.” When asked to rate the two, students felt both were equally successful, but thought Howard seemed “determined, someone you’d want to work for” while Heidi seemed “selfish, bossy, not someone you’d want to work with.” Gender determined the likability of these two candidates because we judge people according to stereotypes, and women are supposed to be communitarian, whereas men are allowed to be more individualistic. Still don’t think gender is an issue? What about the fact that of the Fortune 500 companies, only 26 are headed by women? Or that in politics, women hold just 19 percent of congressional offices?
3. This isn’t just a political problem, it’s a personal one. Because I don’t believe it should be viewed as the norm that 60 percent of college-aged women struggle with disordered eating or that 1 in 5 female students will be sexually assaulted by the time she graduates (can you imagine the outrage if 1 in 5 students were mugged?). For the longest time, I thought my obsession with body image was simply a side effect of being a woman. It is not. It is the result of a sexist culture that has bombarded me with messages that my worth as a female is based on my appearance, and everything else is secondary. I used to think, to a certain extent, that men were entitled to my body. They are not. I’ve learned to overcome the pressures of the prude-slut dynamic (notice that whichever side you choose, it’s still seen as negative) and feel comfortable doing what I truly want. I’ve learned to recognize that in a world where Karen Owens and Tucker Max (both Duke graduates) do the exact same thing and generate entirely different media responses, we have a double standard on our hands.
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4. Why call it feminism, if it’s about equality? Because it’s impossible to fight a problem without first identifying it, giving it an unequivocal name. Gender impacts women and men, but I would like a movement name that reflects the specific way in which those who express femininity—which isn’t always those with XX chromosomes, mind you—bear the brunt of sexism. I think it’s important to draw attention to the injustice of a system that tells boys if they don’t “man up and grow a pair” then they are a “pussy.” Translation—if you don’t express your masculinity according to our standards you will be rejected and relegated to womanhood. Femininity should not be an insult.
5. I purposefully call myself a feminist because, as Junot Díaz once said, “When people fight you to shut you up about a topic like race and sexism, it means that you have stumbled upon the cultural silence that must be patrolled in order to maintain hegemony.” Asking me not to use the f-word is like asking me to be a noncontroversial activist. Listen, I’m not going to play the role of politically correct policeman and get up in people’s faces, but I’m also not going to hold myself to a different standard just because my demand for basic respect and equality makes some people uncomfortable. Because it shouldn’t make them uncomfortable. And it’s frustrating that things I think are obvious (like LGBTQ rights—why make something as beautiful as expressions of love illegal?) seem so controversial. Twitter personality Carrie Potter notes, "Instead of saying 'we are dying, we are being beaten, we are being raped,' we're saying 'no, no we don't hate men we swear!' It's a tactic of the oppressor to force harmful definitions onto subversive movements. It derails by forcing activists onto the defensive."
6. Above all else, I call myself a feminist because it is the core reason I possess the self-confidence and self-love I so cherish today. Feminism and Women’s/Gender Studies have been the most important parts of my college education. When the majority of undergraduate women leave college with lower self esteem than when they came in—and I would be lying if Duke culture wasn’t a struggle sometimes— I have feminism to thank for defying that statistic. As well as the feminist role models (friends, teachers and administrators of all gender identities) on campus who guided me along the way. Feminism is what helped me to realize the things I was struggling with resulted from a much larger societal problem and I wasn’t going crazy. Feminism is what taught me I didn’t have to earn my love from the universe by being skinny enough, smart enough, funny enough, seductive enough. That I didn’t have to be a people pleaser who could only be happy when validated by approval of others. Women, men, trans, and gender non-conforming—I invite you to join in the feminist movement and experience these empowering benefits yourselves. Because we all have something to gain from saying WTF to patriarchy.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Follow her tumblr http://thetwenty-something.tumblr.com.