I have three T-shirts that people will consistently comment on: 1. The green T-shirt that has the bloke riding a dinosaur; it says, “Real life would be much cooler if we all rode dinosaurs to work.” 2. My Lost t-shirt which is based on the show’s fifth season, so please don’t actually look at that shirt if you don’t want spoilers. 3. My green Women’s Centre T-shirt, in women’s medium size, which boldly and plainly says “feminist.” across the front of the shirt.
Several females (*exceptionally off topic tangent at the end of post) on random encounters commented positively on my Women's Centre shirt the various times I wore it. "Nice shirt!" said somebody I don't know as I walked through Central. So far so good.
Where I ran into more skepticism with my shirt was with a few (incidentally male) friends. “What IS feminism? Why do you feel the need to tell people that you’re a...feminist?” As if my proclaiming that opinion was the most outlandish thing ever. As tends to be the case with my blog posts, I will now flesh out the response that I wish I had prepared at the time – one that will show why I am an ally of feminism. This is why I believe in feminism, and why it’s a topic that we shouldn’t shoot down without a second thought, but rather, a conversation that needs to continue and be agreed and disagreed upon.
My first point is that feminism is a more inclusive term then we’ve let it become. Women’s rights have been an arduous battle – for rights, equality of opportunity, cultural recognition, economic standing, and fair media representation, to name a few. In the US at least, these are indicators that have changed for the better over the last 100 or so years. At worst, it’s not unreasonable to think that these are important rights for women that we should not forget. Assuming that the battle is completely over is wrong in my opinion. Moreover, to not recognize these struggles is to forget an important part of human history. I think many of us are too quick to say, “yes, feminism did the job in the 60s. It’s done; let’s stop talking about it.” I literally just asked my friend while writing this post what she thought of feminism. Her knee jerk reaction: “um, pointless.” I haven’t done my research so maybe I’m wrong and maybe everything’s okay. But I hypothesize that most of us have this instinctive reaction nowadays that even if feminism is a relatively agreeable thing, it’s nowhere near the top of the priority list of things to fix in this world.
However, feminism isn’t done. The US debate on sexual health policy on contraception and abortion is a significant piece of proof that feminism is still needed. In particular, members of the US government who are not only predominantly male, but also misguided, have been pushing for unreasonable policies. There’s more that could be said about this topic, but I will defer to the smarter and cleverer people – I just wanted to highlight one recent issue in which it makes sense for feminism to continue to exist as a movement.
Feminism runs into the problem that the word itself connotes a movement that is “too extreme.” Every movement has its extremists, but feminism is all the aforementioned rights that we would mostly consider inalienable. Feminism also certainly isn’t about making women better than everyone else. In my personal conception of the movement, a big part of feminism is about removing the barriers that we still hold over the women in our society. I arrived at this conclusion in thinking about sports. It used to surprise me back in high school cross country, the amount of girls who were faster than me. In my so called glory days, I was an average to better-than-average runner. I will not, however, try to tell you I ran a 2:50 marathon. Just like you can do with Paul Ryan, you can simply search my name on Google to find out my running records. (You won’t find a voting record though because the one thing I have ever voted on so far has been Amendment 1). Anyhow, there were a fair amount of girls who would be minutes faster than me – these crazy chicks who were doing six minute miles. Three times in a row. This was always a point of macho-joking amongst the sophomore boys on our team who were just starting to taste varsity racing and stop training with our fastest girls. We were never actually “fast” until we were faster than the girls. We’re men. We’re supposed to be better than them!
I do not mean to disregard that the average female is biologically different from the average male. Male athletes are indeed stronger and faster at many major sports (but not all of them!) However, our society has interpreted the biological averages without also weighing the possibility for humans to excel beyond those trends. Humankind has constantly outdone itself in every possible field (or track, pool, etc.) Everyone can do better. However, I would argue that on the whole, our culture assumes women will be less talented or less well-equipped in life. We fulfill that prophecy, and there are actual outcomes that result from this – the gender divide in CEOs of major corporations, for example. I’ve now heard multiple times from my friends, “My adviser [at Duke] keeps asking me if I’m really sure about biophysics because he says it’s a lot of work, but he never says anything like that to his male advisees,” or “I chose to study to be a nurse instead of a doctor because everybody told me being a doctor would be too hard for a girl” or “I don’t want to go to Wall Street because I always hear women can’t handle the stress.” By no means am I saying that every girl should become a soulless premed or enter the soul-crushing walls of Wall Street. Rather, we must remove the inhibitions and voices in the heads of women everywhere that they should not try to do something because their gender is expected to hinder them.
So, remember those shirts I was talking about at the beginning of this blog post? One shirt that does not make that list is my green Love = Love shirt. That’s an amazing thing really, that I have walked around the Duke Campus and downtown Durham wearing a pro-LGBT shirt without getting a single comment on it. When it comes to the LGBT community, defining a feminine identity is another spectrum to consider. I won’t go into that because that would mean trying to speak for too many people I don’t have the right to speak for. However, one idea still applies here, always – there is more that brings us together than drives us apart. Both feminism and LGBT advocacy are movements that want to equalize the mainstream and the marginalized group(s). For example, I especially believe that we should try to erode the pervasiveness of heteronormativity because in the end, why should two blokes getting married and adopting a kid be considered abnormal? Yet along the way, the LGBT community and the feminist movement have forged their own identities and subidentities through the persistence of their resistance to marginalization, or at least in their escapism from the mainstream. These identities of course, lead to stereotypes, you know, the flaming gay or the Femnazi.
Many of us have internalized the most extreme images of the activists for our respective causes. We’re all guilty of it, but I’m not going to try and point fingers and say that women have been wronged more severely than LGBT individuals or that the subcultures associated with oppressed racial, ethnic, gender/sexual groups should not exist. Instead, I want to put this out as an open question to those who are reading this – is it somehow more socially acceptable or fashionable to say you’re an LGBT ally than it is to be a feminist? My impression is that because the legal gains of women and feminism are on average, more advanced than those of the LGBT community, people are more likely to assume feminism is no longer necessary. And for whatever reason, we also think what is left of feminism are just vestigial extremists, caricatures and stereotypes. As I hope I’ve convinced you about by now, there are still reasons why feminism or something similar to exist.
“Well I’m an equalist,” said a friend in the LGBT Centre, somewhat humorously. Equality is indeed what we should be striving for, but there are only three ways to create equality – A. bring someone down, B. bring someone up, or C. make everyone better off through trade. Now option A. certainly is not optimal. I’ll also note here that I believe affirmative action is a dangerous thing that has been abused although the motivations behind such policies should not be disregarded entirely given that people indeed originate from different contexts on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation (this in itself is also another talk to be had by smarter people than me). The need empowerment is why we give the names we give to these marginalized subgroups – that’s why it’s LGBT, feminism (referring to women), etc. This is why I’m not so quick to shoot down “feminism” as an overly generic term and how I’ve come to rationalize the acronym LGBT as a term that highlights some (but unfortunately not all) the groups that want and need to be empowered.
So that leaves us with B. and C. Empowerment is a very powerful force, but those who hold power in our society will naturally want to hold on to their power. Feminism is in a transition state where the movement has gotten oh-so-close in many ways but is lacking in others - making it particularly prone to the pushback by those who might not necessarily want to see women empowering themselves. Within the way I am talking about this, it’s hard to really have any one-sided endowment of power. That brings me to C. When I talk about trade, I’m not talking about meat and potatoes because I’m a vegetarian, so let’s go with potatoes and beans. Bringing more women to the game means a lot of things. The reality is that there are certain short-term sacrifices that need to be made to accommodate for the empowerment of more people.
A friend of mine tells me that she’s afraid of medical school since she wants to be married by 25 or 30 and having kids. Residency would be a nightmare, no? There’s a brilliant article by Anne-Marie Slaughter about the challenges facing women today in terms of the doubled expectations to be successful as professionals and as family-starters. Some scientific literature actually suggests the transition to two working parents has helped contribute to a decrease in healthy eating in the US. In other words, we need a multidimensional solution – labor laws and work culture need to change to accommodate for a more gender - equal workplace and home setting and men in mainstream heterosexual marriages need to assume some responsibility over the traditional housewife realm, to name a couple changes that could help this issue. Optimizing this scenario could potentially benefit families and couples, allowing any young person to grow into a world where they don’t have to do everything (get a job, save the world, have a family). If we can integrate this type of thinking into our politics and culture, that we need to optimize not only for profit, but also for resource allocation and lower social cost given feminist considerations, then we can do what humans were made (evolved?) to do: exceed everyone that came before us.
Feminism represents the new compromises and trades that we need to make across genders to make sure everybody is empowered and endowed with equal opportunities.
If nothing else, please give me more free shirts. They’re more empowering than you’d think.
*Tangential discussion point – Can someone comment on what the most neutral but also not-awkward-sounding words for “female” and “vagina” might be? I find it rather telling that we have nice-sounding informal words that are accepted for males and their genitals – “guy” and “dick.” Woman is too formal, girl is too condescending, and lady just sounds off for some reason. There isn’t really a word for vagina that isn’t an anatomical vocabulary word, a huge swear word or doesn’t sound plain ridiculous. Why isn’t this a part of our vocabulary? Are vaginas just that icky?