Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feminism, where were you in high school?

I arrived forty-five minutes late to my first class on feminist legal theory. The eyes of my professor and eleven classmates turned to me as I took my seat, embarrassed. Unfortunately for me, my moment in the spotlight did not end there. After I briefly introduced myself, my professor asked me whether I was a feminist. Catching me off guard, I gave my best answer, “I don’t know.”

At the time, my answer probably sounded noncommittal, even evasive. The reality is it reflected my ignorance. I answered truthfully that I did not even know what a feminist was—an actual feminist, not the “harpy”-like stereotype or derogatory meaning the word has adopted in male circles. You see, this class wasn’t just my first feminist legal theory class; it was my first exposure to feminist-anything.

What struck me the most during my first ever discussion about feminism is the fact that this was my first ever discussion about feminism. I was amazed at the ease with which my classmates raised feminist issues. They brought up topics like reproductive justice and gender binaries. Until then, I didn’t know there was a name for the concept of gender roles. The names of Catharine MacKinnon and Joan Williams were dropped into conversation. I wrote both names in my notes so I could google them after class. Over an hour later I left the room dumbfounded by my naiveté.

How have I managed to undertake nineteen years of schooling (thirteen years of public education, four years of college, and two years of law school) and not know anything about feminism or even what a feminist is? Ultimately, the blame rests on me for not proactively learning about it. Yet, perhaps I make a great example of why feminism should be taught in schools.

A high school student made a case more than two years ago. In a letter to President Obama shortly after his inauguration, the student aptly notes that feminism, along with every social justice movement, “deserves to be represented” in education. Furthermore, learning about feminism may indeed encourage “new thinking” among children and youth faced with gender biases at the youngest of ages. This next generation would be better armed to fight gender inequality.

The next generation includes our high school student, who was fortuitous to take feminist classes at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Her teacher was Ileana Jiménez. Jiménez’s student already displays the “new thinking” that feminism classes encourage, and she is not alone.

Alum of Jiménez’s classes have shared their stories of how feminism classes have affected them even while they’re in college. Students emerged able to “communicate . . . about their identity, including one’s gender and sexuality,” “stand up against sexism and misogyny,” and “challenge what’s wrong even if others . . . don’t feel inclined to do so.

If these positive testaments aren’t enough reason to bring feminism to schools, then I return to my original reason: ignorance. I am the antithesis of Jiménez’s students. Considering that this first class was my first conversation about feminism, I only wonder how many others are as naïve as I am. If there are as many as I fear, instead of creating young adults equipped to abolish gender inequality, schools are fostering another generation of inequality and sexism.

I am not as enlightened as Jiménez’s young students. I am a late-comer to the discussion on feminism. But, schooling is finally giving me the chance to learn. If I learn nothing else during this semester, I hope to at least learn the answer to the question, “Are you a feminist?”


Rose Sawyer said...

This post resonates with me because it seems to reflect the pervasiveness of the "no-problem" problem. Too often, feminism is discounted as a fringe issue or not taken seriously.

The further that we get into this class, the more that I notice learned, subconscious, and anti-feminist patterns. For example, I was out at dinner this week with two older, successful men -- both of whom I am certain strive to respect women as equals and both of whom would probably even self-identify as feminists. That said, part way through our meal the conversation turned to their wives. "Ah, women," said one of them. "I can't understand them. My wife tells me her problems, but if I give her a solution, she gets angry. She just wants me to validate her feelings." The other one nodded sympathetically. "That's just how women are," he said. "They need to TALK purposelessly about things."

I had just finished reading Joan Williams' article “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It." The article points out that in eighteenth century Europe and nineteenth century America, a rearrangement of gender identities and stereotypes occurred. Whereas before, character traits associated with competition and cooperation were distributed evenly between the sexes, after this era men were assigned all the character traits associated with competition: ambition, authority, power, vigor, calculation, instrumentalism, logic, and single-mindedness. Women, by contrast, were assigned all the traits associated with cooperation: gentleness, sensitivity, expressivism, altruism, empathy, personalism, and tenderness. I wanted to pipe up and point out that the "innate" traits that the men were observing in their wives might actually be socially-learned: but I kept quiet. Perhaps this was my own socially-learned trait of "empathy" or "personalism" showing through: I didn't want to make things awkward.

That said, the experience made me think that more people -- even liberal-minded people -- should read feminist theory. Reading articles such as Williams' might make men and women eschew gender stereotypes -- recognizing them not as innately true, but rather as a sort of easy subconscious default choice.

Sure, complaining about the opposite sex is a bonding experience. But I'm sure that complaining about people of other races, or lower classes -- an activity that is, today, frowned upon -- was once considered a "great way to connect with someone" too. As times change, it seems to me, so must the ways that we relate to one another.

Megan said...

Am I a feminist? To this question, I always answer an automatic “yes.” It may be because third-wave feminism is so fluid and accommodating that so many women can answer “yes.” It is refreshing to ascribe to an ideal that has no specific universal definition, but rather seeks to address any oppression or marginalization based on gender, from the perspective of equality, however one may define equality. For instance, for some, equality may be to acknowledge inherent differences between men and women. For others, equality means that opportunities must look the same for everyone, regardless of sex. What equality looks like might differ as well depending on who you ask. But the fact remains that all feminists are united under a similar identity and ideal, and I think that is pretty powerful.

Rose Sawyer said...
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