What is feminism, and why does it matter?
Those questions seem to be on a lot of Yale minds these days. There’s been a lot of controversy in the past few years, stirred up by an increasingly visible Women’s Center, and in recent weeks the blog “Graphic Feminism” has been stimulating that interest in a provocative and interesting way.
Here are my answers, simple as they may be: Feminism is the radical belief that women are people, and it matters a heck of a lot more than most people think it does on Yale’s campus.
As cheesy as this bumper-sticker definition of feminism is, I like it. It doesn’t require using that most slippery of concepts: equality. It acknowledges that we can’t really define what it would look like for men and women to be truly “equal.” Men and women are different in fairly predictable ways, and there is a multitude of respects in which they could be “equalized,” many of which we wouldn’t accept or want. And, besides, in many ways it seems like men and women are already equal — at least at Yale — so calls for more equality fall on deaf ears.
Instead, this definition asserts quite simply that women are “people,” however you choose to interpret that. Whatever we associate with our humanity — reason and emotion, dignity and respect, autonomy — this definition challenges us to take that very seriously in every interaction.
One might object: If all we need to do is treat others as people, then why all the fuss about women and gender? Isn’t that the point of seeing us as people, rather than “women” or “men” — to erase those distinctions? Not quite. In treating others as full people with their own individuality and autonomy — but not necessarily equal in every way — we must recognize that gender colors the way we interact with the world.
Instead, we need to talk about gender, and acknowledge it, and make ourselves more aware of it. Most men at Yale can probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve thought about whether they’ll choose a career or a family. My guess is that it’s not the same story for women.
All Yale’s feminists are doing is pointing this out. We’ve made progress, but the work isn’t over. Feminism isn’t dead, even at Yale. You may disagree with their tactics, but their objective is unassailable, and their presence on campus is sorely needed.
First, of course, are the obvious issues women face as an outgrowth of the more serious problems of the past: When women were admitted to the workforce, they were instructed to imitate the career paths of men, something which is impossible given that women bear children. Yale women will face this challenge more acutely than most others.
And secondly, perhaps more pervasively, are the remnants of misogyny that do exist beneath the surface, and which do continue to impact the way women are perceived. Cultures that call women “sluts” fail to recognize them as people. That’s the entire function of the term.
The same is true for other unprintable slurs. They make the object of the slur a little less human. That’s what slur are; that’s what they do. And cultures that repeatedly fail to recognize women as people in their language will also fail to treat them as such. This is why discourse can be devastating, and it’s why we need to be careful when we speak, even if doing so is annoying sometimes.
It’s true that in many respects, Yale women are in a good place; they have little to complain about in comparison to women around the world or through most of history. Yalies don’t like to be victims, so they are loathe to hold onto a title they see as outdated.
But as long as fewer than one in five law partners is a woman because they can’t maintain 80-hour work weeks with small children; as long as there is still a culture which condones language like “sluts”; as long as gender affects our experience of the world, there is a place for feminism at Yale.
Sam bagg is a senior in Silliman College.