Bagg: Feminism needed at Yale

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.

Comments

  • Y09

    thank you sam :)

  • yes

    and I would just add: feminism is also about changing how men think about their own role in the world and in the family, and their own privilege. That's why it's so important for men as well as women to think and talk about gender & feminism.

  • trolls

    As I read this column thread, which so far only has one comment on it that has appeared (from Y09), it appears remarkably free of trolls. It's a blissful little experience of reading feminist sentiments WITHOUT the usual flood of obnoxious misogynistic trolls. I wonder if this thread will stay troll-free. We'll see… that would be fantastic.

  • Bigot

    "[imitating] the career paths of men… is impossible given that women bear children."

    Why are you a hater?

    A thousand Feminists are rolling their eyes right about now…

  • wait

    What about women who call each other sluts? (out of malice, self-deprecation or humor)

  • OldBlue'73

    Sorry, Sam, but this essay reads like you're in the middle of your first Women's Study course. I was surprised to see at the end that you are a senior.

    "Feminism is the radical belief that women are people." Yikes. Even the unreconstructed Southern Gentleman with a Southern Belle wife, who both think that giving women the vote was a mistake, believe that women are people. Jeffrey Dahmer was a person. Your readers would have been better served with a link to Wikipedia's article on feminism, which actually isn't half bad. It's definition works much better than yours:

    "Feminism is the belief that women have equal political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic rights to men."

    There is quite a wide variety of views within the tent of feminism as the Wiki article points out. (Including a nod to your "radical" definition: "Some contemporary feminists, such as Katha Pollitt or Nadine Strossen, consider feminism to hold simply that 'women are people'.")

    Just about anyone-misogynist or male chauvinist included-- who reads that definition must respond, "Well, duh!"

    This essay was a waste of space in the paper. You and YDN can do better.

  • Spherical Cow

    Excellent!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for articulating why this is so important. This is a really well done article.

    The usage police have one quibble:
    In the penultimate paragraph you mean "loath" (adj, hesitant or unwilling), not "loathe" (v, harbor feelings of disgust or disdain towards).

  • Hiero II

    This is not to troll, but this is an honest academic question.

    How does calling someone a slut diminish their personhood? Calling someone a slut indicates that they've made a conscious choice to engage in promiscuous sexual activity; ie: you're ascribing free will to them.

    In other words, calling someone a slut amounts to judging them by their actions. Judging someone by their actions is not de facto dehumanizing.

    As a corollary to this point, no one - man or woman - has the right not to be judged by his or her fellow persons. If you are sexually promiscuous, people will call you a slut. If you are sexually puritanical, people will call you a prude. This is life, not dehumanization.

  • C

    Responding to "bigot," Sam's larger point there isn't that it's "impossible," but that the career structures women face do too often force them to make trade-offs that men don't have to, and that this is something that it's GOOD for us to be talking about, even if it is improving all the time.

    Thanks Sam! Like it a lot.

  • Anonymous

    Old Blue '73- Sometimes the simplest truths are the ones in most dire need of being recognized. Women are people. Do you know how many women all over the world are treated as something other than a person? Think of misogynistic jokes--how do you turn a dishwasher into a snowblower? Think Zeta Psi--we love Yale sluts. Think of all the epithets directed at Secretary Clinton during her presidential campaign. Look at PETA's "Veggie Love" advertising campaign. All of these are ways of depriving women of the same level of personhood that men have. "Women are people" is not a frivolous statement: it is deeply important, and it merits more thought and and more sophisticated analysis of its implications than you gave it. It is shameful that you, a Yale graduate, are so unwilling to think deeply.

  • To Hiero II

    Hiero II, you are severely oversimplifying what the term 'slut' truly means.

    Calling someone a slut is so much more than a comment on their sexual activity.

    Plenty of women who are called a slut are not truly sexually promiscuous. Women are called slut if they have had any sexual activity at all or if they simply wear tight clothing. I'm sure plenty of people would call me a slut because I have sex, even though I have only ever had one sexual partner.

    Slut means so much more than 'sexually promiscuous.' It implies that a person is not deserving of respect because of their sexuality. It defines them based solely on their sexuality, suggesting that they are nothing more than a sexual object.

    Do you ever hear someone call a man a slut? If this is simply a term that one uses to refer to sexually promiscuous people then it shouldn't be reserved only for women. Our society has the tendency to deny women personhood by reducing them into two simple categories: the virtuous virgin and the promiscuous slut. These labels are not just judgments based on a woman's actions, but an attempt to demonize a woman's sexuality and reduce her to less than a person.

  • SLut

    to #12

    men call each other sluts all the time.
    Duh.

    Means the same thing, too.

  • Yale Woman

    I had no idea that it was 'impossible' for me not to bear children. And here I thought that birth control meant something!

  • Yale realist

    #14, people still get pregnant using birth control. I know plenty of friends whose parents admit to getting pregnant while on the pill -- and young mothers too. Institutions expect women to hold off child bearing until it's risky for their bodies and almost impossible to conceive. The fact is that women who want children are better off bearing children before 35, but companies need to support these working mothers so they don't need to sacrifice their families at the same time. Many women do want children but they also want to pursue careers too. If you don't want children, fine, but don't be shocked if you get pregnant while using your fail proof pill.

    Also, yes, I have heard straight men called sluts. Or even "man-whores." Same connotation. I think the point is when people use sluts as insults to women as a whole rather than friends teasing each other or criticizing the sexually promiscuous. Just in general, do we really need to be calling each other sexually degrading names, male or female?

  • Anonymous

    My sense is that "manslut" or any related term is used with a palpable sense of irony. "Har har, isn't it funny that we're using a derogatory word for a woman to describe a man?"

    Moreover, when a guy gets called a slut, it's usually a jesting compliment. I can't imagine someone calling a man a slut actually with the intent to insult. Likewise, I can't imagine someone calling a woman a slut in jest as a compliment.

    "Wow, Andy, 5 girls so far this semester? You're such a slut!"

    "Wow, Anne, 5 guys so far this semester? You're such a slut!"

  • this article and most of these comments make me ha

    Thanks for the nice article, Sam. And thanks, commenters, for not going crazy. I would like to add one more thing to the list of why feminism (still) matters, at Yale and elsewhere: it takes an editorial from a man to men for a comment board (relatively) free of vitrol. If all men thought "women were people," as this author puts it, then surely we would receive the same respect that Sam here is getting (and that I sincerely hope he continues to get) when we spoke for ourselves.

  • SNL

    Sam you ignorant slut.

  • Hiero II

    A person (a person!) writes: "Slut means so much more than 'sexually promiscuous.' It implies that a person is not deserving of respect because of their sexuality. It defines them based solely on their sexuality, suggesting that they are nothing more than a sexual object. "

    The last sentence comes out of nowhere in all this. Yes, some people don't think someone's worthy of respect because of their sexuality. I don't think white supremacists are worthy of respect. Tough.

    Now, let's parse the last sentence. Calling someone a slut doesn't "define them based SOLELY on their sexuality" anymore than calling someone an idiot defines them solely based on their intelligence. Alex Rodriguez is an idiot. He's also an athlete. Paris Hilton is a slut. She's also a celebrity (and a person!).

    Lastly, defining someone solely on their sexuality (as I've already established the epithet slut does NOT do) does not per se reduce them to an object. Even if I defined Alex Rodriguez solely by his baseball playing skills, he'd still be a person, not an object.

    Also, the word "slut" is primarily used to refer to women. The word "tool" is used primarily to refer to men. The gender boundaries of the English language are insufficient to make a word offensive.

  • anthony

    College campuses are all ready infected with Women's Studies and Vagina Monologue presentations. More feminism will drive men away from college.

  • Anonymous

    Anthony, the way you think is exactly the reason why we need more feminism. There is no good reason why the concerns of women and their expression should drive men away.