I came to Yale sure I could retire from my role as an angry feminist. I had stumbled across my political inclinations accidentally in my early schooling; I was a bossy, opinionated kid, and couldn’t quite figure out what being a girl had to do with anything. Gender equality struck me as such an obvious, logical necessity and I was sure Yalies would all be on board, so I could redirect my attention to more interesting problems.
However, my first few days proved me wrong. After the old “Sex Signals” workshop — which has thankfully since been changed — one classmate expressed confusion as to why it was OK for a girl to change her mind about sex after taking off her shirt. In Econ 111, I was rejected by two all male problem-set groups. In the Davenport dining hall, I was told that history was determined by great men, and maybe women just didn’t have it in them. I had come to Yale to try on a million different hats, but I found myself forced into an old one, shouting in vain — often literally.
This is a disappointing memory I share with many Yale women and one which I suspect many freshmen will soon carry as well. Unfortunately, it was also no exception to the pattern of subtle, ingrained misogyny, veiled by an air of enlightened liberalism, that I have continued to find for the last two years — a status quo that is both inherently harmful and which lays the foundation for more serious, dangerous sexism.
However, I strongly believe that this need not be the case for the next two. And for this, I turn to the class of 2014: We need you to be casual feminists.
Such a rallying cry might sound anticlimactic, but a large population of individuals each claiming a small stake in combating campus misogyny is exactly what we need. Of course, Yale must have its diehards, and I encourage all freshmen to run for the board of the Women’s Center, join a member group, write for publications like “Broad Recognition” or “Manifesta,” and contribute to discussions about reforming the University’s absurd sexual assault and maternity policies (columns for another time).
But those of you who will probably don’t need my encouragement.
The rest of you have just as important a task: Speak up. Women and men of the class of 2014, protect your friends who are targeted, and call out the insensitive. This doesn’t have to be dramatic; you don’t have to make a sign, change your attitude toward shaving or become a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major. If your entire class keeps an eye out for each other, sticking up for those affected by prejudices based on sexuality or gender, you can make Yale a safer place while debunking the myth of the separate feminist species.
Why do we need to move towards universal ownership of feminist concerns? First, when we leave all the shouting to those who are most offended, the point is easier to ignore. If a casual feminist called out classmates making sexist remarks in the dining hall or sitting around a common room, the disrespectful friend would likely reconsider his or her action. Yet currently, often everyone is silent or the token feminist at the table is forced to take on the responsibility. And when a message from any source becomes repetitive, it fades into white noise. This is particularly true at Yale, where the feminist is seen as a separate type of student, with a concrete wall dividing those who take on the title and those who do not. It is disturbing to see the number of students who genuinely support women’s rights but, because they don’t fit the stereotype, are reluctant to brand themselves as feminists.
The second reason such a shift is needed on campus is that the Women’s Center has better things to do with its time than wage dining hall war. I am not a member of the board and cannot speak to its views, but have as much a stake as any student in its functions. Clearly, the subtle sexism of Yale students is dangerous and requires a response. But seriously, we live in a crazy world and dedicated individuals shouldn’t feel they have to waste their time destigmatizing campus feminism when there are more pressing problems facing women at this school, in New Haven and around the world.
I must admit that, in addition to these two reasons, I hold another hope for this atmosphere of casual feminism at Yale. Fighting for our rights is about expanding opportunities, but for feminists on this campus, it can sometimes seem like each time we speak out, our options are narrowed. Class of 2014, you should be able to forge whatever identity you choose. Your concern for women’s rights should not limit your activities or predefine you in your classmates’ eyes. If everyone does their part in combating misogyny at Yale, feminism can be just another perspective students bring to all corners of campus, rather than a characteristic restricting young men and women to specific circles.
Class of 2014, if you start early, it can be done. We’re counting on you. Casually.