BAIG: The myth of the independent woman

Tuesday night, I witnessed a speech on the floor of the Yale Political Union (“Resolved: College Sexual Culture Endangers Women”) that disturbed me more than anything else I had heard on Yale’s campus.

A prominent female member of the Union delivered a fiery rebuttal to a speech that argued that men and women face pressures from college sexual culture — not only sexual pressures from the opposite sex, but also fear of social rejection and concern for their mental health and sexually transmitted infections. As the rebutted speaker argued, though a woman may consent to sex, external forces may still influence the encounter; any one of these fears may drive that decision, and though she has consented, her actions may contradict her actual desires, intentions and better judgment.

The rebuttal that disturbed me, however, argued that the constant victimization of women robbed them of their agency. Even to discuss that the college sexual culture endangers women assumes that women ought to be protected and that they are not fully responsible for their sexual choices. By grouping all women as an “oppressed class,” we strip them of their individuality. From this argument, we arrive at a series of troubling questions: Why should strong, independent women allow themselves to be called victims of sexual harassment? Is structural sexism an excuse for their personal shortcomings? All of these questions assume the existence of an idealized woman, impervious to the injustices inherent to the society of which she is a part.

While ideas such as this are part of the ongoing discourse on Yale’s sexual culture, they have serious consequences. This conversation trivializes the personal experiences of women who may have been sexually assaulted and neglects that the oppression that women have experienced in the past has a lasting impact on the present. It is self-defeating for women to consider themselves out of the context of the legacy of sexual discrimination.

The News recently published the stories of two Yale alumnae who, as students, were sexually harassed by professors and whose grievances were met by an apathetic university administration. Traumatized, these women had no recourse; they were not provided with the resources to pursue the legal action they desired.

Yale women, so seemingly invincible, were still subject to external pressures that prevented them from openly airing their grievances. Being subject to these pressures does not make these women less individual, less strong or less feminist.

An ideology that promotes the individual over all else works only in an ahistorical framework that roundly ignores the sexism women have faced for years. As Yale students, we believe the will to achieve should be more powerful than anything else.

From this belief, the myth of the independent woman is born. The independent woman is expected to be immune to external social pressures. We expect women to achieve — to be highly ambitious, responsible adults — despite the circumstances.

Admitting that one is subject to these pressures, however, is not weakness.

Women who have faced discrimination should not be encouraged to remain silent as though to deny the existence of sexism were to assure equality. They should be encouraged, instead, to demonstrate their strength and speak out about the injustices they have experienced. Our experiences, like those of the women before us, are necessary to offer a perspective with depth and to prevent future abuses.

As a Yale woman, I urge you to reject the myth that smart, “independent” women are impervious to sexism. We can be more nuanced than this. We are brave, intelligent and ambitious, but we are also human.

Minhal Baig is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at


  • The Anti-Yale

    With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, we are all a product of our personal gestalt, the confluence of the tiny bit of chronology our life excepts from human history and the decisions we make in reaction to the forces which impinge on that tiny excerpt.

    When Sartre refused the *Nobel Prize in Literature* because it would “limit” his freedom, he allowed himself to be photographed (for *Esquire Magazine*) standing alone on an ice-pan, wearing a black tuxedo and holding a martini glass in his hand: a symbolic cameo of his isolation from the forces of his gestalt.

  • basho

    This column is disorganized and difficult to follow. B-/C+.

    • Yale12

      Do you enjoy going on these little power trips where you grade your classmates’ columns?

      • xfxjuice

        If they didn’t, they wouldn’t.

  • SY

    Minhal, I am not sure whether you think that women are empowered and responsible, or that they are weak, oppressed, and need federal protection.

    One sex now casts the majority of votes, holds the majority of national personal wealth, and graduates 57%+ of college grads. A century ago that was men; now it is women. No oppressor in human history has allowed its oppressed victims to hold most political power, wealth and education. If those numbers favored men, we would say that women are victims of sexism. But they favor women, so men are what? Women must get a grip on this imbalance, and stop pretending that we are in 1911. When women complain, men’s first response is what can we do to solve the problem? Affirmative action, contrition, Title IX, political appointments, new corporate and university positions only for women? The one thing feminists got right was that what hurts one sex eventually hurts the other sex.

    • grumpyalum

      Wait what? Holds the majority of national personal wealth? Are you serious? Citation please!

      More importantly – political representation. It doesn’t matter the votes when women represent 16-20% in large-scale governmental bodies.

      Is SY seriously going to tell me that being numerically larger and going to college (yet men still make money on the hour than women do) is the sign of political strength that shows that men are on the run and imbalanced?

      Seriously? Stop saying things that are trivially true and give us some true context.

      • SY

        Personal wealth includes all ages, including widows who have inherited the wealth. I don’t know the wealth of each age cohort. Since non-Yale women are receiving 57% of college degrees, I expect 22-29 year old women will earn more than men. It also means, if my math is correct, that 14 out 57 women will not have an equal or higher status man to marry. Status does not always mean income, but women do not marry or stay married to lesser men. It’s a biological double standard, but women want to marry up, and men do not want to marry up. (Meg Whitman, the Ebay billionaire, married a man who earns less, but he is a Stanford neurosurgeon–very high status). This is why women are complaining that there are not enough good men–a real problem for both sexes.

    • Yale12

      These stats just show you to the extent to which sexism is still a problem. If all these things are true, why are women still vastly underrepresented in politics and business?

      • SY

        I think it shows that women are not competing as much for the most visible political and corporate jobs. If women don’t run for high offices as often as men, they cannot be elected or defeated. I don’t have the data, but I’d bet that women are appointed and well represented in politics and business at the level just under Senate, Congress and CEO. Probably that’s what I would prefer–good work and high income, without the life and privacy disruption. If it’s a choice, it’s not sexism.

  • kdaysandtou

    “Why should strong, independent women allow themselves to be called victims of sexual harassment?” I have a hard time understanding why this question follows from the rebuttal you cited. Sexual harassment is an unwanted and offensive sexual advance – by definition, it does not at all implicate female autonomy. A suggestion that women have the power to make their own choices in sexual encounters does not change this. Harassment is a serious matter; I do not mean to trivialize anybody’s experience, or suggest that sexism is benign or nonexistent. However, the suggestion that a girl has the power to say “yes” to sex after 4-5 drinks is very different than the suggestion that women are invincible and impervious to sexism.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *As a Yale woman, I urge you to reject the myth that smart, “independent” women are impervious to sexism.*

    It is impossible for any woman to be impervious (not capable of being damaged or affected by) to sexism. Women would have to live on the Island of Lesbos or become a Shaker to attain such an aloof status.