The F-Word

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Growing up in rural Virginia, I didn’t think much about feminism. To me, feminists were plump women with coiffed hair and suffragette sashes, women from a bygone era depicted in sepia photographs in history books. I didn’t meet a real live feminist until I was 16.

The cosmopolitan center of my childhood was Richmond, a city whose social traditions remain wistfully stuck in the past. Starting in middle school, my classmates and I carpooled into the city for cotillion. Donning lipstick smiles and too short suit pants, we learned to ballroom dance.

The dance caller, a chain-smoker in cowboy boots, stood in the center of concentric circles of fidgety prepubescents. His raspy voice echoed off the ballroom’s ornate ceiling: “Forward right, back left, forward right. Now turn the girl!”

“The girl.” That meant me.

I loved dancing, but the caller’s instructions frustrated me. They were always and only directed at the boy. I had to fit my actions around what I knew my partner would do, either translating the steps into their inverse meanings or giving up on learning entirely, allowing my partner to lead me about the floor like a particularly lifelike mannequin.

But I was no Scarlett O’Hara. I loved skinning my knees on the softball field and shouting my opinions in class. My mom was the breadwinner, the chef, and the CEO of our household, and at my high school I was fifth in a succession of female valedictorians and the first student ever to get into an Ivy League university. Walking across the stage at graduation, I was a bundle of female empowerment neatly packaged into a starchy white dress, nude-colored panty hose, and matching heels — as mandated by my high school’s virginal dress code.

Getting into Yale was a future I had never expected, and one that I wasn’t sure I deserved. My grandmother left college weeks into her freshman year, opting for a more practical option: secretarial school. Fifty years later, my opportunities greatly surpassed hers. After learning about the women’s rights movement in high school, I knew that feminism had made my future possible, yet something about the word rubbed me like the stiff heel of a new shoe.

Why? For one thing, feminism’s definition confused me. I knew today’s feminists didn’t fight for the same causes as the women in the sepia photographs, but in high school, I had heard conflicting things about what opinions made someone a feminist. I had also heard about feminism’s so-called “war on men,” and though I didn’t fully understand the accusation, I wondered why some factions of the women’s progress movement didn’t see men the way I did: as allies. Most importantly, I feared that feminism would put my gender at the forefront of my identity. I wanted to be defined by other things that I felt were more reflective of who I was as a person.

Here I was, a small-town girl who had made it to the academic big leagues — to Yale, alma mater of feminist demigod Hillary Clinton. I was sure nearly all women at Yale would be feminists. As move-in weekend grew closer, I feared having to explain why I didn’t count myself as one of them. I feared having to admit that I didn’t know.

But on move-in day, no pitchfork-wielding mob awaited me on Old Campus. Midterms came and went without anyone exposing me as a traitor to womankind. I was relieved to discover that nobody really seemed to talk about feminism. I went along, more than happy to adopt the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

***

On a chilly October night my freshman fall, a dozen or so Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges — boozed up and blindfolded — stood on Old Campus shouting a misogynistic chant loud enough that I could hear it from my bedroom window. The words would remain forever tattooed onto Yale’s discourse on feminism: “No means yes; yes means anal.”
In the months following the controversy, my questions about feminism returned with a vengeance. Was I a feminist? It was a difficult question, one I had avoided successfully up to that point. But now “feminism” was hanging from the tip of every tongue, and rolling across the pages of my morning paper. Reading the flurry of articles and opinion pieces that followed the DKE scandal, I was surprised to learn about multiple flare-ups of misogyny in Yale’s recent past. But as fiery debate faded into dull litigation, talk about feminism faded, too. I decided to let the op-ed writers handle the on-campus dialogue.

For three years, I continued to avoid the topic. I was embarrassed to admit that I still wasn’t sure how I felt about feminism. And then, my senior year, I learned that I wasn’t the only one. According to a 2013 Economist/YouGov poll, just 28 percent of men and 38 percent women consider themselves feminists. The numbers jump to 47 percent of men and 67 percent of women when the poll subjects were provided with a definition of “feminist” (a person who “believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”), but their initial hesitation to embrace the “feminist label” seemed telling to me.

Could the same trend exist at Yale? Could it be that in all my self-doubting, I had failed to notice that other women at Yale were also grappling with feminism? In my last year at Yale, I turned to the women around me to answer the questions that, for so long, I had been asking myself.

One of the first women I spoke to was Julia Calagiovanni ’15. A former associate editor for Yale feminist magazine Broad Recognition and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major, Calagiovanni has kept a finger on the pulse of Yale campus feminism.

“A lot of the thin tgs that have happened in the past couple years have made people wake up and say: ‘What’s happening at Yale and is this ok?’” says Calagiovanni.

Headlines from the past several years lend the impression that sexism at Yale resurfaces like the seasonal flu. Just as people are forgetting about last year’s trauma, another nauseating act flares up, provoking new and fleeting media coverage.

In 2005, 20 T-shirts emblazoned with messages to Yale campus from rape survivors were stolen from outside of the Women’s Center. In 2008, a Zeta Psi pledge class posed in the same spot holding a sign that said, “We Love Yale Sluts.” In 2009, Zeta’s “Preseason Scouting Report” ranked incoming freshmen females by the number of alcoholic drinks the brothers would supposedly need to consume before hooking up with them.

Calagiovanni says the reality is that a large amount of sexism occurs outside of these explosively publicized incidents. “It only comes to our attention in acute situations,” she says. Incendiary incidents like the DKE scandal are shocking, but they don’t come out of nowhere. They are manifestations of problems that persist at Yale year round. Sexism at Yale is actually more like a chronic cold.

Calagiovanni says Yale’s lack of long-term institutional memory is a big reason people why people discount sexism at Yale. “Because of the relatively short time undergraduates spend at Yale, they may not know about things even from the recent past. Because of that, it is hard to see the big picture, the repeating patterns.”
After talking to Calagiovanni, I realized the extent of Yale’s thriving feminist culture. But why hadn’t I felt its presence? Why, despite reoccurring incidents of misogyny on campus, weren’t there more vocal feminists at Yale?

I turned to an expert on the issue of college-campus feminism. Michael Kimmel is a sociologist at Stony Brook University who served as an expert witness in the Citadel and Virginia Military Institute cases on admitting female students. He also wrote several articles on the DKE hazing scandal for Ms. Magazine. Kimmel thinks today’s would-be feminists assume that feminist battles have already been won. When I asked him about college students’ relationship with feminism, he described a typical exchange: “‘Feminism,’ my female students tell me, ‘that was your generation’s issue! Women couldn’t play sports; we couldn’t have orgasms; we couldn’t have equal rights in the work place — and we are very grateful — but you won!”

Perhaps Yale students share this premature perception that we are beyond needing feminism, and that there are more serious fires to put out elsewhere.

According to Kimmel, college is a sheltered environment in which many female students don’t see any obvious need for feminism.

“Can you imagine a more gender-equal place in the world than Yale University campus during the day?” Kimmel asked me.

He had a point. I couldn’t think of a single time I felt that my gender had prevented me from getting into a seminar or stopped me from joining a group. Without the sense of urgency felt by women in earlier decades, many collegiate females assume that feminism’s battles have been fought — and won — by earlier generations.

“In class everyone says ‘him or her,’ ‘everyone’ is politically correct. You read feminist texts,” said Kimmel. “But at night,” he continued, “the fraternities rule, and women are suddenly transformed into babes or bitches.”

Babes or bitches? I jotted down his words, but they didn’t make me think of Yale. I thought of the nightmarish stories I had heard from my high school friends attending southern state schools where athletics and Greek life sit atop a high pedestal. Maybe there’s sexism at those schools, I thought, but not at Yale.

According to Alexandra Brodsky, ’12 LAW ’16, that misconception is not uncommon. Brodsky, an editor of femininisting.com and a signatory to the 2011 Title IX complaint that alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct cases by Yale’s administration, is concerned about the attitude that feminism’s battle is “over.”

“One thing that is hard about Yale is that there is a self-congratulatory progressivism that makes people think they couldn’t possibly be misogynists,” Brodsky said. “Like: ‘I voted for Obama — I couldn’t be sexist!’”
I had certainly felt invulnerable to sexism at Yale. During my brief stint in Greek life, I gained exposure to the kind of female mentoring that would make Sheryl Sandberg beam. But what did I like the most?

Themed parties that I now realize were straight out of Animal House.

Corporate Lives and Trophy Wives. Librarians and Barbarians. I attended, and I dressed up. I drank, I danced. Nothing remotely related to feminism crossed my mind.

Political correctness is any Yalie’s first language. It’s astonishing that no one I knew ever raised an eyebrow at these blatantly sexist themes. I certainly didn’t. Women’s battles did feel “won” at Yale. It felt like a given that we were “progressive.” We were satirizing sexism in clever, rhyming, or ironic ways — all in the name of good fun, all within Yale’s bigotry-proof bubble.

Looking back, I can see that I dressed up and played into sexist stereotypes because I never felt any real risk that anyone at Yale would box me into one.

***

My mother taught me there were three things I should not do at the table: curse, talk religion, and talk politics. At Yale, I was delighted to find most people did all three at the table, and often simultaneously. But Yale, I learned, had its own rules on taboo subjects.

I noticed that, when lobbed casually into dining hall conversation, the topic of “feminism” unpredictably triggered debate, polarization, or uncomfortable silence. “Feminism,” it seemed, was a new “F-word.”

Organizations like Broad Recognition and the Women’s Center productively voice the feminist cause on campus. But their dialogue about gender equality does not permeate into everyday conversation. Speaking with Kimmel and Brodsky helped me begin to grasp why Yale might not be the most fertile ground for feminist action to take root, but I still struggled to understand why feminism was so uncomfortable to discuss by name.

I asked 15 poised, confident women in their junior or senior year to discuss their relationship with feminism at Yale. Coming from a wide array of hometowns, majors, and social groups, they represented a range of Yale’s communities. Although all of them were willing to speak, many walked on eggshells, contorting and hedging their words with addenda and disclaimers. Eight of the women I interviewed, when asked whether they identified as feminist, antifeminist, or somewhere in between, expressed anxiety or guilt about their own classification.

One facet of feminism that may cause women to hesitate is the perceived vagueness of the word’s meaning. Some women I interviewed struggled to identify as feminist because they couldn’t pin down or define today’s feminist principles.

While comfortable discussing feminism, Amal Ga’al ’14 has witnessed how the term can be misused in conversations at Yale. “I was in a dining hall and this guy was telling a joke,” Ga’al said. “He called this a girl a feminist and then apologized for it.” Ga’al jumped in to correct the comedian, saying, “That is not an insult.”

But not everyone agrees with Ga’al. According to the Economist/YouGov Poll, two times more Americans consider “feminist” to be an insult than believe it to be a compliment. From my few, uncomfortable experiences voicing doubt about my own feminist identity, I knew that some people considered women who rejected feminism to be ignorant or shameful. A badge of honor in one context, “feminism” is a red letter in another. It’s not surprising that it’s hard to bring up in conversation.

And in writing, too. Over the course of two months, I interviewed 15 Yale women and eight experts, including academics and activists. I heard the voices of antifeminists, feminists, and everyone in between. I began this quest to distinguish between label and meaning, hoping to find how feminism might fit into my own identity. But as I stared at the cursor blinking expectantly on my computer screen, I realized I still could not write a clear answer. I couldn’t communicate the complex range of feelings I had about feminism. Frustrated, I burst into my suitemate’s room to vent. There, I found Kimaya Abreu ’15, and asked her if she identified as feminist. She immediately responded that she did. But mere seconds after, a shadow of doubt flickered across her face.

“Well,” she backtracked, “it means a lot of different things to different people. I would rather explain what I think than use that word.”

She contemplated her initial statement and spoke again. “What do I mean when I call myself a feminist?” she said — more cautiously and to no one in particular.

***

One of my favorite aspects of life at Yale was how I was able to wear different hats: student, volunteer, traveler, writer. Another part of why I hesitated to call myself a feminist was my fear of putting my gender at the forefront of my identity. After all, I thought, what’s more empowered and “feminist” than basing your decisions off of your interests, rather than your gender?

Vivienne Hay ’14 is, in many ways, a shining example of feminism’s successes: a double major in Physics and Math & Philosophy, she is thriving in three fields historically notorious for exclusion of women.

Hay is not a feminist.

She says she’s witnessed firsthand Yale’s efforts to encourage “women in the sciences,” but she pushes back on that categorization, which she considers reductive. “People just always speak of women in the sciences as a rare commodity,” she says. The label, she says, might imply, “You are this person who ticks off this box and that makes you valuable.”

Other women, I learned, felt that the label “feminist” collided with their other important identities. Earlier phases of feminism were criticized for serving primarily the needs of white, middle-class women. Edirin Okoloko ’14 says that when she first came to Yale, her identity as an African-American female had contributed to her antifeminism. “I grew up with a clear order of identity in my mind,” she says. “I was black first, female second.”

While at Yale, Okoloko has come to understand and appreciate feminism’s rich diversity. “It wasn’t until I got here … that I realized that these two inherent parts of my identity did not, in fact, need to conflict.”

Some people struggle to reconcile their identities as feminists and their identities as women. Isis Sakainga ‘14, a student from Sudan, considered herself a “partial feminist” but says that her opinions on the role of women and mothers in a household, opinions largely  influenced by Sudanese culture, are at odds with her perception of feminism.

I had noticed clear discomfort among young women when discussing their ambitions for family, as opposed to their career. Pressure for young women to prove themselves in areas of life outside of those considered traditionally feminine can act as a double-edged sword, creating limitations alongside its empowerment.

Logan Kozal ’15 is the first and only woman I’ve met at Yale who, in her future plans, openly prioritizes having a family. Kozal also talked of other ideas for her future — becoming a pastry chef or a marine biologist — but those professions seemed less striking in Yale’s conversational setting than her sincere expression of excitement to eventually raise kids.

“It’s very infrequent that I ever get outwardly judgmental responses of the type of ‘You are throwing your life away’ or ‘You are wasting your talent,’” Kozal said. “But the few times I have, it has been from other girls.”

 ***

In my exploration of how the word “feminism” is viewed today, I had begun by questioning the divide between the popular acceptance of feminism’s values and the stigma of its name. A YDN survey polled 134 Yalies, half male and half female, asking, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” While 97 percent said their beliefs aligned with the popular definition of feminism (that men and women should have equal rights), only 60 percent of the same respondent pool identified themselves as “feminist.”

I see now that I started out with a false assumption: Searching for the values of “real” feminism was like pouring a pitcher into glass after glass, trying to find the “real” shape of water.

Women at Yale have embraced and refuted the ideas of feminism in entirely distinct ways, with varying degrees of disassociation, rejection, and activism. But while their self-applied labels varied, the struggles they described as juniors and seniors about to leave academia for the workplace were uncannily similar. We all think about give-and-take across our future personal and professional lives and about how we can be defined first and foremost not as women, but as people. As a senior woman also nearing graduation, I have trouble not wondering how being a woman, regardless of how I identify, will affect my life in the future.

The real question now is how our negative perception of feminism determines our actions. In the same survey, only 46 percent of the respondents said that they’d be comfortable being publicly referred to as a feminist. So while Yale seems to have a higher proportion of feminists than America, a 14 percentage point drop from those identifying as “feminist” and those willing to be identified as “feminist” indicates that many of them aren’t eager to talk about why.

The perspectives of fellow Yale women and my own crippling trepidations in expressing my feelings on feminism writing this article have shown me that “feminism” is an incendiary term — regardless of whether or not it deserves that image — and inhibits the much-needed normalization of women’s rights advocacy in everyday dialogue. Perception shapes reality. Our common reluctance to identify as feminists leaves the work of true feminism to the hardy few who are brave enough to accept the stigma of the big red “F.”

Six years have passed since I last slipped a gloved hand into the crook of my escort’s elbow at the Richmond Cotillion. At parties, there’s no longer a dance caller who conducts my movements around the room.

But now I understand that cotillion was teaching more than dancing. It was also teaching us a social construct. He steps forward; I’ll step back. The dance’s invitation listed only the appropriate wear for boys, but I knew what was expected of me. He wears a suit; I wear a cocktail dress and white gloves. He wears a sports coat; I wear a pencil skirt and blouse.

Though the voice of the dance caller has not followed me from cotillion into adulthood, I have begun to notice other voices in my environment that seek to shape and inform my actions and words. The conversations I had with my peers in writing this article have inspired me to listen vigilantly for — and call out — the voices seeking to control and stifle women. But I have also become aware of another voice: my own. It was my own voice telling me not to risk judgment or offense by sharing my doubts. It was my own voice that had kept me out of the conversation.

Arriving at Yale, I had felt as though my uncertain relationship with feminism was a problem in need of a definite solution. Now mere months from graduation, I have stopped waiting for the epiphany. I have realized that my ambivalence is not inherently a problem.

In four months I will cross another graduation stage. On the other side, a largely gender-unequal “real world” waits for me. I don’t know what, if any, role feminism will play in my future. But I am confident that I will push past my instinctual wariness of divisive subjects and speak my mind, even when doing so feels awkward or alienating. I am not the girl in white gloves and a party dress any more. While I certainly don’t seek to offend anyone, I have stripped away the layers of etiquette that kept me from joining divisive conversations.

Lately, I am pleased to report, I have been dropping the F-word left and right.

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