Friday, August 27, 2010

Missconceptions of Feminism

I used to make fun of feminists. I don't know why I did, but I did. I think maybe it was because I didn't know what a feminist was exactly, and that the extent of my knowledge of feminism was the copy of The Feminine Mystique my close friend Diana was reading (which I still haven't yet read). And something about it seemed trite and passe, unwelcoming - I had visions in my head, like many other people do, of angry women with unshaved armpits, burning bras, and waving spatulas very angrily trying to get every woman out of the kitchen. Regardless, as a high school student, I got the feeling it wasn't safe nor was it cool to be one.

I only knew two people who could be recognized as feminists then - and only one of them self-identified as a "feminist," and despite how popular she was, people gave her a lot of shit for it. So I never learned feminism, didn't even touch it with a fifty-foot pole.

I grew up in a suburban town right outside of Queens, NY that's full of Irish and Italian Catholics, bars, and a very small minority population. To the outsider, my hometown may seem like a pleasant non-threatening place - a great place to raise the kids. Today when I try to explain my hometown, it's hard to explain the almost sinister undertones of conservative politics that bled through even to children. Among the most popular boys in our high school was a frequent joke (a serious joke) that a woman's only place of belonging was the kitchen, as if they knew best for women: a typical hypocritical form of dominance when I know for a fact that at least one of them couldn't even tell the difference between a tampon and a pad.

And there will be one scene that always haunts me when I think of gender norms at my high school, and how typical they all were. Right outside the cafeteria window, a male is yelling at a girl - he grabs her by the hair and whips her around, dragging her out of sight still by her hair, until we hear a car door slam. Nobody flinches to even help that girl, a younger guy sitting near us says "that's fucked up." I frown. Nobody moves.

When I train to become an advocate for sexual assault victims years later, I will learn this to be a prime example of the Bystander Phenomena. And I don't know if I should liken it to the Kitty Genovese case where every neighbor had assumed the other person was going to do something about it, or if I should liken it to pure apathy or pure fear. My roommate I have now couldn't understand this. As I try to explain to her bystander phenomena, and explain that we breed a society that works against sexual assault and rape victims, she doesn't get it.

But why wouldn't they believe them [the sexual assault victims]?

I shrug, "the society we live in. It all comes down to a Virgin/Vamp dichotomy. There's this really great book that talks about it, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, that I used for my Feminist Sociolinguistics paper that talks all about how there are 8 factors that tilt a woman towards a "vamp" and less believed."

"If she knows her assailant; if no weapon is used; if she is of the same race, class, or ethnic group as the assailant; if she is young; if she is considered pretty; and if she is in any way deviates from the traditional housewife-mother role."

"Listen," I say to her, "I had a friend who was raped her first semester at college, and when she came home to tell her parents, they blamed her - and this is on top of the fact that she didn't even realize what had happened to her was rape, somebody else had to tell her. And this happens all the time."

Girls don't realize they're raped, and then the girls that are raped are too afraid to speak out - because the police are intimidating and hinder rather than help, because the rape kits are invasive and evidently will just sit around and not be used for evidence. And it's scary considering nationally 1 in 4 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and 1 in 7 men will deal with the same, and the statistics could be even higher because it's been noted that at least 60 percent of women don't report their rape. I'm not good with math, but I don't like the implications of those numbers.

And it all links together, and it shows in our government, in our language, and even our day to day actions.

The first time I really began to delve into feminism is when I landed in my third college, at the end of my first (of two) years there. When I found, rather than 1-2 girls, a steady handful of women who proclaimed themselves as feminists and openly fought for women's rights. It was safe for me to be a feminist in this environment, and so I explored it. I ended up being the Featured Poet and lead organizer of the open mic night at Take Back the Night that year, an actress in the Vagina Monologues, took every training offered by the local Sexual Assault Services Organization, ended up being one of the lead members of the college's Feminist Voice, helped with the Clothesline project, became a lead organizer of Take Back the Night again, helped with the first ever Four Corners Pride festival, and so on and so forth. Even the current President of Feminist Voice thought I was a Gender/Women's Study major, and within that one year I had left at that college, I became best friends with even the prior Feminist Voice president. To everyone around me, it seemed as if there was never a point in my life when I was not a feminist.

At one point in January I updated my facebook with a link to a bunch of articles pertaining to feminism, I joked in the comments section of the last one "Don't mind me, just clogging up your news feed with feminist news," and one of my friends made some comment like Same old, aren't you always updating with feminist news? To put this transformation in perspective, I graduated high school in 2007, which means in three years I went from being a person who made fun of feminism to being in a situation where I'd be the first name to come to mind of many people when they were asked about feminists on campus.

As I switched gears in this rapid transition, I found myself confronting my old view points and some discriminatory view points I had never even considered. The feminist as man-hater viewpoint (one I used to believe) certainly came into focus for me as I began discussing Take Back the Night in my Evolutionary Psychology class, trying to get people to come, and one guy turns towards me with a decent amount of trepidation in his voice, "So, can I come?"

"Of course you can, men are certainly welcome to join us in Take Back the Night..."

"I mean... you guys aren't going to beat me up or? I mean... I'm not going to be yelled at?"

"You'll be fine, I promise."

That guy never showed at our march into town for Take Back the Night, however there was another guy who did show up and as he carried the sign with me, he noticed I was wearing heels and felt the need to ask (in a flirty voice), "So, I noticed you're wearing heels. Do you consider them to be a sign of oppression?"

"... No. I like wearing heels."

Exasperation, I've learned, alongside with anger, almost becomes a common state for me when discussing feminism with many people who aren't feminists. Not only because of when you endure situations like these, but also because of when you endure ones like my friend Amelia does. Like when she happened to get incredibly drunk one night and reveal to a whole bar that she was gay. An innocent enough event until the boyfriend of the friend that brought her home notices Amelia's collection of feminist books on her bookshelf and comments, "Oh of course she's a lesbian, there's no way a straight woman would have this many books on feminism on her bookshelf." Oh of course not, because who in their right mind would support feminism?

And this situation is almost matched in ridiculousness to another time she experienced very recently where she was road tripping with a friend. Because when she stayed with her friend's family in Texas one of them had commented something like, Well you're a woman, so what does your opinion matter anyway. Suitably enough, Amelia had a mental breakdown that night, internally combusted, and flew home the next morning towards safer territories.

And these are the times you have to take into consideration that it's not that there aren't young feminists, but perhaps they might just be in hiding. In discussing feminism with a professor, he mentioned, You know, there are a lot of people who are feminists and just don't realize it. I've done this exercise with classes before where I ask them: do you believe women should get equal pay? And they all agree yes. Do you think women should have the same political rights as men? And they all say yes. Do you consider yourselves feminists? And then all of a sudden, there are a lot less yesses. They get uncomfortable. Yet, they just stated that they believe women should have all the same rights as men - but they won't call themselves feminists.

Now, however, unlike this group of college students, I can safely and firmly say I'm a feminist. And I hope that people everywhere, too afraid and uncomfortable to before, will be able to say the same thing about themselves one day too.

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