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WOMEN’S CENTER BREAKFAST
Monday, April 7, 2014 at 8am in the Women’s Center on the campus of the
Louisville Presbyterian Seminary
Artist Ann Stewart Anderson’s painting The Three Wise Women
will be inaugurated. Ann will be present to share some reflections on her work and why she has chosen to donate the The Wise Women to the Women’s Center.
In a recent podcast, Barnard College President Debora Spar encouraged young women to pursue only what they were truly passionate about because, she claimed, trying to live life according to other people’s perfectionistic superwoman standards only leads to unhappiness. Spar encouraged young women to be realistic by stating that there were only so many hours in a week, and that it would be better for today’s young women to focus heavily either on a career or a family, in order to achieve happiness and success.
I very much appreciate Spar’s concern for the well-being of young women today, and her voice seems to echo the concerns of my own mother about the importance of setting limits for oneself so one can be happy with what one has. For her, it is often an issue of concentrated good quality of life in one area versus mediocre quality in many different areas. However, I would encourage Spar to remember that young women today need to be able to dream of and work towards a better world as well. Yes, we should be setting our own expectations for ourselves, and yes, there ARE only so many hours in a week, but there are ways that our in which our government and family structures could support women more so that achieving more in multiple self-chosen areas would be easier for women.
One of Spar’s best moments during her podcast is when she recalls her early days as a feminist when women would actually unite to fight together for a cause. Spar says that many of today’s young women are so individualistic that all they focus on is starting an NGO before they graduate college, but she states that the unfortunate fact is that NONE of these NGO’s seem to work together! It is true that in today’s world, women still struggle to maintain both a family and a career or other combined lifestyles, but we must look to the future for ways that would make achievement in all areas of life easier for modern women.
In light of this, I would like to combine Spar’s insight about banding together to fight for a cause with a bit of modern thinking about our current state of affairs, I would like to ask some questions. What would the world look like if women banded together to fight for state-funded childcare? What would it look like if more men felt more emotionally and financially free to be stay-at-home or part-time stay-at-home dads? What would it look like if all of our nation’s LGBTQ couples had access to marriage or partnership benefits that would allow them to take care of their children legally and officially share the responsibility of childcare? What if we started looking at problems from an intersectional lens? What if we started battling oppression using an intersectional lens, considering women’s race, class, gender and ability and other backgrounds all together in order to try to afford them more and better opportunities for achievement.
Spar is on to something when she mentions the ineffectiveness of strong feminist individualism. We live in a consumer culture where individualism is prized and where people are turned into products to be bought and sold based upon how much they do or do not produce. It is a trick of this system to try to get us to think that we are not all connected, and that there are not enough resources to go around. We know that there is enough to go around. This system keeps people oppressed by creating the illusion of division and then setting wildly unrealistic standards of perfection into place for women, or other oppressed people, setting them in competition with their neighbors who should be their friends and companions in the fight. So my call to you is this young women: Band together to fight for your rights, as our foremothers have been doing for years. Your strength is in your numbers when you fight together against oppression and for opportunities for women to make achieving success in multiple areas an easier and more viable option.
Dare to Use the F-Word is a new monthly podcast series created by and for young feminists. Street harassment, food activism, body image and slut-shaming are among the diverse issues discussed in the series, which is produced by Barnard College and the Barnard Center for Research on Women and aims to spotlight contemporary issues and activists. The podcast is available for download on iTunes, where you can also subscribe to the series.
In a recent episode, Barnard President Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, talks with feminist media activist Jamia Wilson about how the drive for perfection affects young women today. Following the interview, President Spar shared her thoughts on the direction of feminism for the next generation.
Read this exclusive piece below:
Since the release of Wonder Women several months ago, one of the questions that I’ve consistently been asked is “how is feminism different today? What do you hear on campus? Do young women want to be feminists, or not?” It’s a complicated question, without an easy answer. Because young women, of course, don’t speak with a single voice or share a common attitude. Some are quick to embrace the term feminist. Others despise it. And many – sadly, for the mothers and grandmothers who opened doors for them – no longer really have a sense of what the word implies.
My own view – shaped, I’m sure, by the particular environment of Barnard College, a staunch and early defender of feminism in all its many guises – is that most young women today are feminist in nature if not in name. What I mean is that they implicitly assume that the goals that feminism fought for are theirs to claim. They assume, for instance, that they will work, for pay, for at least long stretches of their lives. They assume that all jobs – be they in finance or law or public office or industry – are open to them, and that they will receive roughly the same salaries as their male co-workers. They assume that their bodies are theirs to enjoy, and treasure, and share as they wish. They presume that birth control is widely available; that relationships are theirs to make, break, and determine; and that the world is every bit as open to them as it for their brothers. In other words, they think, without even thinking about it, that they have equal rights with men. Which was, after all, the central goal of feminism.
What they don’t do, necessarily, is credit the feminist movement for this state of affairs, or eagerly claim the label of feminist for themselves. This is perhaps unfortunate but also understandable. Because how many young people generally race to thank their ancestors for bequeathing the world they did? How many adolescents want to attach themselves to the same political causes as their parents or grandparents – especially when they feel as if those causes have already been fought for and won? Or as one older woman once expressed it to me: how many hard-core feminists of the 1960s defined themselves as suffragettes?
To be sure, there are many young women today who proudly wear the label of feminism, and are expanding both advocacy and theory in fascinating ways: leading the global fight against sex trafficking, for example, speaking out against domestic violence, and pushing at the very definitions of sex and gender and identity. But there are others, too, the reluctant feminists, who carry the mantle even if not the name.
When I was growing up, we were not allowed to use the F-word in my house. However, the F-word that I am referring to is probably not the one that you are most familiar with. In my house, the F-word was feminism. Don’t get me wrong, the people in my family were all for equal rights and equal pay for women, but for some reason there was always a tense silence whenever the topic of feminism was brought up. These conversations were often followed by whispers of “You don’t want to be known as a man-hater, honey.” I am writing this blog partly in response to an article by a young feminist from my alma mater the University of Kansas who recently wrote about the importance of restoring feminism’s image in the public eye.
As the Student Coordinator of the LPTS Women’s Center and a long-time feminist activist, I work with women all of the time who are uncomfortable using the word feminism. However, almost everyone embraces “women’s issues” or “women’s advocacy”. Just as Sharon Daloz Parks, author of Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, believes that everyone is spiritual because everyone “makes meaning” out of the world, I believe that the vast majority of women are feminists, but just don’t know it. Whenever I ask a group of women, “Is domestic violence ever okay?”, I am always met with a resounding “No!”. However, many of these women still scoff when they hear the word feminism. Personally, I only use the word feminism with a trusted group of people who self-identify that way. Rarely, I will use it if I know that a woman is at the point of raising her consciousness and being open to learning the history and what the word feminism really means.
I don’t think we need to take back “feminism” or re-image it. I think the young women who take this perspective are new to feminism and worried about gaining approval from other people. One of the best things feminism has taught me is that it is okay to be who I am, even if other people disagree, and especially in the face of injustice. However, I am totally okay with using other words for “feminism” if it helps us to reach our ends, which are more important than the means. The best example of this comes from the women in my family.
As I stated earlier, I grew up hearing all kinds of negative stereotypes about “feminists” from female relatives. However, these stereotypes had nothing to do with the real work of feminism, which is about justice. My relatives were never railing against equal rights for women. My mother is very proud of the work that I do, and she has chosen to describe me to the rest of our family as a “woman’s advocate”. For some reason, this is language that they can understand and relate to. Some of my favorite moments in the world happen during the holidays when the women separate from the men and go off by themselves to talk.
During these private moments, my mother will usually tell some kind of story about how I am challenging the system, whether in a personal relationship or in the professional work that I do. A look of surprise mixed with hope and yearning often comes over the faces of my female relatives. I am cheered on all the time behind doors for doing and saying the things that other women are afraid to say or do and for championing their causes. I am the hero who lives behind closed doors. And, every once in a while, a woman will come back to me and share a story about how she stood up for herself and what a liberating experience it was. Women are creating new relationships with their husbands, fathers, in the workplace and with each other. This is why I do the work that I do, and it matters less to me the words that are used than if people feel a new sense of liberation or justice in their own lives.
Slowly but surely, the closed doors to these private women’s spaces are opening this holiday season, and with much courage trepidation, a woman is about to put her foot outside of this door and take her first step toward her own liberation. Maybe this woman is you. Remember, as activist Marianne Williamson once said, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Know that all of your sisters will be waiting for you to support and encourage you when you return. So take a deep breath, and step away from the Christmas cookies.