Smith Speaks: The Fears and Foibles of Feminism
Published: Thursday, September 18, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
Smith is often perceived in national media as an oasis of understanding, with the entire campus in consensus as to the true essence and importance of feminism. But do stereotypes and preconceived notions of the term pave powerful inroads into even the Smith community? How personal of a definition does feminism deserve, and is it as pervasive a force on campus as is often acclaimed or accused? As it turns out, opinions on campus vary greatly from student to student, even within the portion of students who consider themselves to be feminists or who major in the study of women and gender. "Being a woman isn't the main aspect of my identity. I don't think it matters. I don't think feminism should be the huge deal that it is. I think it's hyped up. I don't think it's necessary," says Alyson Gile '12. "I don't think I've gotten out of my head the idea that feminism is connected with being a lesbian, hating men. At Smith it's not usually like that, but I still don't want to associate myself with it."
Gile is one new Smith student whose perspectives on feminism differ from those stereotypically assigned to Smith students. In fact, regarding many topics, Gile feels a certain pressure to overhaul her total belief system. "I want to say that I'm a feminist," she says. "It's almost like you don't fit in if you're not a lesbian or a feminist [at Smith]. In four years, I still think I'm going to be straight, and I still think I'm not going to be a feminist. I don't think I'll be more proud of being a woman."
For Gile, feminism still connotes a certain aesthetic, image or sexual preference. Ashley Farnan '10, a study of women and gender major, remembers learning that this powerful strategy of associating feminism with an unpleasant, unflattering image, countenance or appearance is often known as "dyke baiting."
"Part of the problem why people resist being called a feminist is because they think they have to fit all of these scary stereotypes or categories, when it is a personal thing," Farnan notes. Despite her great affinity for the principles of feminism, she admits that passing this passion on to others is extremely challenging due to the pervasiveness of the term's negative connotations. "Two of my sisters are going through this phase where they want to get breast implants. It's really hard for us to connect because I have a really hard time not getting angry, and not getting on my feminist high horse."
For Caroline Sutcliffe '10, feminism represents a more positive and global mission, though it has yet to reach a fully clear definition in her mind. A transfer student from Point Loma, a small Christian college in Southern California, as well as a study abroad student in both Egypt and London, Sutcliffe's surroundings as they've pertained to women have certainly been wide-ranging.
"I've done the religious conservative school, where a lot of girls are just there for the 'Mrs. Degree.' I've done the Middle Eastern school, where the women really would not speak up in class; they were silent. They'd come in late for class; they really weren't there for the education at all. There's so much more weight put on marrying the right man and being set in your family," she recalls. "And then at the London School of Economics, there are about 15 women for every 100 men. And then here, it's a huge flood. These girls are running and I'm just trying to run with them. It's overwhelming at times, but I love it."
When asked whether a certain aesthetic applied to her definition of the term, Sutcliffe maintained that few negative connotations existed in her own mind, though she had experienced myriad situations in which others had shunned it. "Upon first coming to Smith," she says, "I was very intimidated. Observing different ways to look at gender, seeing women who wear manly things is something I'm not used to. But it's more about being comfortable with yourself and your identity, and [believing that] a man can't tell you what to wear."
Michelle Mathis '10 doesn't fall easily into any one stereotype, though she notices that feminists, even on campus, often feel forced to do just that. Feminism conjures images of women's rights in all aspects of society - "within our household, within the community, within the country period." She argues that equality still hasn't been reached, and that anyone who believes in that cause should consider him or herself a feminist. "I don't think of a feminist as dressing a certain way, being a certain way or having a certain set of friends or beliefs."
Farnan notices that especially within the study of women and gender major, there are, however, certain unwritten social codes by which many feel pressure to abide. "Just because of the notion that we should all have short hair and wear flannel and not give a shit about wearing mascara, people feel intimidated. I have people tell me all the time that I don't seem the type to be a study of women and gender major or a feminist. Sometimes I feel hesitant to let the word 'boyfriend' cross my lips. Sometimes being straight feels like an insult."
While lauding Smith for the way in which it values its vast cache of feminist alums and emphasizes the importance of the movement, Mathis also finds that often a gender, sexual preference or style sets the "true definition out of whack." Despite Smith's vast diversity, she feels that "we're still really homogeneous in a certain sense of the word. People ask questions - 'Oh, you're a feminist? Well how come you're not taking classes on the study of women and gender? Don't shave your legs. We only do that for men anyway.' They kind of take away from the meaning of feminism itself."
Mathis especially notices the presence of negative sentiments toward females who "go out and want to have a fun time with a guy" in their spare time. "I think that going out to parties with men or even having sexual relations for just a night or two doesn't necessarily make you the submissive one, the slut, the whore, any of those things. I think that [here on campus], it's automatically looked at badly, though."