Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why I'm a Feminist and Why You Should Be Too

When I was a kid, I wanted to play with "Star Wars" toys more than dolls, which was considered a disappointment.

Middle school was the first time I realized that the majority of the protagonists of books, movies, and television shows that were my "favorites" were male. They were the ones with interesting story lines, history, conversations, and adventures. Indiana Jones saved the day, the girl was the sex object.

I soon developed a thorough dislike for the James Bond films.

In high school, I was going on a summer trip. The women were told they had to wear one-piece swimsuits, no exceptions. No T-shirts over said swimsuits. No two-pieces that covered midriffs. Why? Because we were expected to be "pure" and "modest" and not tempt men with our bodies because men were "visual creatures." We were going on a trip for a specific reason, unrelated to sexuality. So, in order to expose the hypocrisy of the situation, I suggested men wear T-shirts so women wouldn't ogle men's chests either.

But, apparently, women don't have sexual thoughts. And the cultural standard only requires women to be "modest" in order to protect men. The argument I received was that it's sexual organs that divide men and women to the point that our behaviors fall in one of two categories. Men can't help being stimulated by women in swimsuits, so women would have to do their best to cover up their bodies. It doesn't matter if we had to spend $100 on a one-piece swimsuit that fits (it seems the makers of swimsuits assume women's bodies are only four sizes), or we couldn't go shopping on a whim, or that this was arbitrary. The men leaders said so.

Around the same time, I was told a pregnant teenager could not attend events because she would give the program a "bad image" but the man who impregnated her, hypothetically, could attend events because his body did not reflect the signs of pre-marital sex.

I protested. But I was ignored.

In college, I became more serious about journalism and joined the college newspaper and worked for several professional outlets. This was one of the most positive experiences of my life, but I still experienced incidents that unsettled me.

Once, when I was covering a male-dominated event, several men I interviewed spent more time directing sexual euphemisms in my direction than answering my questions, but I brushed it off. I spoke with several female sports reporters and heard their stories of being excluded — directly or indirectly — from the male-dominated press box. My authority as Editor in Chief of the university newspaper was challenged by a a tiny fraction of male employees. I once wrote a satirical article about the ridiculousness of purity rings and both men and women attacked my sexuality ... because only a sexual delinquent would dislike a symbol that makes women publicly save themselves for men, right?  I didn't really talk about these experiences to anyone because I didn't want it to seem like a big deal.

There's more, but the truth is that I had mostly positive experiences as a journalist. I was considered a good editor, not just a good female editor. Many of my male professors, friends, and fellow reporters encouraged me to become a leader and do my job to the best of my ability.

My junior year at Mississippi State, the Personhood Amendment came into play. I ended up arguing with several people I'm close to over the implications the amendment would cause. The Personhood Amendment, if it had been added to the Mississippi Constitution, would state that "life begins at conception." The consequences this amendment would have are unclear, although it would certainly outlaw abortion and could have possibly affected infertility treatments, birth control, more legal control of pregnant women. Women's healthcare was in jeopardy by this amendment, perhaps why it failed to pass. That's probably the first time I truly identified as a feminist.

I didn't want to be identified with feminism because I didn't want anyone to think I wanted a misandric society. I didn't want anyone to assume I was politically against shaving my legs to make a statement or was a whiner. I was successful at school, my job, and on a path to get into graduate school ... why did I need to make some political statement about the treatment of women?

And, somewhere along the way, I realized that I was focusing on myself and how I appeared to a culture that desperately needed to change. One of my English professors, during our critical theory class, asked why feminism was a dirty word. The answers I remember was that it was "political" and "extreme." Many women and men I know don't want to have an extreme, political agenda of any kind. That was the day I became educated about the different types of feminism. Feminism, at its most basic concept, is simply the desire for equality between men and women.

I took an Irish Women's Post-Colonial Literature course my senior year of college. I realized that feminism is tied into politics, the media, how we interact with one another, religion — pretty much all aspects of our world. After so many years of oscillating between trying to blend into my social world and realizing it needed to change, I finally woke up and decided to take a stand. Feminism wasn't over the moment women got the vote or were able to attend male-dominated schools or entered the workforce. Feminism is still needed today, in the twenty-first century.

Because girls shouldn't have to change their clothes because boys won't change their behavior. Because victims of rape shouldn't be treated as if they don't matter if their rapist is well-known or liked in the community. Because some rape sentences are more lenient than drug penalties. Because religion shouldn't be used to guilt women into being submissive to men. Because sexual harassment in the workplace should be treated seriously. Because men don't automatically have a right to women's bodies. And because there are numerous injustices, fears, and experiences women go through every day. And they won't speak about these instances because of how women are viewed, even by the people closest to them. They don't want to cause "trouble."

When I moved to Durham, I went with my father and sister to an event. I was left alone for about fifteen minutes and received unwanted attention from a male employee. This was the first time I've ever experienced such blatant sexual harassment. And, despite being in a public place with my family on a Sunday afternoon in the daylight, I was scared for the next three weeks.

This man, who was almost double my age and had a son whose age was closer to mine, repeatedly tried to look up my skirt (although, being naive, it took me longer than it should have for me to figure that out). Then he continued to chat me up after I wised up to his game. He pressured me for a number. I tried to give him my father's ... because I thought it was for business purposes. He realized what I was doing and asked for mine. I said no. He asked if I had a boyfriend. I said yes, which was a lie. He pressured me to "just hang out with him anyway." He had me cornered. He used sexual euphemisms I didn't understand (until I looked them up on Urban Dictionary later ... a mistake). He asked questions about where I lived, where I worked, where I was going to school. He revealed increasingly creepy details about his life and dating preferences. I realized, at this point, I was a small woman in a new city where almost no one knew me (and I wasn't close to anyone). He could find me, overpower me, hurt me, and no one would know ... at least until it was too late. He continued to press for my number, for my address. I continued to talk about my "boyfriend." I finally gave him a (fake) number to have him leave me alone.

At this point, my father and sister were approaching, so this man warned me not to tell anyone what he had done, or he'd lose his job. I was scared, I didn't want anyone to lose his job because of me, I didn't want him to find me if he'd lost his job because I reported him. I just wanted him to go away. I didn't say anything to my father. I didn't say anything to anyone. We left.

On the way home, I confessed to (some) of what happened. I realized then, I should have reported him. He could have been harassing other girls and doing more than trying to look up their skirts. I should have, if nothing else, stood up for myself instead being the victim of fear. He didn't find me, he probably figured out I gave him a fake number and lost interest. But I sometimes replay these events in my head because I thought I was capable of being stronger than how I acted. Several girls I knew had been groped without their permission. I told them if it ever happened again to say no, to scream if they had too. To report the incident. To refuse to let their bodies to be used as toys and objects for men's pleasure.

But when I faced this guy that day in August, I couldn't stand up for myself. I couldn't do anything but make up lies to protect myself. This story isn't even the "worst" thing that could have happened to me. But all of the experiences I've listed are a part of a bigger culture ... one that frightens me.

This man didn't treat me like I was a person whose thoughts and feelings were valid. I kept saying "no," he kept pushing to get what he wanted. I started realizing how for the majority of my life, I've been changing my behavior, whether it was wearing longer sleeves or not walking alone at night, so I could protect myself. I noticed how some of male friends didn't seem to understand how not wanting to change my last name if I get married or how not actively desiring marriage and kids are valid decisions are also part of this culture. How the South really, really reinforces gender roles. These stereotypes and expected gender roles hurt both men and women. We're expected to act a certain way, to do certain things or face being labelled as a not woman or man enough. We're dehumanized by a bad system.

Feminism doesn't mean men v. women. Feminism does not blame all men for attacking all women. Feminism doesn't mean becoming an extremist that never marries, refuses to use make up, or reads only gender theory (although never marrying, not using make up, and reading gender theory are perfectly valid choices). Being marked as a feminist shouldn't make men less of a "man" or women pariahs in their society. 

Why should we be feminists? Because if we claim to have a democratic society where everyone is equal or if we claim to be humanists where human agency is valued, then maybe our behavior should mirror those ideals. All of us should treat all genders with the same respect as we treat ourselves. We should strive for a world based on freedom and thought rather than domination and brute strength. We should consider other genders, other cultures, other religions, other nations.

This doesn't necessarily require every person to join in some political demonstration. But promoting discussion is a good place to start. Looking at how we approach topics or how we behave and why gives us understanding. We should strive to be a better humanity.

One of my happiest memories is explaining to a male classmate the waves of feminist theory. He listened, we had a discussion about the implications of what we discussed, and he later told me that although he supported feminist issues, he didn't think about them as deeply or as often until he met me and I made the case of why they were important. Discussion helped both of us see why bringing light to feminist issues matter.

Don't you want your sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, partners, friends, and co-workers to feel safe? Don't you want them to have access to the healthcare they need? Don't you want them to feel respected and loved? Don't you want them to live in a world where they are recognized for their achievements instead of their bodies? Don't you want them to feel free to dress and act without worrying every choice could lead to rape or emotional abuse? Don't you want all people, men and women, to strive for a better world, a world where they are treated fairly?

I do, at least. And that's why I'm a feminist.

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