In between Women’s History Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the women of the Voice gathered to discuss feminist issues on campus with the intention of writing a letter to the Georgetown community. Over the course of that discussion, we talked about a broad range of topics, from sexual assault to underrepresentation of female faculty members. We considered the question: What should feminism be at Georgetown, according to the women of the Voice? It’s impossible to address every feminist issue at once, so we chose to focus on the behaviors and cultural trends that often go ignored in our daily interactions. We decided to write two different letters: one to campus women and another to so-called “manbassadors,” well-meaning and sympathetic but sometimes clueless men. Our overarching conclusion was that feminism is an active endeavor, and in order to create cultural change on campus, everyone must take part.
Dear campus women,
When the women of the Voice gathered and shared stories of our experiences with sexism and exclusion, we achieved a greater understanding of the issues facing women on this campus. We acknowledged the essential nature of accountability, intersectionality, and introspection. Of course, as a group of 14 women, we don’t have all the answers. But we did come to certain realizations about some personal steps we can all take to make life better for everyone at Georgetown, particularly the community of women that make up the majority of students on this campus.
We must hold ourselves accountable to ensure cultural change. This means being open to the possibility that, whether we consider ourselves feminists or not, there will be times when we will falter. We may make a well-intentioned but inappropriate comment; we may use non-inclusive language by assuming someone’s gender pronouns; we may actively cause another person discomfort with our actions. The important thing is to interrogate our own actions and actively listen to others when they relay their discomfort or offense to us. If we get defensive and refuse to acknowledge the validity of their perceptions, then any possible progress halts.
Additionally, we must respect women in all different contexts, making intersectionality a priority. This is primarily important because feminism has historically been a white women’s movement, exclusive of the narratives and struggles of other women. However, with time we have realized that none of us can truly claim liberation or progress while leaving members of our community behind, solely on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Womanhood includes a wide range of experiences and identities, which influences our perspectives on feminist issues and the way society perceives us. We can’t develop a comprehensive picture of what the world really looks like while disregarding and dismissing the narratives of other women. If we do that, then we can’t fight for any kind of meaningful liberation. We must remember that our personal brand of feminism, while it may be essential to our identity, is not the only valid form.
When a friend shares an experience of sexist discrimination, listen to them, believe them, and provide them with the support necessary to promote a sense of safety in speaking up. Otherwise, we only contribute to the cycles of oppression that keep women silent. If we actively listen to all the members of our community, our conceptions of feminism should evolve to accommodate more diverse perspectives.
Another important step in promoting feminism on this campus is to reexamine the relative value placed upon femininity and masculinity. This is particularly important in our current academic environment, in which students make decisions every day that will influence their career paths and by extension the rest of their lives.
What obstacles do women expect to face when entering the business school? Feelings of isolation pervade when we realize how few women actually surround us in classes. We contemplate whether to act like “one of the guys” to gain respect while working on group projects or to play up our more feminine qualities to seem less threatening.
How often do men talk over us in government discussion sections? Even so, we must continue to raise our hands.
While we encourage women to pursue male-dominated professions, do we do the same in reverse? How do we, as a campus and as a society, judge male nursing students? Often, we shame them for pursuing more traditionally “feminine” careers.
As long as we perpetuate the system of masculinity as power, we perpetuate our own oppression.
To progress as a society, we must redefine our definition of success and consider how we can achieve such success as women. There is no reason why we should abandon femininity; rather, we must embrace femininity as powerful in itself.
The conclusion we reached from our discussion was the importance of women supporting women. Gathering as a group, a small subset of a larger campus community, was affirming and reassuring. To make this campus the most inclusive and equal environment for all, we must build women up rather than tearing them down. Applaud women’s accomplishments, and be there to catch each other when we stumble. We can only move forward together.
Dear male allies,
Participating in feminism as a social movement can take many forms. Voting for feminist female candidates, marching against discrimination, and encouraging comprehensive sexual harassment policies are all steps we can take against male hegemony. But sometimes the place we have the most impact is on the home front, examining the behavior of our friends, our relatives, and ourselves. Feminism is not only about politics, but about the way we conduct ourselves interpersonally, about who gets respect and what kind.
In that vein, we would like to encourage you, the allies of women, the self-styled “manbassadors,” to consider and examine how you interact with, support, and dismantle norms of respect. If you’d like to be a better ally, we implore you to ask yourself a few questions:
How do you interact with the women in your life? Probably with respect, gratitude, and understanding. But how about with the women who are not in your life, the women you are less likely to meet at Georgetown? They are the women who are staying home with children, who are serving fast food, who don’t speak your language. They are not disposable parts of this movement. Consider them as you move about your world. How do you speak to them? What do you think or say about their choices? If you are searching for feminist heroes, do not only look at those who have achieved despite great obstacles, but at those whose obstacles prevented them from traditional achievement.
How do you interact with the women you don’t respect, the women you hate, loathe, think are incompetent at their jobs? What role does their gender play in these interactions? As women move up in politics and management, they are subject to greater criticism and scorn, often with a misogynistic bent. This is not to say that the women you dislike are not incompetent or bad, but that our conceptions of competence and leadership are difficult to extricate from tangled-up notions of masculine and feminine. Imagine your enemies were of a different gender. Would that change, ever so slightly, how you saw them?
How do your friends interact with women? Are they rude? Discriminatory? What have you done about it? Do they only respect women they find attractive? What have you said to them? This is one of the avenues in which you have the most power as men, changing the dialogue and challenging the discourse in the spaces that women cannot enter, within male friendships.
How do you react when someone says you have said something sexist, or treated them differently because of their gender? Are you defensive? Or do you listen? Being defensive is human nature. But to move forward we must all truly be open to criticism and view it as a path to self-betterment.
Do you seek out feminist dialogue? Do you listen? Do you expect applause when you positively contribute? We implore you to be ready for dialogue, with women and with other men. Start conversations with your friends, your fathers, your brothers, your colleagues, your little sisters. Don’t be upset if you do not get recognized for your contributions. Applause is not the point. Consider your reward instead the opportunity to live in a more just world.
Finally, do you seek out and consume women’s cultural output? That is, their writing, artwork, music, films? Sometimes you might have to work harder to find it. Sometimes it might take a different form. When women were not allowed to paint, they quilted, sewed, and embroidered. When they were not encouraged to play guitar, some played piano. Sometimes the output won’t be what you like. But often the standards that we compare work against were created by European men. You must open your eyes to new styles and new beauty. We also implore you to support women’s contemporary output, while recognizing the obstacles still ahead. When all the women in the Met are the naked bodies on the canvases and not the names on the walls, what does that say about our traditions of art? Walking down that hallway of nudes, what effect might that have on a burgeoning female artist?
If you don’t know how to answer these questions, or you do not know if you can take on all of this, don’t panic. The answer is not to abandon any claims of allyship to absolve yourself of these demands, but to take things piece by piece, day by day, and to ask questions. On the passing of Women’s History Month, we acknowledge that allies to women have done incredible things. So much still rests upon you.