the debate continues…

In December, Virginia A. Fisher wrote an opinion piece entitled “Fie, Feminism,” which criticized the existence of women’s groups. As someone who is deeply concerned with women’s issues and how women exist on campus, I was troubled by what Fisher wrote. While I see her point–from her experience, women are sufficently integrated into society that making ourselves into a victimized “special-interest” group may be counterproductive–she ignores the fact that we operate in a male-dominated society. Yes, there are male gender roles too, and they may be strictly defined, but they also often encompass the positions of greatest power. And a chemist who is a woman is not just a scientist but a woman in science in no way undermines her achievements, but highlights them with the greater distinction of being at the forefront of change. Women’s groups are important because they draw attention to and underscore what may be wrong in the things we are used to. What society is used to seeing is ties in the boardroom, skirts behind phones, and while we may enjoy a different atmosphere of extra-PC-ness and general equality here in the Harvard bubble, the “real world” is very different. (more in extended post)

On Thursday, I was gratified to see a response to Fisher’s article from Margaret H. Martin, ’94, someone whose views are free of the veil of post-adolescence idealism that we here are subject to:

I hope Fisher keeps a copy of this article to read 10 years from now, when she may be struggling with the ongoing problems of balancing caregiving responsibilities with workplace responsibilities. If women’s special interest lobbying will result in real changes that make workplaces more tolerant of caregiving (either caring for children or for aging parents) and caregivers, then I am all for it. And so are my husband and my two kids. And so will be the many people who don’t want to make a heart-wrenching either-or choice between work that they love and families that they love.

Being a woman can be a very defining aspect in one’s identity. While it should not define us as people, it is naive to pretend that it doesn’t affect the way we exist in society. Women’s groups may single that point out, and sometimes things may go a little farther than necessary, but everyone will continue to ignore the pink elephant problem until somebody points it out. Or makes a group about it.

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9 responses to “the debate continues…

  1. Yeah, undervaluing caregiving (and failing to encourage everyone who wants to, not just women, to be caregivers) is definitely a persistent barrier to gender equality.

    I was also disappointed by Fisher’s article because it falls right into a common trap: associating feminism solely with (de facto) white, upper-class women’s career interests in the United States. Whatever your opinion about feminism, it’s important to recognize its many, many facets (including praxis addressing race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, nationality, and epistemology, to name a few). Of course, feminism itself is not an uncontested category: different people want to use different forms of it to achieve different aims, and what or does not count as feminism is not always clear. But I don’t think it’s valuable to bash ‘feminism’ as a whole by one very narrow segment of its ongoing/historical struggles.

  2. But the impact of having so many women’s organizations is that there are a ton fewer women in the gender neutral groups on campus which perpetuates the problem of too few women in leadership roles. If you look at any of the IRC stuff, the dems, the hrc, the iop, all of them and I am sure many more are dominated by men, despite their sincere efforts to the contrary. Because women self select into extra curriculars, a lot of them miss out on other things.

    The same is true of ethnic groups. I understand their benefits, but they result in other groups being mostly white.

  3. I think anonymous makes an important point, but I feel obligated to point out that the Dems board is 50% female, and that 2 of our presidents in the last 4 years have been female.

    As for the others, the IOP top student leadership is fairly male dominated this year, but in most years there’s a female VP (this may be its own problem: mandatory ticket systems often seem to lead to male presidential candidates and female VP candidates, as may also have been the case in the UC elections this year). The HRC board generally seems to be pretty male dominated.

    Finally, I don’t know much about IRC, but a good friend of mine who does quite a bit of work with women’s issues on this campus was the Editor-in-Chief of the International Review and VP of IRC, suggesting that it’s not entirely impossible to be involved in women’s organizations and also be a leader of other major organizations.

    This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t problems worth talking about in all of this, but sometimes in these debates we run the risk of minimizing the important role that women do play in leadership on this campus. Considering that role along with the problems, I think, can help point the way towards continued progress.

  4. I will first admit that I have some personal biases here.

    Nonetheless:

    I agree with Deborah that working class women and poor women need enhanced civil liberties more than white-collar women.

    Therfore, why should the focus for women’s groups on campus be on a student center? If women at Harvard are doing ok, can’t attention be focused on
    other members of society, if that is possible? Greg rightfully points out women in leadership positions, and let the two recent Crimson pres’ stand as an example.

    What troubles me at Harvard is not women without opportunities but women who choose not to enter a career after college. See a recent NYTIMES article on Yale as well as multiple columnists in the Crimson who regularly write about finding the “perfect man.”

    One critique of ideas like a women’s center is they exclude women instead of
    bringing women into the larger world. Self selecting groups- racially or gender-wise- is mistaken, I think, especially taken in the context of second as opposed to third wave feminism.

  5. I don’t think that having goals such as “finding the perfect man” should be frowned upon entirely. If this quest for partnership comes at the expense of having a career, that is a different story. However, I think there is too much stress placed on women raising a family and I find it sad that we as a society have not gotten past thinking it’s solely a woman’s responsibility to look after the household/raise the kids. Men should have a greater stake in the household than being the “breadwinner” alone-it should not be assumed that if a woman marries that she will be the one to stop working once children come into the picture. Again, the idea I’m trying to get at is that women have options and should not feel compelled to automatically choose motherhood as their only or second full time occupation, but if they do choose that, they deserve the utmost respect.

  6. Virginia Fisher

    I would first like to say that, in the course of writing and editing that Crimson comment, I neglected to title it, and I was dismayed to see its title in the paper. The actual piece was in no way “bashing ‘feminism’ as a whole”. I have huge respect for both the ideals and accomplishments of feminism, and meant no offense to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, my mother, Deborah Ho, or anyone else who choses to label herself (or himself) as a feminist.

    Their acheivements have made it possible for women today — especially if they happen to be as lucky as us and live in an environment like Harvard — to define their own identities. In this context, rather than “drawing attention to and underscoring what may be wrong in the things we are used to”, women’s groups have become part of the status quo, a political faction that must be taken into account. The National Organiation for Women has become essentially a liberal PAC, with opposing Judge Alito and the Iraq war at the top of its agenda. These issues do have relevance for women, but their adoption alienates women with different political views from the feminist movement.

    In this form, feminism is of little help to women trying to define their individual identities in relation to sex, race, money, intellect, politics and the myriad other messages that try to tell everyone, male and female, who to be. Feminism gave women the choice to be individuals, but too many women choose instead to accept an identity that has been pre-made for them. Forcing someone to discover and exercise their own free will is a formidible task, but one for which contemporary feminist organizations are totally unfit.

    I agree that there is still much for feminism to do, from defending victims of domestic abuse to encouraging businesses to make it easier for their employees to take paternity leave so fathers can take equal responsibility for their children. But in the end, if feminism succeeds in destroying the cultural differences between men and women, it must destroy itself, as the politicization of femaleness is ultimately a barrier to women’s freedom.

  7. First, I’m interested in what women’s groups on campus people are referring to when they say women are self-segregating themselves at the expense of their participation in other groups on campus. I don’t see a particularly large all women’s group on campus that draws a lot of women from other groups or that a majority of women would say speaks for them in any way, shape, or form.

    This is not to say that such a group or more issue-specific groups shouldn’t exist. In addition to the startling misrepresentation of “women’s issues” as somehow narrowly defined as “equal work equal pay” that Fisher’s article presents, her take on identity politics ignores the real history of entrenched inequalities and gendered roles that impact us today. Take her example of “women in science” whose reasoning she extends to draw attention to the “disproportionately few men in English.” That is ridiculous. And guess what? Fewer men also stay at home to raise kids. Cry me a river. We don’t place the same importance on raising children or studying great works of literature as we do making a lot of money banking or studying biotechnology. The value our society and our market places on disciplines and behaviors, bracketing your own opinion of their apparent worth, should be enough to distinguish the two examples. I can’t believe I actually used up space typing a response to that, but you can’t draw superficial analogies to these without asking yourself what attributes and what outcomes we value and scrutinizing them to some degree.

    I think this also responds to her response (I’m sorry if the above was a response to a misrepresentation of your article, but I think it’s helpful). “Feminism” does not necessarily have to “destroy all cultural differences between men and women” but instead understand why we privilege tasks, attributes, behaviors, etc that we currently ascribe to “male” or “masculine.” The argument that feminism is somehow the liberal gatekeeper that prevents women from defining their identities in regard to other beliefs and intersections is problematic. You can make the same argument for any political identity someone chooses to orient themselves in regard to. Descriptive identities are by no way the only means around which people can organize, but those that choose to do so shouldn’t be blamed for their choice. This is how they understand themselves, and this is how they arrive at their own “free will” that feminism somehow makes it impossible to attain. I guess this gets back to Katie’s original response that feminism means many things to different people, but for some women feminism means understanding their position relative to others in terms of intellectual ability, to others it is an economic understanding, to others it is the position of women in a specific religion, etc etc.

    Different people choose to mobilize around different causes for different reasons. Feminism offers them one approach to get involved. NOW is one feminist organization. Additionally, their top priorities right now (as listed in their newsletter, yes I’m a card carrying member) are: Stop Alito, Reproductive Rights, Education, Emergency Contraception Stopping Violence, Marriage Equality, Pay Equity, Jobs, Health Care, and Affordable housing. And if they want to argue against the Iraq War, they should feel more than welcome to. Looking at something from a gendered lens and arguing from another perspective is valuable and this is what these groups do.

    I would agree with you that there is a certain amount of vanguardism and self censorship in any political movement, identity based or not, but feminism is by no means uniquely manifesting this phenomenon. If someone went to NOW as an 18 year old and said “I want to get married and have 10 children and don’t want to go to college” would there be a reaction? Sure, but movements don’t have to be value neutral if they also want to support choice and free will.

    Also, Noah, you’re awesome, but just because there is a relatively p.c. atmosphere at Harvard doesn’t mean we should sit back and congratulate ourselves on what a women-friendly environment we have. I think there’s been a reasonable list generated in the discussion above of “other women’s issues,” and I think there are additional issues as well (reproductive rights, public health drug testing procedures, intimate violence) which more than “justify” a women’s group. I do think it’s important to devote time/energy/resources to causes beyond our community here, but we shouldn’t dismiss things like the number of women who are admitted to graduate programs, the expectations for women seeking tenure, administrative board proceedings for perpetrators of sexual assault, and other aspects of Harvard that leave much to be desired.

    And as for that NYTimes study on Yale, check out slate.com; the research it was based on was problematic and the women that she surveyed took issue with the way their responses were misconstrued. Also, an article saying the exact same thing ran in the Times 25 years earlier. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s just that we haven’t changed as many people’s expectations as we think we have.

    Which brings me to my last “point,” which is the only thing I actually wanted to say, but I get distracted easily. I don’t think that being involved in “women’s groups” always comes at the expense of involvement in other groups (people who are involved in groups like SWSG, OSAPR, TBTN, CASV are involved in other groups like the Dems, HIB, UC). I don’t think there is a huge women’s group that is an unbelievable draw for women who would otherwise be involved in IOP, HRC, UC, IRC, Dems, etc etc.
    I think there are a lot of women on this campus who are in leadership positions not directly tied to “women’s issues” on campus (Crimson, Dems, IRC, UC). But this doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory here at the Big H. I think women in leadership positions or those considering leadership positions are faced with unique issues and concerns. I don’t want to speak in generalizations because I know this is a touchy subject for some people, so I will just give a couple specific examples:

    1. Making boo-boos. I’m not going to go into some huge theoretical explanation for why this is, but on multiple occasions in groups I’ve been in, when honest mistakes have been made by females in leadership positions, people reacted by questioning the capabilities of females as leaders (too emotional, too invested, too irrational). But when equal or worse mistakes were made by male leaders, it is the fault of the person, not the entire male gender which accounts for their incapability to show up, reserve a room, process receipts, or make detailed travel arrangements.

    2. Fights. Again, two separate examples. Example one, two group members get in a fight. One, a guy, shouts and pounds his first. The other, a girl, cries. The reaction? “Why are girls so emotional?” and praise for the “assertive” argument. Example number two. Again, two group members get in a fight (yes, same group). One a guy, shouts and storms out of the room. The other, a girl, shouts and stomps her foot. The reaction? To guy #1: “wow, he really stood up for himself.” To Girl: “Gosh, what a bitch.” I’m not going to attempt to rationalize this, but it seems to me this is kind of a lose-lose situation if you plan on having an opinion and being female.

    3. Relationships. Three separate examples. One, boyfriend/girlfriend have successive terms as leaders of an organization. Group reaction: “she slept her way to the top.” Example number two: ex-boyfriend leads an organization, ex-girlfriend in assistant position. Group reaction: she can’t judge his decisions because she’s “too emotional about relationship” Example number three: boyfriend/girlfriend co-lead organization. Group reaction: she can get him to do whatever she wants to with sex.

    This is excessively long, but there are real challenges in the group dynamics that people face when they chose to become leaders that we shouldn’t dismiss. That, and we shouldn’t flippantly dismiss the entirety of the women’s movement as some identity politics gone wild.

  8. Greg, I don’t think all women should be made to measure up to the standards of your “good friend”

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