the crimson’s solution to sexism? girls just wanna have fun

In a staff ed titled “True Equality,” the Crimson pans the idea of a women’s center, emphasizing instead a need for more co-ed social space. Setting aside the fact that the women’s center plans include a café, that the center would be open to everyone, and that the staff ed’s subtitle, “Women don’t need a center, they need to be treated like other co-ed groups,” implies that women are a co-ed group (huh?), the editorial’s major flaw is that it misidentifies the primary battleground in the fight for gender equity. “Harvard’s women would be better served by democratizing a social scene dominated by all-male institutions than by meeting rooms,” the Crimson staff insists. Failing to account for the many permutations of sexism that Harvard women encounter during both daylight and nighttime hours, the Crimson’s stock answer to problems of gender inequality seems to be, “Throw more parties where everyone’s invited.”

Did I miss something? Since when did the typical college party scene become the ideal site for combating patriarchy? The Crimson’s logic resonates eerily with certain free-trade arguments we’re accustomed to hearing: we just need to level the playing field. Then, all the deserving groups, stifled and constrained up to this point by artificial barriers, will rise to their proper place of equality in healthy, meritocratic competition. Do we really think it’s that simple? (more in expanded post)

Integrating social spaces may be an important element in promoting gender equality, but it certainly isn’t a silver bullet. Just as the Civil Rights Movement and official desegregation did not end racism but in some ways only further obscured it (making it more difficult to talk about systemic racism without seeming paranoid or hysterical), “democratizing social space” on an institutional level can actually be a dangerous move if it’s not accompanied by a healthy dose of awareness of the subtle, nuanced forms of sexism pervading society. Of all the spheres that undergrad Harvard women navigate, the social scene will continue to be one of the most difficult as long as individual people continue to carry deeply rooted sexist ideas. Dialogue, education campaign materials, political will, and–yes–meeting space will go much further than vodka, beer and house music in helping concerned Harvard students to attack sexism in Harvard culture.

Even within the narrow parameters of Harvard’s social scene, the Crimson is off base in its assessments. We need only look at the institutions it touts—the Seneca, the Bee, the Isis, and sororities—to see that these groups’ influence does not, in fact, move us closer to a time “when women do not have to stand outside a final club mansion in a short skirt and heels, hoping to be judged ‘hot’ enough to have a social life.” If anything, it’s just that women are the ones judging each other as pledges or punches–a kind of screening process. The Crimson staff argues that women’s social clubs are primarily “hamstrung by a lack of space and resources.” But why should we believe that, if women’s social clubs are granted these things, the objectification and judging process will not simply take place indoors? Is the Bee, with its new home, really making great strides in the struggle against sexual objectification?

The Crimson also asserts that groups like the Bee are “successful women’s communities,” and thus both need and deserve the College’s support. But they never elucidate their criteria for success. Let’s be real: we’re not talking about gaining access to “a room of one’s own” here. We’re talking about throwing parties. And even in this capacity, the College shouldn’t actively support the groups absent evidence that the social climate they specialize in creating will actually benefit the entire undergraduate population, not just a select final-club-friendly crowd.

While sexism in social life is a major problem, women-led student organizations like ABHW, SAWC, Women in Business, Girlspot, Fuerza, AAWA, Strong Women Strong Girls, RUS, the Women’s Leadership Network, and others are in a better position than sororities and female final clubs to address it within the wide range of manifestations of gender inequality at Harvard. A women’s center would aid them in these efforts by providing, as RUS’s proposal states, “a centralized home for all groups concerned with women’s issues,” and serving as “a non-discriminatory destination for students of all genders who are committed to the advancement and well-being of women at this university.” Hey, sounds like my kind of party.


7 responses to “the crimson’s solution to sexism? girls just wanna have fun

  1. I would be interested in seeing a post in which you describe exactly what role the Women’s Center will take. Personally, I am against the construction of a women’s center because I feel it is useless and within three or four years will be empty/unimportant.

    My reason is simple: A women’s center doesn’t seem to provide anything. To say “This building is where all the groups concerned with women’s issues are housed” basically says “All women’s groups go here. Everyone else goes elsewhere.” What if a women’s group wants an office not in the women’s center? Suddenly you legitimize the answer “No, you need to be in teh women’s center. That’s what it’s for.” And that does nothing to help equalize gender distribution in the school. Creating a women’s center is like putting all teh women back in teh Quad and all the men down by the river so that “Women can be centralized and deal with their issues together.” Wtf?

    As for making a non-discriminatory destination… Having an office in the Holworthy basement or Hilles is pretty nondiscriminatory to me. And what if you’re not talking about an office? What about a meeting space? Do people just come together randomly to discuss advancing women in a common space that is called a women’s center? Why can’t they come together, say, in Loker Commons, which is in no way gendered? Instead you will spend thousands of dollars to build a building for this, when that money can easily go into other things like ACTUALLY fighting gender discrimination (paying for women’s scholarships, tenuring more female professors, etc.).

    Convince me that the women’s center is useful and I’ll support it. Otherwise to me it seems like a huge waste of cash.

  2. Honestly, if all they want to do is block off like one of the Loker carrels to be a little room with pink wallpaper and inspirational quotes from inspiring women on the walls, you know, just for chicks to go chill in, I think it would be incredibly popular and they should just do it.

    Then Crimson Key will be able to shift focus from the guardroom at Johnston Gate, put Loker on the tour map and be able to say “now THIS is the most expensive room in all of Harvard.”

    If they put a bubbletea machine in there, a condom dispenser and some marijuana, it would be a great hangout spot. Women’s center, rah rah rah

  3. Anonymous two, I certainly hope that was your attempt at humor, because that was one of the most impressive feats of simultaneous generalization and condescension I’ve read in quite some time. Bravo. (Or brava, if you are, in fact, a chick.)

  4. Hi anonymous 1,

    Just to clarify, my post was about how a women’s center would do *more* to help people fight sexism at Harvard than would some sort of party-focused final club collaboration scheme. I’m not making a specific argument that a women’s center is the best possible option.

    That said, however, I do think a women’s center could be helpful. First of all, its very creation speaks to the importance of recognizing that gender inequality still exists, that the college wants to take steps to empower students to struggle against it, and that the college itself is committed to participating in women’s advancement. Of course, these ideas are loftier than what plays out in reality, but symbolic support can be important as long as it’s backed up by actual work.

    You say that singling women out actually contributes to their oppression, but as we can see by virtue of their existence at most other schools, the creation of a women’s center is really very different than the idea of returning to separate housing. I don’t think women and gender equality supporters should spend all their time in the center, cloistering themselves away from the world. But I do think there are benefits to having certain spaces in which to consciously cultivate specific environments, like an environment of celebrating women’s achievements, promoting awareness about gender equality advocacy, and simply having a physical space where passionate people interested in gender issues congregate and have more opportunity to interact with each other across lines of group membership. This kind of an environment is only one among many on campus–it’s not going to magically fix gender problems, and most of its success will be determined by the energy that participants bring to it. But I do think it’s something our campus is lacking right now, so I support the idea of trying to achieve it.

    We need to recognize problems in order to fix them. There’s a reason that the task force created last year to promote diversity among faculty is called the “Women and Minorities Task Force,” and not the “Diversity and Equality Task Force.” In my view, a women’s center should be explicitly women-focused, but not women-limited. And I don’t think any women-related organization that decides that the women’s center is not appropriate for their purposes should be penalized or stigmatized for choosing to go elsewhere. Hopefully, the women’s center staffers will work to cultivate an environment that’s welcoming to all groups interested in issues of gender, including conservative groups that have expressed reservation about the concept of a women’s center. I hope the facility will be as open and welcoming to them as it is to the more liberal groups.

    Finally, I’m a little confused about your objection to spending thousands of dollars to build a building for the center. The Crimson article says the center’s going to be in Thayer Hall’s basement–no need to build a new structure. I think this is more an issue of reprioritizing and shifting resources around than pumping a bunch of money into an extravagent new project. That’s my impression, anyway.

    I probably haven’t convinced you, but I’d love to keep conversing. What are your thoughts?

  5. hmm… are we strategically avoiding the “F” word in this discussion? i think it’s important to represent the importance of feminism straight-up if the importance of a women’s center is going to be discussed.

    anonymous 1,

    i understand your position. many of my friends have in the past made the same arguments. i will offer the same arguments to you that i made to them.

    the foundation of your perspective assumes a current level of equality and social understanding that simply does not exist (i assure you that anonymous 2 has little trouble finding friends of a common mindset). i think the ultimate goal of almost all progressive women’s groups is to see a day when they are no longer necessary. of course, there is some economic/political opportunism, particularly among the liberal feminist ranks, but they are hardly representative of femisist movement as a whole.

    as a whole i think movement is more about questioning assumptions and shattering illusions, and feminism’s emphasis is on patriachy and heterosexist hegemony because those who self-identify as feminists have been most subject to these particular social mechanisms. there’s good reason to believe that we all have. that we often fail to see the walls of our own confinement until someone else points them out is reason enough to support the creation of a center that could potentially shake things up a little bit.

    Harriet Tubman said, she could have saved more people, if they only knew they were slaves.

    –Mos Def

    i found a place as a male in feminist movement because it was immediately obvious to me that the implications of feminist thought where in no way limited to “women’s concerns.” feminism was essential to my being able to recognize my own blindness; and not just as a male with all of the masculine priviledges that go along with that, but also as an autonomous individual. feminist authors (including male feminists like john stoltenberg and allan johnson) challenged me to examine my own motivations in such a personal way that i became able to see my choices and actions in a greater context which ran much deeper than my surface-level benign intentions. it was the most unsettling, uncomfortable, and liberating experience of my life. i only wish that more men would muster the courage to self-examine on the level that feminist consciousness requires.

    that having been said (my apologies if that was an over-share), i think the fear of some categorical isolation doesn’t even begin to outweigh the importance of having a space like a women’s center and the amazing projects and programs that would undoubtedly grow from it. i believe emphatically that it is still important for young women to have a place where they can draw strength and identity through knowledge and community with others who share common concerns and a common legacy. it’s important for everyone to learn that feminism is in no way a seperatist movement, but rather is a movement based on consciousness and the exploration of ways and means of self-determination. in light of what a women’s center would make possible and indeed likely on the campus, concerns over separation would dissolve under the center’s own effectiveness. in my opinion.

    i hope this comment doesn’t come across as an attack in any way, as that is not my intention. my hope is merely to offer an additional perspective for consideration and hopefully deepen the discussion some, provided that others are willing to engage. i, too, very much like katie’s approach to fostering dialogue in a non-adversarial manner, and i hope that my comments are received in that same spirit.

  6. “Anonymous two, I certainly hope that was your attempt at humor, because that was one of the most impressive feats of simultaneous generalization and condescension I’ve read in quite some time. Bravo. (Or brava, if you are, in fact, a chick.”

    thank you. the “bravo” is taken most kindly. i hope you didn’t miss the point i was trying to make – i am very much in favor of a women’s center.

  7. American feminists made the mistake of having free-standing clinics to provide “women’s health’ services instead of following the European model of mainstreaming mdeical services within hospitals. While pleasing to the rare sepratist lesbian, this meant making abortion providers and most women who needed them the targets of dissidents, protesters, and anti-abortion terrorism.

    Today, the idea of women’s centers does the reverse, sexually segregating women, creating a hostile environment for all but the most already androgenous men. If you doubt this, just visit one at other universities!

    If separatism is needed, why not just revive Radcliffe College? The Seven Sisters had networks of alumna, funding sources, and name recognition any “Women’s Center” lacks anyway. Separatism by any other name will still be just as segregated.



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