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Thursday, July 10, 2008

The "F" word...

Today I heard a great lunchtime presentation by a colleague of mine, a History Professor and the Director of our new Women's and Gender Studies program, entitled "Why Feminism Matters". She spoke clearly and eloquently about what Feminism is, what it is not, and why it's not a thing of the past. She told a story about talking to one of her classes about feminism, in which she asked the students to raise their hands if they identified as "Feminist". What do you think happened? You're right- essentially *nobody* raised his/her hand. When my colleague followed up with questions like "How many of you think men and women should have salary equity?" and "How many believe that Men and Women have the same intellectual capacity?", virtually every hand went up. Sounds like feminist thought to me, and when she mentioned this to the class, the responses went something like, "Well, yeah, but I'm not a FEMINIST- I mean, I have choices and can do what I want, and my friends and my Mom have never said they've been discriminated against...".

Wow. When she told that part of the story, my head spun a little bit. How fortunate that these women have not experienced overt discrimination on the basis of gender- if only all of us were so fortunate. The discussion that ensued among my colleague and the audience addressed issues from the current election year to Bratz dolls, but by that point, my mind was grinding away at the realization that, as my colleague said, Feminism is an "F" word, out of vogue for societal reasons for some, and not relevant for others because it seems, on the surface, that choice=success, so why bother?

Connected to this is the fact that in the academy, anyway, "diversity", according to many I've interacted with, does not mean gender anymore, but refers to race, ethnicity, sexuality in some cases, and physical ability. It's not that these are not essential and critical parts of our progress to becoming inclusive, but it's sad that the perception is, as one upper-level administrator told me once, "Well, we hire at least as many women as men, so gender is really not a problem anymore." Whether we identify as Feminists or not, women in academia know that the playing field is not equal as it should be. Although I know there are a number of wonderful institutions that have women in positions of leadership, and good retention, tenure, and promotion rates for females, the fact that national statistics still show that far fewer women get tenure and even fewer get promoted to Full Professor or ascend into positions of leadership shows that we, regardless of whether we identify with the *F* word or not, have a ways to go before we realize the ideals of equal choice=equal success.

Feminism is not a dirty word; it is a responsibility. It is a reponsibility just as our committment to inclusion based on other differences is a reponsibility that we share as a society-Oh, and as insitutions of higher education...

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Black on Campus said...

Within Black communities, the tables are turned in some respects, at least in terms of higher education. Black women significantly outnumber Black men on viritually all college campuses, as matriculants and and as graduates.

Writers like bell hooks and Michale Eric Dyson have, however, begun to write clearly and compellingly about how feminism is liberatory for men as well as women, and I am seeing more and more scholars -- at least in the field of African American studies -- begin to use Black feminist frameworks to critique those oppressive gender constructs that constrain all people.

It's a very exciting time in Black feminism and gender studies.