By Abby Hilling
I could hear it in his voice immediately: the cringe-worthy, meek quality that doomed him from the very outset. It lacked a certain confidence, it was without any palpable sense of command. I pretended I hadn’t heard it, although I’d recognized his call for what it was instantaneously. I continued walking, desperately hoping he’d give up after having not been acknowledged a first time—but of course, he didn’t. He tapped my shoulder and timidly repeated himself: “Hey,” he said.
It’s moments like this that the word feminist seems to sear itself across my brain with an alarmingly vivid clarity. A genuine yet unwanted suitor and a girl who declined his advance—a small moment, no doubt. Nevertheless, these are the instances when feminism transforms into something entirely foreign to me: it morphs into shades of deceit, becoming a simple excuse for female superficiality. Feminism becomes a thing so riddled with guilt and shame I can hardly believe it exists as a movement that somehow benefits women—so often it seems to put us on the defensive as we find ourselves barraged with criticisms that force us into a ceaseless game of blame-shifting and needless justification. I’m of the belief that feminism has pure intentions aimed at equality, yet somehow I find that there exists a perilous fault line hidden in the mundane happenings of daily life that can unravel my trust in this cause at the slightest of friction.
I’m of the belief that feminism has pure intentions aimed at equality, yet somehow I find that there exists a perilous fault line hidden in the mundane happenings of daily life that can unravel my trust in this cause at the slightest of friction.
While my feminist guilt may be jarring at times, it is a feeling surpassed by the strength I derive from the people in my life who embody the true essence of the Women’s Rights Movement. My friends, your friends, every woman and man who believes in equality—these are the everyday people who spur the movement forward, and theirs are the experiences I want to understand. Feminism is thoroughly embedded in the ordinary, thriving on small gestures, subtle triumphs and sour defeats. It is through the day-to-day exploration of our interactions and thoughts that we can create an integrated picture of what exactly feminism is.
With this objective in mind, I set out to ask a couple of my friends from my hometown about their feminist ideals. While I managed to gather a composite picture of what the women’s right movement means to a group of “everyday” girls, it should be noted that their experiences are in no way representative of the full spectrum of women’s rights advocates: each of them is nineteen-years-old, straight, white, from middle-class backgrounds, and pursuing a college education. Admittedly, their biases are many, and their experiences—sheltered. However, their input was refreshing and relatable, adding stimulating new dimensions to the feminist discussion.
I began by asking how they first learned about feminism. Meg, a neuroscience major at the University of Delaware, recounted that she heard of it first in school. “You learn about the feminist movement of the sixties in US History, but I mean, the first person who really influenced my opinion on feminism was probably you guys.” Ellie, an aspiring mechanical engineer studying at Northeastern University, agreed: “Yeah, feminism was one of those words you always heard about and it was something you understood, but you guys were the first people I knew who actually talked about it.”
Meg and Ellie’s responses highlight an interesting dichotomy that exists within the feminist movement: women are encouraged to be independent yet it seems that many women only come to identify themselves as feminists with the support of others. Why is it that within a movement based on equality, we necessitate the validation of others in order for our views to be justified? Shouldn’t we feel as though our opinions are legitimate by the simple fact that we believe them to be true? Perhaps there’s something flawed in the way students and children are taught that feminism is a movement of the past, rather than something that is flourishing in the present. Or maybe the problem lies deeper in the female psyche, embedded in our belief that we are less competent and less talented than our male counterparts. Either way, I know it was critical for me to have friends who were open to my ideas—who’s to say I would have ever identified as a feminist without their support?
“How do you integrate feminism into your daily life?” I asked next.
Colleen, a future neonatologist currently enrolled at George Washington University, responded, “I guess I just try to draw other people’s attention to the issues. Like if I see that there’s something wrong, I’ll talk about it. My guy friends don’t always want to listen though, like Jack [a close friend of Colleen’s from college] would always tune me out when I went on a ‘rant.’ It wasn’t until he was taken advantage of when he was drunk that he felt like he could finally understand why these things matter to me.” Meg concurred, noting that people treat feminism as if it’s a social taboo: “It’s trying to lead an intelligent discussion when people don’t want to listen.”
The conversation continued to flow naturally, so I listened while my friends voiced their ideas unprovoked by any questions. Meg contemplated the ways her perspective has changed since high school, remarking that “Seeing women in positions of power in high school wasn’t really a thing. It’s inspiring to see women in college who are in leadership positions.” All of the girls admitted to ingrained gender biases, specifically sympathizing with women more so than men: “I feel like if I heard about a guy cheating on his girlfriend, I’d be way less forgiving than I would be if it were a girl who’d been unfaithful,” Colleen confessed. Ellie chimed in, musing on the distinctions between genders. “Do you ever wonder if guys and girls think differently? It’s a tricky subject,” she commented. “It’s hard to define the difference between different and lesser.”
As a girl pursuing a degree in a STEM field, Ellie has a unique perspective; for the most part, she feels that her college is putting so much effort into accommodating women in engineering that she’s not intimidated by the prospect of entering a male-dominated field. Furthermore, Ellie credits her upbringing with instilling within her a sense of confidence: “The way I was raised, I didn’t even realize I’d be in the minority.” While things may be different now, Ellie still isn’t fazed by the reality of her situation—“I guess a lot of people are surprised when I tell them my major, but I like it. I like challenging their idea of who an engineer is.”
Shortly after Ellie finished sharing her viewpoint, our other friend Crista joined us. Crista is a cognitive and behavioral neuroscience major who attends Northeastern University with Ellie; however, her experiences with sexism at college stand in stark contrast to Ellie’s. “My professor accused me of cheating because I had a 100 average in calculus for the semester. He told me, ‘A woman couldn’t do that.’” Incensed by her professor’s comment, Crista fumed to her mother—a highly successful doctor who earned her degree at one of the most elite medical schools in the country—but was forced to accept a hard truth: “My mom told me to get used to it. She said she dealt with the same thing as the first female general practitioner in Fall River.”
Crista’s experiences and those of her mother’s are stunning for their exhibition of just how blatantly and insolently misogyny seems to persist in modern society. However, more crucial to note is the way both of these women have persevered despite such impertinent and unfounded prejudices. Just as Meg noted earlier, seeing women in leadership positions is essential—for Crista, it seems that her mother’s groundbreaking success was a fundamental impetus, bolstering her resolve to pursue her goals undeterred by the bigotry she faced. Even though we sometimes feel powerless to stop the misogyny that eats away at our cause, these underestimations of our talent can motivate, strengthen, and unite us to defy our detractors.
Even though we sometimes feel powerless to stop the misogyny that eats away at our cause, these underestimations of our talent can motivate, strengthen, and unite us to defy our detractors.
Finally, I asked my friends how they believed sexism could be resolved. In her typically blunt manner, Crista quipped, “I feel like the baby boomers just need to die off.” Ellie and Colleen were quick to temper Crista’s remark, agreeing that we need to stop preserving the sexist attitudes of the past. Meg stressed the importance of sustaining the ongoing discussion about women’s rights; however, she urged that the dialogue be clarified: “We need to change how people perceive feminism by talking about it. Feminism is equality, not a movement with a matriarchal society as its goal.”
Beyond its flaws and despite its limitations, feminism is a movement that inspires through its accessibility. Feminism lives and dies in the everyday, breathing in the moments between the perceivable and the imperceptible. We balance ourselves on the line between different and lesser everyday, striving to prove ourselves in a world that sometimes appears to be willfully deaf. Still, feminism grows—and we carry it with us, imbuing our experiences, our goals, and our relationships with the hope that one day, we won’t have to tiptoe around the fault lines of our gender.