Campus Life, News

The ‘F’ Word: Feminist groups on campus promote gender equality

The “F-word” is greeted by such mixed reactions, ranging from zealousness to skittishness, that it sometimes seems dirtier than true obscenities. This word that could rally a crowd or pause a conversation between friends is riddled with polarizing interpretations, making it difficult to pinpoint what it means to fulfill the label of “feminist.”

Students seem to be turned away by negative connotations of the word, said Michelle Maldonado, associate professor of religious studies.

“I often find students at my classes who say ‘I’m a feminist, but I don’t embrace that label,’” said Maldonado, who is also the faculty master of Hecht Residential College.

This March, Women’s History Month will be celebrated at the University of Miami by the Yellow Rose Society (YRS), a minority women’s rights organization, and various partner organizations.

As attention is turned toward women’s struggles and advancements in our society, understanding our past is key to motivating our generation to leave its own legacy, said senior Phalande Jean, the president of YRS and Women’s History Month chair. 

On Wednesday evening, the Yellow Rose Society (YRS) hosted its opening ceremony, coined “Rose’s Lounge.” The event highlighted female artists and performers from the local community, including UM students and guest performers from Florida International University.

Despite the significance of Women’s History Month, Jean said it was hard to find student support for the month’s events. She also mentioned that the response she received back from other organizations for Women’s History Month was “lacking.”

 

Feminism On Campus

Jean and Maldonado’s experiences suggest that feminism and women’s rights issues lack substantial support from the student body. However, a poll created by The Miami Hurricane asking students on campus whether they identified as feminists seems to indicate otherwise.

The poll had a total of 354 responses at the time of publication and revealed that 61 percent of UM students surveyed identify as feminists.

At face value, these statistics suggest an overall positive campus climate toward feminism and feminist ideals. However, the true picture of feminist sentiment within the student body resembles the movement itself – complex and multilayered, Jean said.

“It’s like a cake … or an onion,” she joked. “We’re just peeling away one layer at a time.”

According to the Oxford American English Dictionary and many advocates of the feminist movement, feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.

Those who do not identify with the feminist movement may buy into the myth of a generic feminist archetype, said a first-year theatre arts professor who goes by her stage name, cfrancis blackchild.

“The way the media decided to identify feminism was as people who were anti-male, people who were anti-beauty, people who were anti-motherhood and all this stuff, and so a lot of people were like, ‘Well, that’s not me’,” blackchild explained. 

A male student who wished to remain anonymous said he agrees that there is a discrepancy between what feminism is and what it means to people.

“While I know the most extreme people are not at all representative of all feminists, the craziest ones are the ones that get the most attention,” he said. “And I find that their tone is often hostile and accusatory, and that’s not how you get your message across, not by confronting people with an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ type of attitude.”

Infographic by Sarbani Ghosh

Infographic by Sarbani Ghosh

The Challenge of Understanding

According to blackchild, changing methods of communication and media distribution may be to blame for this perception of increased radicalism within the feminist movement.

“Conversations that used to be kept in enclaves are now bursting forth in a way that now make them available to everyone,” blackchild said.

This openness could be considered both a benefit and a detriment to meaningful communication about the feminist movement. Strongly worded opinions on platforms like Yik Yak or UMiami Secrets, an anonymous Facebook account used to post submissions supposedly from UM students, were also brought up as indicators of campus climate.

Posts like, “It is ridiculous where Feminism has gone. It is so toxic it is unbearable” or “Feminism is just a thinly-veiled excuse for women to play the victim and hate on men” are mild examples of anti-feminist remarks made on these platforms.

Jean, who sat down to discuss feminism on campus with several other leaders of women’s rights organizations, cited comments made at the “U Got Consent?” event hosted by YRS as a prime example of how this negative backlash translates to face-to-face interactions.

“When we held our event for ‘U Got Consent’, we had some male counterparts say obscene comments like, ‘You know you like it, this is stupid,’ or ‘What is this s**t?’” she said. “They would not sign the banner.”

In addition, last semester’s guest speaker Ted Bunch, co-founder of  “A Call to Men,” gave a talk intended to teach men to be a part of the solution to end gender inequality. Instead, she said, the event was met with harsh criticism from nameless and faceless online posts.

Still, students like Jamil Mann, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, feel feminism puts men in a detrimental position by being overly policing.

“Sometimes I just feel like feminists go too far with it. One of my professors gave me a bad grade based off of a paper I wrote about manpower,” Mann said. “He told me that the paper was good, but I [got a low grade]because I did not consider the female side.”

While these oppositional reactions may only be coming from a handful of people, their hostility indicates an undeniable gap in mutual understanding that must be addressed, according to Jean. Uninformed insults, however, gave YRS the fuel to do more in the UM community, she said.

“It shows we have a real crisis on our hands,” Jean said. “It’s all about educating others and empowering others; it’s about the men in our lives. They aren’t knowledgeable about our issues; whose fault is that?”

 

Defining Feminism, or Feminisms

According to blackchild, there are different forms of feminism, but the power lies in the hands of those who are the most vocal.

“Every group has subgroups,” she said. “There’s always this question of who gets to speak for the monolithic idea of feminism. So that’s why there are splinters within the feminist community.”

Blackchild said a gap exists between the early first-wave feminists who fought for rights such as suffrage and the rising generation of women pursuing wage equality and abolition of gender stereotypes. This tension, she said, arises not necessarily from a failure on the part of young feminists, but a lack of understanding of historical contexts and the needs of each generation of women.

Blackchild also cited examples like how troubles faced by housewives looking to break into the workforce during the 1950s contrast those faced by a 22-year-old woman seeking justice for sexual harassment in 1995.

The difference in objectives as societal changes occur casts doubt on the commitment of this generation of women to the movement, but it should not be dismissed as lack of progress, said English professor Lisa Reyes.

Reyes teaches “Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?” – an English course named after a concept in Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir “The Woman Warrior” and centered around literature from the women’s rights movements beginning in the late 19th century.

“I think this third wave is more about broadening our understanding of women,” Reyes said. “Accepting, respecting, even celebrating these splintered aspects of the self.”

These “feminisms” bring about the examination of different feminist experiences through the lens of intersectionality, a topic that recurred during discussion. Studying different combinations of socioeconomic circumstances – such as race, class, gender and sexual orientation – explains how they affect the individual experience to create a new breed of feminism.

“Not one feminism works for everyone; we have to be aware of that. Women’s stories are very different,” blackchild said. “A Western feminism dropped in the middle of the Middle East or Sri Lanka, that’s not going to work. They’re not trying to go out and become CEOs. They’re just trying to have basic human rights.”

Reyes shared similar sentiments. She said she thinks movements are not meant to please every onlooker or even every advocate. They are meant to bring about change, she added, which at times means taking risks.

“Ultimately, movements agitate. They disturb. They provoke. I guess that’s the point,” Reyes said.

Feminism and the Public Imagination

Students like Jennifer Pierre, a senior marketing and entrepreneurship major and the public relations officer for Women in Business, said she thinks men feel like they’re losing room from their identity.

“That’s where the animosity comes from, because they feel there’s nothing left for them,” she said.

According to blackchild, historical foundations have largely shaped the perception that feminism threatens men.

“[The movement] is thought of being female-centered because feminism came up in a time where it was in response to seemingly oppressive patriarchal systems and society,” blackchild said.

However, according to Safa Chowdhurry, vice president of UM’s chapter of United Nations Women, the core of feminism is not bashing men or berating conventionally beautiful women, but achieving equal rights and freedom for both sexes and everyone on the spectrum of gender.

“When people are arguing against feminism, what is it that they’re arguing against?” she said. “The definition behind the movement is just the political, social, economic equality of the sexes.”

The phrase “gender roles” is frequently brought into the feminism discussion. This is the generalization and expectation that men and women fulfill stereotypical “masculine” and “feminine” roles.

According to Katharine Westway, a women and gender studies professor, the problem with these roles is the restrictions they place on individuality. Gender norms situate men in the dominant position and women in submissive, limiting the expansion of personal curiosities and condemning any deviation from the constructs, she said.

“Feminism is actually a great thing for men. It liberates men like it liberates women,” Westaway said. “It allows men to be sensitive, it allows them to show their emotions, it allows them to…not have to be the conqueror, not have to be the aggressor.”

Westaway added that to include all people in the conversation on equality, there must be a mutual understanding that feminism is not a movement for just one sector of the population. She mentioned that the pursuit of human rights liberates all people from the pressures of having to fit into one designated box.

“I think it’s time for men to step up and to realize that the feminist movement is for them and that we need their help, that we can never achieve equality without their help,” Westaway said.

Engagement and Activism

On UM’s campus, the effects of having a female president are palpable. President Donna E. Shalala has brought notable figures such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laverne Cox and most recently, Gloria Steinem.

“Just having her as a figurehead is such a huge boost to women’s self-esteem on campus,” Westaway said.

Though President Shalala is the first female president of UM and several other high-ranking positions are filled by women, the university still struggles with unequal representation in the faculty.

According to the Office of Faculty Affairs, the university faculty is made up of 62 percent men and 38 percent women, barely a shift from the 63 to 37 percent ratio from fall of 2012. These numbers contrast the higher number of female undergraduate students. UM currently has 51 percent female students and 49 percent male students.

On the student end of the spectrum are the grassroots women’s organizations such as YRS, Women in Business, and UM branches of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and UN Women.

According to the women who lead these groups, one of the biggest obstacles has been opening the conversation to include everyone. They added that men often feel isolated and alienated from the feminist movement.

The recorded participation of students in women’s rights organizations is still modest – combining active members from YRS, NOW, UN Women and girl’s empowerment program SPARK, there are around 65 students, not accounting for overlaps.

“One of our biggest challenges in participation is definitely due to the fear of the word feminism,” Chowdhury said.

The lack of longevity of many of these organizations and fickle student participation in general may also be at fault, according to the student leaders of campus women’s organizations.

Junior Maleeha Riaz, president of UM’s chapter of NOW, said that her organization had a lot of momentum when it first started.

“When we were underground, there were so many people coming to the meetings. People were excited,” she said.

However, she said participation has since fallen off.

Why Feminism?

While many obstacles or deterrents to feminist engagement exist, these student leaders attributed their passion for women’s rights and feminism to their individual cultural backgrounds, family dynamics and educations. Each of their stories included themes of either strong matriarchal or patriarchal  families as commonly cited reasons behind feminist awareness.

“Growing up [in Haiti], you just grew up into a strong woman,” Jean said. “It was only until I moved here that I learned about all of the American historical background for the inequality.”

For Riaz, who was raised in a Pakistani household, it was a different experience.

“When I was younger, a family friend was visiting my family, and the first thing she asked my mom was ‘How is your son?’” Riaz recalled. “I remember being so angry, and thinking, ‘Why didn’t she ask about me or all of my sisters?’”

However, Riaz also credited her father for instilling a sense of ambition within her and her sisters by stressing the importance of education.

“I have so many cousins who aren’t being given the opportunities that I get here,” Riaz said. “I need feminism because of my background. I want to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given – I can’t squander this.”

Others cited higher education as a gateway to understanding feminism and the language of activism.

“I always grew up around many women who kind of pushed the tenets of feminism, subtly,” Pierre said. “At UM, I am surrounded by women who are here to study and are pursuing the best for themselves.”

Though those who come from backgrounds where issues of gender inequality passed by unnoticed may find themselves less connected with the idea of feminism, religious studies professor Maldonado said that the present generation may not realize how much it enjoys the progress made by women and men who fought for modern principles.

Chowdhury expressed a similar frustration. “[Even] when you denounce feminism, you’re living a comfortable lifestyle because of the actions of past feminists, because women were willing to go to jail for your rights,” she said.

Another obstacle to engagement with the ideology may be the rise of “slacktivism,” Maldonado said.

“Your generation thinks activism is just liking something on Facebook or retweeting something,” Maldonado added. “While I’m not downplaying the power of social media, I also think there’s something to be said about grassroots activism.”

Renowned writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem shared a similar message when she spoke at UM on Feb. 11.

“Since we’re communal people, since we need each other, nothing is more powerful than a group with mutual support and a vision and a spirit of inclusiveness,” Steinem said.

Next Steps

UM may not have swarms of women in uproar, but the feminist movement is present in the support from fellow students. According to senior Seth Furman, a self-proclaimed feminist, both male and female students have an open mindset and are accepting of various forms of expression.

“I think UM is at the forefront when it comes to being inclusive with new gender roles for women and men,” said Furman, a business major and the philanthropy chair for the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity.

However, there is still room to improve. The general consensus among the student leaders of the women’s organizations was that the feminist presence on campus had the potential to be stronger and more cohesive.

“I feel like, on this campus, there are so many organizations, so we kind of disperse between them, but there’s no unifying place where we can all come together and discuss ideas and rally together,” Pierre said.

Though the unification will not be immediate, these leaders are already taking steps to improve cooperation and communication among the women’s rights groups.

YRS hopes to open up constructive, respectful dialogue about feminism at the university by hosting events throughout Women’s History Month.

Along with discourse, however, there must be a genuine consideration of others’ experiences, blackchild said.

“In any movement, I think the way to move conversation along is listening,” Pierre said. “[Just] because it’s not your life experience, it doesn’t mean it’s not truthful.”


Meninist movement
About 722, 500 followers. That is the number of people who follow @MeninistTweet on Twitter, better known as Meninist. This elusive, four-month old account became a viral sensation after two college-age students started the account as a response to feminism.

Although the description says it is a parody account, the sheer amount of interaction on the page signals something different – some people are taking it seriously.

“I don’t blame girls for wanting to be friends with guys – being friends with girls sounds like it sucks,” one user Tweeted.

In addition to comedic videos and jabs at “inequality against men,” Meninist has expanded to create merchandise. Even women have boarded the bandwagon and tweeted their pictures, proudly donning black #Meninist T-shirts and receiving a scathing criticism from feminists.

Although most tweets are harmless jokes aimed at a male demographic, others stir quite the uproar on the Twitter-sphere.

“Girls over 5 feet 10 inches can finally stop worrying about Valentine’s Day and focus on March Madness. We gotta beat Kentucky in the Final Four,” one tweet read.

Meninist and its supporters are not the only movement pushing back against feminism, however. After the female empowerment #LikeAGirl campaign during the Super Bowl, men overtook the message by starting #LikeABoy, accusing media companies of not representing boys in the message.

Many news outlets in return argued that the #LikeABoy hashtag retaliation was the very reason why a campaign empowering women needed to exist.

“Man-babies create #LikeABoy hashtag to complain about #LikeAGirl Super Bowl ad,” read one article headline on mommyish.com, a parenting blog based in New York.


 

Pop culture feminism
The flood of feminist trends in recent pop culture could be responsible for the apparent traction of the feminist label, seeing as well-known figures such as Emma Watson, Taylor Swift, Kerry Washington and Beyonce are speaking out against gender inequality.

Emma Watson

Best known for her role in the “Harry Potter” films, Watson spoke at a United Nations Women assembly to launch #HeforShe, a campaign aimed at including men in the conversation on feminism. The video of her speech has more than 6.5 million views on YouTube and countless shares on social media, but possibly the biggest wave was of male celebrities, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Steve Carell, stepping forward on Twitter to show their support of the movement.

“Like A Girl”

Campaigns, like the “Like A Girl” movement by feminine product brand Always, promote feminist ideals of female empowerment and gender equality without using the “f-word.” The commercial, most popularly airing during the Super Bowl, asked young girls, boys and young women to complete tasks “like a girl.” As the girls grew older, their opinion of doing things in that way became skewed to see womanhood as a negative process.

Dove

Dove joined the social media climate not long after, launching the #SpeakBeautiful campaign. The company monitored body-negative tweets and responded to them with encouraging messages instead, spurring women to send out empowering posts.

Beyoncé

In her performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé stood in front of a massive screen emblazoned with the word “feminist.”

March 5, 2015

Reporters

Isabella Cueto

Isabella Cueto can be reached via email at editor@themiamihurricane.com and through Twitter at @isabellacueto

Jackie Yang

Jackie Yang can be reached via email at jyang@themiamihurricane.com.


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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.