From what I can tell, most undergraduates at Columbia associate feminism with the political movement that began roughly in their parents' generation and that demanded equal opportunity for women. This strand of feminism is primarily legal and political, and while most students endorse these goals, they are not overly concerned with them. Most think it's obvious that women are equal to men and so should be treated equally. They look around and see women in positions of power. Although some notice the scarcity of women in the highest professional levels and bemoan the subtle sexism that persists, they generally assume that it's only a matter of time before equality prevails. Some are concerned with gender stereotypes, but they feel relatively powerful in their struggle to shed the residue of traditional sexist categories. This is all good.
But it could be better. Students could be more aware of the profound ways that gender categories affect their daily lives. It is hard to identify the powers that restrict our desires and limit our goals. Until we learn to discern them, we remain powerless to make our lives better. Gender is a powerful intellectual and social tool that helps dissect, understand, and empower. It is a tool that benefits everyone: from the deep-voiced basketball player who would participate more in Art Hum if his instructor would notice his aesthetic sensitivities, to the petite blond who would be a killer economist if people could get over the way she looks. The problem here is one of gender stereotypes and cultural narratives. Why do we continue to expect petite blondes to be ditzy and muscular sportsmen to be doltish?
There's a paradox here: on the one hand, most students, faculty, and staff at Columbia believe that women are equal to men, blacks to white, and so on; on the other, many continue to treat the members of these categories differently. The reason why gender is so powerful as a tool is that it enables us to analyze the roots of our continued prejudices and the power-structures that perpetuate them.
In my Philosophy and Feminism course, we talk a lot about the "comfort of identity" and the subtle way shame functions to control and restrict. By thinking critically about traditional categories of gender and race, we explore the power of these categories and then attempt to build the intellectual strength to fight back.
For much of the course, we explore the complications of the structures that bind, the shame that inhibits, and the narratives that generate the categories through which we see the world. Whatever our sexuality, we recognize the need to rethink the "norms" that restrict and thereby "be queer."
Culture offers narratives and categories that confine. Even when these are not overtly pejorative (e.g., gay men don't like sports; football players don't like to knit), they set up expectations and limit desires. But they also encourage us to think that we understand the world and its categories. The more we feel the effects of these categories, the more shame we are likely to suffer in shunning them.
Learning to use gender as a tool is difficult, but the work pays off. One sees beyond traditional identity politics and recognizes the complicated power dynamics of the world around us. Gender makes us more socially adept and deepens intellectual insights. What gender does is help us understand how to rethink the categories and recognize the power dynamics they continue to have. It liberates us and those around us.
Once developed as a tool, gender has all sorts of wonderful uses. It helps to dissect the texts of Lit Hum (can Augustine's Confessions, Boccaccio's Decameron, or Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse be properly understood otherwise?), recasts the "masterpieces" of Art Hum (can the Parthenon frieze, Michelangelo's nudes, or Bernini's ecstatic saints be appreciated without it?), and destabilizes the arguments of CC (can Rousseau's account of government be evaluated without considering his essentialist views about men and women?). It helps students understand the power dynamics in dormitories, classrooms, offices, and bars. It empowers them to reexamine the prejudices that can so easily lead to self-restriction and restraint. Thus, feminism broadly conceived is not just a legal and political movement whose goal is equality. It has expanded its range to the examination of the very nature of self and the categories through which we see the world.
My students and I see gender as a tool that empowers us. It is gender that allows us to understand and then abandon the "comfort of identity." This is a feminist point because it is mostly women who are "left out of knowledge," but it is also a post-feminist point: everyone benefits. Our mantra is "be queer," where queerness is understood to be the constant questioning of the "normal" categories we are offered and the truths that are supposed to underlie them. My students and I want to proclaim: yes, we can overthrow traditional categories that restrict. We ask you to join us. It will be good for us all. Change is possible. Yes, we can!
The author is the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy. She is a historian of early modern philosophy, the first woman in the history of the philosophy department to receive tenure, and is active in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.