I am currently taking Feminist Texts I: Wollstonecraft to Beauvoir. The class itself is wonderful, and augments my knowledge about a part of feminist history that doesn't get covered on Feministing.com. What is less wonderful, however, is the student makeup of the class. Don't get me wrong—there's nothing the matter with my classmates. The problem is who isn't in the class. Every single one of us, in a class of about 15, is female. Feminism has had both a "man problem" and a larger image problem since the invention of the word, and many still view the term with suspicion. Far too often, people think that "feminist" is synonymous with "woman," or that men by definition can't be feminists. A 2008 study of college students revealed that hesitance to identify as a feminist often stems from misconceptions about what a feminist is—29 percent of respondents said feminists were women who think they are superior to men, and 26 percent believed feminists are lesbians. Most frustrating to feminist activists like myself are the people who say things like, "I'm not a feminist, but I believe in gender equality." Thanks to skewed media portrayals or perhaps simply a lack of any information about feminism, such people think that in order to call themselves feminists, they have to be some sort of man-hating crazy woman who spends every weekend protesting topless. The situation at Columbia is better than it is in America at large, probably because we have more exposure to feminism than is typical. Although it is inherently a self-selective, liberal group, many men in the Columbia Democrats enthusiastically identify as feminists and women's rights activists. Ironically, the Republican War on Women may have sparked a backlash of feminist identifications. A friend of mine recently said that after Congress' contraception debate, she has started openly calling herself a feminist because politicians are still debating issues that she thought second-wave feminists had settled in the 1970s. Of course, there is plenty of work still to be done on campus. I had a history TA last year—someone whose job it is to be accurate—who dismissed the feminist movement as a failure which accomplished little more than bra-burning. This not only directly contradicted the professor, who had presented 1970s feminism as one of the most successful movements of the 20th century, but also contradicted reality—bra-burning was invented by the media and never actually happened. The fact that real misogyny exists is undeniable, particularly after Obamanard. But an easier group to address, and one which I think (and hope) is larger, is the simply misinformed. My TA who didn't know his own subject and my friend who thought we had already won bring us right back to where I started—the Feminist Texts class. So much of feminism's image problem comes from misinformation, either about what feminism stands for or about problems like access to reproductive health care, the gender wage gap, and maternity leave which America has not solved. The difficulty is conveying this information to a wide audience who might then realize that yes, they were feminists all along. Columbia and Barnard have excellent Women's and Gender Studies departments, but as Feminists Texts demonstrates, too often those courses are preaching to the choir. People who would most benefit from discussing feminist thought may never come across it. And really, isn't that a larger flaw in their liberal arts education than subpar knowledge of Western art or music? We should have a new Core Curriculum course—something like Privilege Hum—that can cover the basics of gender, race, and class in America and related key thinkers. Studying Beauvoir and Du Bois in CC is a great start, but it does not explain their larger context or why their ideas are still relevant. A Privilege Hum course has the potential to utterly transform Columbia students' outlook on the world. When I was a freshman, I took some race-related sociology courses essentially on a whim. I cannot possibly overstate the impact these classes had on my world view. I would not be the same person I am today, nor would I have remotely as clear an understanding of race in America, if I had not taken them. I am sure that other Columbia students would have similar epiphanies about gender and feminism if they were exposed to material they might never seek out on their own. We Columbians are the policy makers and leaders of the future. It is vital that we know what we're talking about. The Core is supposed to give us the intellectual tools to understand and shape the society in which we live. We cannot change our country if we never adequately comprehend its largest problems. The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in Slavic studies with a concentration in sociology. She is the president of the Columbia Democrats.
Columbia Spectator Staff