In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods—embodying the hot-pink-clad, all-American princess trope—teaches a novel lesson about feminism: You can obsess over your hair, spend thousands to keep up with fashion trends, and still graduate at the top of your class at Harvard. Her résumé is pink, and yes, it smells good. In her unapologetic embrace of femininity, she teaches us that there is more at stake than a high LSAT score and a knock-out GPA. “Trust me,” she insists. “I can handle anything.”
My closest friends at Columbia, who are primarily women, know this much. We have shared boxes of tampons, adjusted each other’s bra straps, and praised each other’s naked bodies in momentary fits of insecurity. We have wiped evidence of hour-long crying sessions from each other’s faces, fended off overeager men at bars, and stayed awake to watch each other regurgitate a whole night’s worth of alcohol into a half-functioning nightclub toilet. Our experiences of girlhood have become more multifaceted as we’ve grown older, ready to break into the professional world: We edit each other’s résumés, attend women’s networking events together, and lend each other freshly-pressed blazers and heels and prep books. We are Columbia students and, beyond that, Columbia women: unspeakably brilliant, put-together—maybe even intimidating.
But not all experiences we have shared have been so positive and nurturing. There are certain universal realities all women face: harassment (and often far worse things), objectification, and an inescapable, ubiquitous sense of fear that begins as a strange burden-—like a baggy, itchy sweater you were forced to wear as a child—and gradually clings to your bones like skin. We learn to protect ourselves as a rite of passage, something as natural as breathing. We are at risk no matter where or when; in a world that threatens all women—some more than others—it is only a matter of “who.”
Perhaps by accident, my friends and I have addressed another question of “who”—as in who has worked tirelessly to earn her place and deserves the coveted admiration reserved for girls who break barriers. After a falling out with a boy, a friend and I sat in a McDonald’s booth for hours, after which she concluded that she had simply been “too intimidating” for him—someone who did not attend an Ivy League school and failed to receive an offer from a bulge bracket bank, which, she reminded me, was probably due to the former. After a recent heartbreak of my own, another friend attempted to cheer me up by suggesting I “consider my Columbia education”—a jab at the boy with whom I’d ended things, who attends a lesser-known school up north.
I will admit that her comment made me feel better—at least for a few minutes. In that moment, the weight of Columbia’s name made the intimacy of girlhood even more valuable. This felt like a special, exclusive kind of solidarity: Empowerment meant reminding each other of our achievements, many of which were made possible by privilege.
This elitist empowerment, however, is not feminism. Feminism that excludes marginalized women is harmful and even violent—consider last weekend’s Women’s March, for example. Many have asserted that the event, a supposed display of solidarity among women across the nation, focused on empowering cis white women while trans women and women of color were left in the shadows. While upper-class white women are quick to celebrate their own empowerment, they often don’t make the same effort to support Black Lives Matter, immigrant protections, and other forms of solidarity with marginalized women. This is further evident in many protesters’ decision to don hot pink "Pussyhats"—intended to promote dialogue concerning women’s issues, though many have suggested it excludes trans women, as well as women of color.
It isn’t a surprise, then, that exclusionary forms of feminism find their ways into the workplace and our university. Although my friends and I only meant to uplift each other, the way we canonized professional success was, in many ways, exclusive and classist. On campus, “Lean In” feminism, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of empowerment that encourages women to be assertive in the workplace, certainly speaks to a large portion of female students’ attitudes toward professional achievement. Pre-professional organizations on campus are prevalent, well-organized, and often highly sought-after, and Columbia even boasts its own Lean In chapter. Indeed, a staggering number of female students at Columbia (and students in general) choose to pursue careers in finance and tech—fields that are notoriously male. It is not unreasonable to believe that corporate feminism offers women a sense of community in industries that have long sought to push them out.
Enveloped by this pressure, maybe we fail to realize that our professional feminism is reflective of our feminism in general, and that it is impossible to extricate the career-focused part of it. Not every woman can have what she wants—should she want it enough—and not every woman has the resources or educational background to realize what she wants at all. At Columbia, we are surrounded by high-achievers who may one day have the entire world at their feet—or at least on shiny corporate lobby floors. But the world is rife with people who dream and want and still cannot have.
“I can’t break the bonds of sisterhood,” Elle Woods proclaims in one scene, her tone so matter-of-fact you would think it is the most obvious thing in the world. My friends and I still hold each other’s hands during slow songs at concerts. We still cry in front of each other, then re-apply our eyeliner so we can go downtown and laugh at ourselves crying. We still apply for corporate jobs, despite the qualms that tell us not to. No, we can never break the bonds of sisterhood—and this time, that means between all women.
Melissa Ho is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and art history. She has a lot of thoughts about girlhood and wants to know what you think, too. Say something at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your Worst American Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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