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Feminism: Can I Get Mine to Go?

We twelve women of the Women's Studies Senior Seminar of William Smith (and Hobart) Colleges felt compelled to contribute to the dialogue on "The Conning of the Feminists" (Winter, 2011). We are women who have declared majors in Women's Studies to address concerns of equality, equity and justice across fields of political, historical, sociological, media-related, non-western, international, religious studies and biological or medical study. More than once we have heard our peers and others say "Get a real major." But we refuse to be conned into signing up for a "real" – or "useful" – major. We are using a feminist lens to critique and articulate how we see the world, what feminism means for us, who WE are as feminists, and how we have turned our feminist focus to local activism.

Feminism served here…

As feminists in college, we began to see how our own local institution (however unwittingly) cons us. We face choices daily asking us to reconcile our beliefs to the constraints and expectations of the wider college culture. We assume that our choices really are choices, from what we buy at the supermarket to our latest purchase on iTunes. But our options are prepackaged. We need to unpack these options. Unpacking and building things anew are what feminists do, and what we have been doing intensely over the last few months. We have struggled to work with pre-existing definitions and theories of feminism to arrive at a feminism of our own, collectively and individually. Sometimes we feel a collective sense of outrage at and other times disempowered by the choices we make and the decisions imposed upon us by the structure of our Colleges and society.

Articles from the issue of "The Conning of the Feminists" have played a part in guiding us to conclude that some version of a collective definition is not only worth fighting for, but is crucial to the advancement of any movement or idea. We have experienced firsthand the difficulty of defining a communal feminism while simultaneously respecting the diverging beliefs we individually hold. Through this struggle, we have come further to understand how we are locked into the "cafeteria of patriarchy", where feminism is on the menu, the choices are limited, and the issues reheated way too many times.

We propose that this "cafeteria" be understood as the cafeteria of patriarchal society that shapes our consciousness, institutions, histories, and our "choices." We thus build on the idea of "cafeteria feminism" put forth by Merle Hoffman, suggesting that our choices are limited to the range of menu options, many of which claim to be feminist, yet fail to take full interest in the advancement of women's rights and conditions. If the cafeteria is owned and managed by the patriarchal powers that be, we are constantly positioned to choose between changing the establishment or opening one of our own. But what would a "feminist cafeteria" even look like? And where would we begin?

We set ourselves the task of reaching a consensus on key features of feminism's definition. Here is what we have cooked up:

Feminism is a way of life. It is passionate and it is patriarchy's kryptonite. Feminism is a movement that values the safety, respect, agency, and voice of all individuals. Feminism engages causes that concern equality, equity, reproductive rights, and social justice such as racial equality, LGBTQ rights, and economic justice. Fundamentally, feminism is the rejection of oppressive societal structures and institutions that support, and are supported by, hegemonic patriarchy. Its core values express some of these ideals:

  1. Feminists must value a woman's right to control her own body. This inherently includes the right to choose.
  2. Feminists work to defeat structures of oppression, to lift up women of the world as fully equal and valuable political, moral, economic and just agents.
  3. Feminists reject ideals that serve further to exploit women as primarily driven by beauty standards or by desires to consume.

Intervention 1: Spotting the Con

Sexism as Masquerade

Several of the articles included in "The Conning of the Feminists" highlight the way "cafeteria feminism" exists in the world around us. For example, as the media seeks to render our voices and accomplishments invisible, so does the cohort of women (and men) in the political realm who seek to dismantle the work of feminists. In the recent political arena we have seen women drop the "f-bomb" without remaining true to widespread feminist ideals. This hyper-individualized practice of "iFeminism" is a function of patriarchal inclusion of feminism in a conservative political agenda. It is acceptable in the cafeteria to claim to be a feminist if you refuse to see women as active players in their own lives. This is the "enlightened sexism" which claims feminist principles whilst, in the same breath, it rejects them.

In the article "The Rise of Enlightened Sexism," Susan Douglas describes how women are conned into believing that feminism is no longer necessary. This is perpetuated by the images of "sexually empowered" women on reality TV shows such as The Bachelor or Girls Gone Wild as new, fun and flirty feminists - as well as those programs in which women are portrayed as successful, including Grey's Anatomy or The Closer. Meanwhile, the limited roles available to women in the media are dictated by a larger conglomerate of male producers, executives, and directors who create the media, conning women into believing that their struggle for equality is over. Douglas' argument has caused us to question how we may buy into "enlightened sexism" ourselves. Whether you prefer to watch the sharp-tongued lawyer or the bleach blonde bimbette on Sunday afternoon, these images are derived from the same source. Women are being fed junk food about how they are "liberated" and "equal," but all it takes is a peek in the back kitchen to see the realities shaping the hegemonic menu. All too often we struggle to have our voices heard, only to be shot down because we are nothing more than a pretty face – or, in fact, because we are more than a pretty face. It is time we recognize the disparity between an individual woman's experience as contrasted with women on TV, who are represented as both "Superwoman" and "slut".

Arch Feminism?

Beyond the women depicted in TV shows that shift our focus away from the issues by encouraging us to believe that feminism's work is done, icons such as Lady Gaga have recently been the center of feminist debate. While she seems to exercise control over her image and performance through her perceived deviance and the pushing of traditional boundaries, she is still subject to the same rules of the cafeteria as the rest of us. It is unclear whether Lady Gaga deliberately pushes social boundaries in a feminist way, or if we just interpret her actions as such. Regardless, she has distracted us from a feminism that is centered on the progress of all women. At the end of the day, Lady Gaga is a privileged, educated, wealthy, white woman who sparks conversation and profits from controversy. We do not mean to discount the value of Lady Gaga's actions, but we do argue that discussion of feminism in the media should go deeper than an analysis of her wardrobe. The more our energies are devoted to discussing the social implications of her career, the less effort we focus toward lobbying for reproductive rights, child care support, the feminization of poverty, equal access to education, and health care, all of which would have material impact on the lives of women nationally and globally. In order to accomplish this, we must continuously question and be conscious of the way the terms "feminist" and "feminism" are applied. The "un-conning" of the feminists requires focusing on issues that carry bona fide weight in women's lives rather than being jaded by enlightened sexism.

Faux-feminism is not like tofu; it is not a healthier option for the individual, society, or environment than what normally frequents our tables.  Refocusing our attention back to the issues that matter more than the length of Sarah Palin's skirt-suit or Lady Gaga's latest lyrics will remove faux-feminism from the patriarchal menu and maybe patrons will finally become upset enough with the "choices" they have been offered to start bringing a bagged lunch instead. Or perhaps a feminist café will open down the street and put Cafeteria Patriarchy out of business…it would probably be better for the environment, too.  As we move forward, these are the choices that we have to make. Will a million small changes over time to the eatery, for example a new head chef or a vegan option, change the establishment? Or is what is broken unfixable and does the social cafeteria in which we live need to be rebuilt from the ground up?  If so, how does one who only knows how Cafeteria Patriarchly operates run Café Fem in accordance with new and inherently different values?  While this is the paradox that feminists now and have always faced, we know that something is amiss and we must take a stance and demand change.  The first step is to direct emphasis and focus away from superfluous distractions, such as the pattern of the china, towards issues and choices made by others which directly affect the physical health, emotional wellbeing, psychological and social unfettering of women as fully emancipated citizens and political actors.

Intervention 2: Our Café Feminism's Basic Ingredients

Rallies

"Who here is under thirty?" is the call many of us have heard at one rally or another. Young women (and men) feature at any number of rallies. We have countered the rhetoric about intergenerational hostility, at rallies, in our classrooms and at the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day dialogue hosted by the Greater Rochester, NY, American Association of University Women. We collaborated on issues facing women, participated in a postcard campaign asking women to submit their calls for change and sent a letter and the postcards to three offices of the White House whose focus is on women, girls, and international relations. At a subsequent campus public lecture by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, we presented her with a letter of our postcard campaign results on upstate New York calls for change in women's lives. We believe in the power of learning from and with feminists of all ages, including reaching out to the generations behind and in front of us. We stand with them all.

Post It

As feminists we sought to gauge the climate for women in our local cafeteria patriarchy by posing questions on poster-sized paper pasted to the backs of bathroom doors (with pens attached). We asked all manner of questions to try to determine the gendered patterns of labor, concerns about feminism, and the hopes and fears of students, faculty and staff as women, men, and those questioning gender identity and traditions. We supplemented this graffiti style survey with a more traditional survey, inviting our community to weigh in on a similar range of questions. We furthered these measurements with our own research into a gendered study of labor on our campus – who runs what? Who receives the media attention? Who receives awards and recognition? Then we posted our results – everywhere and repeatedly. Postings opened public discussion and served to rearrange menu options. Hidden ingredients came to the foreground, including how eight of the eleven women's athletic teams also have to fund raise for their sports and how even though women's and men's student loans are equivalent in amount, women's earning power means they will spend more years paying back the same dollar value of student loans.

Even criticisms became an item in our recipe on how to sharpen feminist activism. We embraced criticisms by posting back to our anonymous critics, turning statements into questions whose answers mapped out inequalities, false choices, and gender troubles in our local community. We even challenged one anonymous critic whose red pen vandalized a campus calendar with "I'd rather read this [campus events calendar] than the women's studies CRAP!" by using these very words to title a news article on our feminist read of campus gendered labor and concerns. Additional newspaper articles highlighted different facets of research, including reports on all women do and achieve academically, athletically and socially on campus; a blog was created to post our survey results and invite comments, http://feminismisntdead.wordpress.com/ ; and, a wiki was created to coordinate work collectively, raise our dissent and talk "out loud" with one another.

Forums

We coordinated three open forums at which we presented our "post-it" survey results and our other research. We invited our community to inquire into where feminism could be found on our campus, if feminism is dead, and confronted head-on criticism of Women's Studies as "crap" or "not a real major." We asked ourselves and those who attended to rethink campus in terms of gendered labor, how more women than men oversee social clubs, serve as house managers, and participate in service learning, especially in programs such as America Reads. We began to spot the con in talk about "gender" equality on campus and began to ask instead about feminist values and how they would remake the menu of higher education, from classes and classroom climates through to everyday campus life.

Media

We created and produced three zines distributed at each forum. Each zine presented results of our survey, quotes from authors we read, and central foci of concern to us. We provided alternative reading and music-listening lists, created magazine word games to raise feminist consciousness, and invited readers to join us on our blog. We became familiar with new media – blogs, wikis and surveymonkey.com – and how to turn these tools to feminist activism. We used these tools to development our own collective consciousness and we learned how to turn these tools to our own college community. We prepared collectively, working in rotating teams of twos and threes, our reply to this journal's issue on "Conning of the Feminists," learning along the way how to edit our own and others' words and ideas, how to challenge one another in the process, and how to work in ways that make our individual expressions grow into collective ones. We learned from this and from classroom debate and discussion that our seeming lack of ability to agree upon just about anything was our strength. Over 14 weeks, we learned to value this discussion and debate, and from it we will be taking lessons of confidence and humility, appreciations of dissent as part of collective action, and a more deeply rooted respect for the voices of our sisters.

Using these basic ingredients – collaboration, collective action, knowledge, debate, information, dissent and voice – we devised ways to reach out to our community and to serve up some feminist dishes sourcing local ingredients for global concerns. Our response to the "Conning of the Feminists" is thus to find and to subvert the "con" in everyday "consciousness," putting in its place a raised feminist consciousness to build intergenerational activism beyond the walls of the classroom, campus, and cafeteria of patriarchy.

Authors:

Merrill Amos; Marissa Biondolillo; Eleanor Eckerson; Julia Hoyle; Margaret Jaffe; Emma Luton; Gabrielle Perez; Rebecca Perkins; Emmy Lou Potter; Josephina Ragon; Samantha Tripoli with Betty Bayer

CLUBS

The Women's Collective is a student-run organizations that may be of interest to students studying Women's Studies.

For more information about this organizations or to learn about starting your own Women's Studies-themed club, contact Cully Semans (semans@hws.edu) in the Office of Student Activities.