Amidst the flurry of UGBC campaigning, students and faculty members across campus have been showing their support for a different cause this week. While the maroon-and-gold pins sported on backpacks and lapels are themselves unassuming and understated, their message-“This is what a feminist looks like”-is anything but.
“I think a lot of faculty-certainly in the history department, but faculty across the University-are just really concerned about these recent studies and revelations showing that women are graduating from BC with less self-esteem than they had when they started,” said Arissa Oh, an assistant professor in the history department who formulated the idea to produce the pins and distribute them during Monday’s Feminist Coming Out Day. “There’s been a lot of talk about it, a lot of focus groups-University-wide task forces and things that were convened, and I just thought it would be nice, as just one element of trying to change the culture of BC … if people were more willing to embrace the concept of feminism.”
Oh said that while it was important for both men and women to value feminism, it was especially important for women to stop considering “feminism” a “dirty word.”
“Just as a starting point, I thought it would be great if we could just at least have people reclaim the word, and for students to see that it’s not a bad word, for students who do identify as feminists to have a day of empowerment,” Oh said. Another important goal of the buttons was to show undergraduates that faculty, staff, and graduate students were supportive of feminism as well. Oh explained that in conversations she had with female undergraduate students, many of them were surprised to learn that faculty members considered gender equality and women’s rights serious issues.
Currently in her third year at BC, Oh acknowledged that the University is different, culturally, than other places at which she has worked. “It’s a more conservative student body, less politically active, more homogeneous,” she said. “I think I was most struck by, at the beginning of this academic year, when I heard about this horrible result [of] women graduating with lower self-esteem, but also, we were having an enrollment drop in the history department-particularly among women.” She went on to say that the idea of a Feminist Coming Out Day was due in part to her concern about why women were not taking history classes. While she admitted that the connection between a lack of feminist dialogue on campus and dropping enrollment in the history department might not be direct, Oh said that she was curious as to how it affected the way in which female students approached their education.
“Feminist Coming Out Day-it was just this idea that I had,” Oh said. “I mentioned it in passing to my chair, Robin Fleming-on a Friday afternoon, at like 4:30-and by Wednesday we had the money we needed for the buttons, and by Friday we were all organized and ready to go.” Approximately 1,500 buttons were purchased for the event, according to Oh, and she estimated that at least 1,000 were distributed on or before Monday. Funding for the buttons came from the English, sociology, and theology departments, as well as the Institute for Liberal Arts and the Women’s Resource Center (WRC). Informational sheets that were given to the faculty, staff, and students distributing the buttons emphasized the atmosphere that Feminist Coming Out Day was intended to encourage. “We want this to be a fun, educational event, one that we hope will begin a much needed conversation on campus about student culture and about women’s lives at BC,” the sheet read. “What we do not want is for anyone to feel coerced or pressured into wearing one of these buttons.”
Many issues with the term “feminism,” especially the stigma that it often carries, are based on the varied ways in which people define it. “I hear a lot of, ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ or, ‘Feminism-isn’t that like, you know, being militant, or angry?'” Oh said. “It’s extremely uncritical. I think that there’s a continuum, because I think there’s a lot of students who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but-‘ and they’re clearly feminist, they just haven’t embraced the term.” In other ways, however, the division within the student body is more clear-cut. When gathering feedback from the undergraduates who distributed the buttons, Oh said, she heard a variety of experiences that students had while trying to give them out-some encountered no trouble at all, while others got unexpected pushback, from freshman women in particular. She said that in many cases, people are so defensive about the word “feminism” they may not even have a clear idea of what the word means.
While people are reluctant to call themselves feminist, Oh said, feminist critiques and analysis can offer students a valuable way to look at the world around them. “Being able to look at things and say, ‘This is about power, this is about recognizing that rape is rape, or recognizing that violence is violence,'” she said. “This Steubenville case, you have this guy testifying that he didn’t know it was rape, because it wasn’t violent and he thought rape was violent … ideas about rape and consent and women’s autonomy, all of this stuff can be helped by the recognition that feminism has something to offer women in identifying and coping and fighting back against these kinds of things.”
As far as she could tell from talking with undergraduates, Oh said, it seemed as though discussions about feminism in general, and consent and rape in particular, are absent on campus. “There are ways in which none of it gets talked about-or, things like hooking up get talked about in ways that emphasize morality, as opposed to what it might do psychologically to women, or how a hookup culture might affect women’s self-esteem,” she said. “I think that having this very narrow view of, ‘Our students are drinking and hooking up’-being limited to ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’-really does a disservice to men and women, because it ignores the entire question of, what happens to women and men as people, when this is the way they interact.”