Boston College’s maroon and gold were more visible than usual around campus on Monday. Many students and faculty members sported buttons bearing both BC’s colors and the words, “This is what a feminist looks like” on clothing and backpacks in honor of BC’s second annual Feminist Coming Out Day. Arissa Oh, an assistant professor within the history department who has been the driving force behind both of BC’s Feminist Coming Out Days, came up with the idea for the buttons as a way for the BC community to reclaim the word “feminist”-a term that has gained an increasingly negative connotation over the past few decades.
“The reason I had the idea for this last year was because of this statistic that was going around that women were graduating from Boston College with less self esteem than they had when they arrived, and I just thought that was really, really sick and terrible,” Oh said. “I’ve only been here for four years, and one thing I’ve noticed is that people here are very reluctant to say that they’re feminists.”
She noted that she was struck by the homogeneity of BC when she arrived as a professor, and said she feels that homogeneity results in and perpetuates a very narrow definition of gender on campus.
“I feel like that really damages the way people feel that they can be women or men,” she said.
Oh acknowledged that the reluctance to embrace the term “feminist” is not specific to BC but rather is part of a larger, generational trend, but she expressed concern at the lack of resources and forums for discussion of the topic. In particular, she felt BC was not doing enough to engage the community at large in conversations on feminism.
“People who are interested in gender will take Women and Gender Studies classes,” Oh said. “People who are not, will not,” she said.
The goal of Feminist Coming Out Day is to engage that majority of students who do not seek out opportunities to discuss gender.
Oh hopes to do the same thing when she teaches a core history class next year, by tying issues of gender into her presentation of the course material.
She remarked that last year, she took several female history students out to lunch in order to gauge how they felt about the department, and she learned that students wished topics like race and gender would be discussed in more classes and not delegated only to those classes which contained the words in their titles. Oh hopes that more professors will do this as well, making these topics relevant and accessible for all students.
She also hopes that Feminist Coming Out Day continues to grow in momentum as the years go on. Last year, the sudden appearance of 1,500 “This is what a feminist looks like” buttons was the only indication of the celebration, and while this resulted in photos that the history department could post to its Facebook and Twitter feeds, Oh knew she wanted to do more this year. With the help of Robin Fleming, chair of the history department, as well as the Women’s Resource Center, the vice provost, and several academic departments, Oh was able to purchase 2,000 buttons as well as several cakes in order to create a more central event. Another new addition to the day was a small piece of paper that accompanied each button and gave several definitions of feminism.
Throughout the day, students and faculty posted to the BC Feminist Coming Out Day 2014 Facebook event page with pictures of them or their friends wearing buttons or links to feminism-related articles. One post by the BC history department told of a student handing out buttons who had been mocked by a group of boys. The post read, “‘Yeah right,’ they said. ‘Like I’m going to wear one of those.’ Well, why not? Ask yourself. Ask your friends and classmates. Why not?”
Oh summed up her goals for Feminist Coming Out Day: “I want the people who are feminists to be proud of it and not to run away from the stigma of calling themselves ‘feminists,'” she said. “I want people who say, ‘Oh I’m a feminist but …’ to embrace that they are feminists … I want people to talk about why they don’t want to identify as feminists, and then I want the people who are actually sexist to have their assumptions shaken, even if they’re not converted.”
Oh and Fleming both hope the message of Feminist Coming Out Day continues throughout the semester, and that the day grows in strength in future years as more and more people embrace the term and come out as a feminist.
“It is our dream to have guy sports teams or the cops wearing the buttons,” Fleming said. “We hope to see the buttons on people’s backpacks for the rest of the semester.”