So I have this friend; let’s call them R. I’ve been close with R since the first week of college. A few days ago, walking out of class with our Starbucks cups in hand, we got on the subject of my minor - Women’s and Gender Studies. Or, as R would call it, Basket Weaving. My classes consisted of Basket Weaving 102 and an Introductory History of the Basket. My professor got her Ph.D. in Basket Weaving and worked closely with the heads of our school’s department to make Basket Weaving a major. At that point, R was on a role and I can’t lie and say I didn’t admire their commitment to the bit. So I stayed quiet and laughed at the appropriate times, but it really got me thinking. Why do so many people not take Gender Study seriously?
I should probably say that I myself am being a bit hypocritical when I ask this question. Before starting college, I didn’t know that Women’s and Gender Studies existed. To be honest, I didn’t know that it was a thing that needed to be studied. I -- like so many people I know -- couldn’t see what everyone was complaining about because, dude, women have their rights already. But every time I walk into class my eyes are both physically and metaphorically opened to the fact that there is so much that I did not know. Even after the bra burnings and crusading Gloria Steinem’s of the past, sexism still exists. Granted, it’s a form a little bit quieter than what one would think, but it’s still there.
Every morning, I walk about a block from the train station to school, and in that block exists the many stereotypes of the city. One cold Tuesday, I was walking to class when two of those stereotypes came my way and one shouted, “Hey mama!” Before he could say anything more, I told him to put it exactly where the sun doesn’t shine and, ever so suddenly, I became the bad guy. I was the big meanie for not welcoming the advances of a complete stranger who was yelling at me and looking at me like a piece of meat. And this had happened to me before, always ending the same way:
“Fine, be that way.”
“I was just being friendly.”
“You’re ugly anyway.”
I’ve heard stories like this from many girls I know, and I’m sad to say that some of my stories were pretty tame in comparison to theirs. I’ve also heard stories of women getting chased down in parking lots and facing death threats, even blatant rape threats. Luckily, nothing that extreme has ever happened to me, but the fact that it still happens is something worth paying attention to. People make jokes about the unapologetically hairy, man-hating, extreme feminists around today, but Gender Study still is relevant for the exact reasons that those women are made fun of. Yes, they can take things to extremes. And yes, there’s not much in terms of career options when it comes to Gender Study. But the sheer point of it is to learn, absorb, and walk away with the knowledge that things aren’t what you may have thought they were.
The motto of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s was, “The personal is political.” Women do have rights. They can work and vote and own property and live their lives the way they want to. But the most subtle forms of sexism come out in the personal stories, the ones people don’t always hear about. The catcalling, the threats, even the quiet, leering once-overs as you walk by. Some of this stuff is under-reported because - and I know from experience -- some people are too ashamed to talk. The point of Gender Study is to talk. Call it Basket Weaving all you want; at least, you’re talking about it. But, please, don’t ever say that there is no point in studying it.