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Why Feminism Matters to Me
Julia Smith
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When I was little I never thought about what it would be like to be the president. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to be the first lady. As far as I knew, I couldn’t be the president because I was a girl. Presidents were old white men (this was before the inauguration of President Obama, but the gender point still stands). I had never seen a female president, so it didn’t occur to me that there could be one.

As I got older, I started learning about feminism, and became more aware of how sexist our society still is. In our culture, most leadership positions still seem to be occupied by men, while women play supporting roles. I’ve also realized that this is part of a bigger problem, where both men and women are limited by traditional gender roles.

This has other implications. For instance, mothers are more likely to be granted custody of their children simply because in our society’s gender roles, the mother is assumed to be the more nurturing parent. Meanwhile, if a man wants to pursue a profession that is predominantly female, such as fashion, design, dance, nursing, or anything involving children, they are sometimes teased for not being masculine enough.

Recently, I joined a feminism club at school, and we talked about how misogyny (which is hatred, dislike, or prejudice toward women) and homophobia (fear or dislike of homosexuality) often go hand-in-hand. The person who insults women is often the same person who insults men who are not very masculine.

I consider myself a feminist, and to me that means I believe in equal opportunity for everyone regardless of their gender, sexuality, or any other characteristic. Feminism matters to me because I want to have the same opportunities as men. I want to be welcome in careers that have been traditionally male, such as science, technology, engineering, and math. Thanks to the feminists who came before me I’m free to have children and a career without having to make a choice between the two. Or if I choose, I’m free to opt out of motherhood without being criticized or judged as much as previous generations.

Mom Helped Me Feel Empowered

Growing up, I was fortunate to have positive female influences, including my mom. She believed that children should be able to pursue their own interests without being hampered by restrictive gender roles.

My mom didn’t feel limited by what she saw around her growing up. She loved math and science in high school. Fortunately she had a guidance counselor who encouraged her to pursue engineering although it was a field that was (and still is) dominated by men. Before she met my dad, moved to New York and had kids, she was a mechanical engineer, and at one point designed submarines for the Navy. The fact that she is a woman, a scientist, and a mother showed me that science isn’t only for men.

My mother did her best to provide my sister and me with toys and books that made us feel like we could do the same things boys did. In addition to our dolls and games, we had LEGOs and blocks.

She also introduced us to Tamora Pierce’s Tortallan book series. They take place in the fictional kingdom of Tortall and each features a different heroine. Alanna disguises herself as a boy to become a knight, Daine discovers she has a unique kind of magic that connects her with nature, and Kel goes through a knight’s training openly female without much opposition. Alanna paves the way for Kel to have the same rights as boys.

These books also provide interesting insight into politics and battle strategy, which I’m sure will be useful if I ever find myself as a knight in a fantastic conflict with a neighboring nation. More importantly, these women are well-developed characters, and work hard to overcome adversity and accomplish their goals in a man’s world. They are heroes.

image by YC-Art Dept

Media Messages

Around my freshman year of high school, I started learning more about feminism.

Even the way I watch movies has been affected by my newfound understanding of sexism and gender roles. For example, my parents recently asked me to watch Gone With the Wind with them, because it is a film based on a classic novel and gives an historical perspective on white Southerners’ experience during the Civil War. Most people see this film as a love story with a strong-willed beauty as the heroine. It won 10 Oscars.

But rather than feeling enlightened about the white side of the war, I was laser-focused on the incredibly abusive and unhealthy relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

When Rhett tells Scarlett he loves her, it is accompanied with remarks like, “You do love me, you just don’t know it yet,” and physical force. When Scarlett tells Rhett that she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore and that she’ll be locking her bedroom door from now on, he tells her not to bother because if he really wanted to come in nothing could stop him. Then he slams the door and knocks a vase off of a table.

When Scarlett stumbles upon him drunk in the dining room, he not only threatens to smash thoughts of other men out of her head, he carries her off, presumably to rape her. In the next scene Scarlett is in her bed humming happily. What really bothers me about this turn of events is that this movie portrays rape as something that improves a woman’s mood and makes her fall even more in love with her abuser.

In the end, Rhett leaves her and she falls in a crying heap on the stairs. This is such a common stereotype about women; after her husband leaves her, Scarlett is a useless wreck. She needs a man to function properly, and is devastated. Again, he is the one who “doesn’t give a damn,” and she begs him not to leave. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to talk sense into a fictional character more. Get away from your highly abusive husband!

This concept that not taking no for an answer is romantic is one that definitely influenced me as a child. I’m not sure where this came from, but I did view it as a loving gesture and not an abusive one. If I had seen this movie when I was younger, rather than wanting to scream at her to leave him, I would have been a bit jealous that she was married to a man who loved her so passionately. He just didn’t know how to express it in a healthy way. But now I understand how damaging and sexist this kind of “love story” can be. Stories like these are what keep men thinking that when a woman says no, she really means yes.

Making Sense of It All

Although Gone With the Wind was made in 1939 (and set in the 1860s), our culture is still producing these kinds of stereotypical portrayals of women. For example, in the first episode of Teen Wolf, a popular young adult TV series, Allison (the protagonist’s love interest) is ashamed to admit that when she accidentally hit a dog with her car, she cried “like a girly girl.” Pretty Little Liars, another teen TV show, is about four girls who reunite after a mutual friend’s death, the “queen bee” of their clique, whose name is also Alison. In flashbacks she comes across as bossy and pushy, pressuring her friends to diet, tell her all of their secrets, and even set a building on fire.

These examples matter—the way kids see men and women and relationships portrayed directly impacts what they expect for themselves and from each other. Moving forward, we need to make sure that women are shown as men’s equals.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on Hollywood for representation of assertive, powerful women; there are real female icons in almost every area now. For example, Hillary Clinton will likely be running for president in 2016. Regardless of whether you agree with her ideas and policies, a potential female president like Hillary Clinton serves as an important role model for young girls. It’s women like her who will inspire the next generation to dream of being president rather than just first lady.

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(NYC-2015-03-05)

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