TIME feminism

I’m Not Oversensitive! What Even Harvard Guys Somehow Still Don’t Get About Feminism

Kirkland House At Harvard University
Harvard University. Boston Globe—Boston Globe via Getty Images

When men in the Ivy League don't believe that women will ever be able to achieve parity in leadership and economics, it's time to have a conversation.

Last week, I asked four of my male friends whether they considered themselves feminists. All four said no.

It was an issue of terminology, they said. One was totally down with equality, just not down with a word that inherently implies one sex’s superiority. Another said that, since he isn’t a part of any feminist organizations, he doesn’t feel comfortable claiming the label. I guess these are both fair responses. I, too, have my own issues with the word “feminism” because it brings to mind a movement largely composed of white, middle-upper class women who failed to recognize that certain women of minority groups face a twofold battle.

I should have made my definition clearer, perhaps by reference to the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sample in Beyoncé’s “Flawless” that defines feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

But, when three out of my four male friends agreed that a world vision in which half of our countries and companies are run by women and half of our households are run by men could never be realized, our differences graduated from lexicon to something much more fundamental. Women carry children, one said. Another chimed in and said we can’t expect women to have the same aspirations as men because of those nine months they spend carrying their child and the time they must spend breastfeeding after that.

They told me they didn’t intend me to take their comments personally. But how could I not? How could they tell me that biology destines my sex to be less ambitious and then expect me not to feel offended?

Forgive me for being emotional (I hear women tend to be that way), but I was deeply hurt. Perhaps my naive belief that all of my friends would be on board with woman’s liberation stems from the fact that I am lucky enough to have a feminist father who tells me that I can do anything I want and an entrepreneurial mother who doesn’t apologize for her success.

She told me to never make excuses: “When you face discrimination, don’t listen or pay it any mind. Just laugh all the way to the bank instead.” I know that I have the power to achieve anything a man can (except for standing up and peeing, although this might change soon).

What I realize now, though, is how necessary that conversation was, even if it made me upset at first. If I had not asked those friends for their opinions, I would never have known what they believed. I am happy that things got personal, and I am not mad at the boys who disagreed with me. I just know that we both deserve another conversation—another chance to say exactly what we mean and truly listen to each other. The feminist movement will never be effective if it fails to appeal to a broader audience. The people whom I don’t usually talk to about feminism are exactly the people who should be involved in changing gender dynamics on this campus. Because, frankly, there are moments when I feel crushed by the need for change.

One of these moments was the day during my freshman year when I noticed that only one of the guest lecturers for Economics 10 was female. One of my male friends told me I was oversensitive for noticing or caring. I guess he didn’t understand that, while he, as a white male, never has to look very far to find someone who looks just like him in a position of power, others do not have the same privilege.

I also see our social scene pleading for change. Despite the fact that we perpetually question whether we should attend final club parties, I would be lying if I said that these male-controlled spaces weren’t the most consistent source of parties for my friends and me. And when, in an attempt to maintain capacity and admit only those individuals whose name were on the list that night, a boy whom I would call my friend asked a group of girls outside his club to “please stand in single file against the wall,” I could not help but wonder what kind of attitude this social set-up promotes among the male members of these clubs and the women who wait to enter them.

And, as I wait for the day when Harvard will finally adopt a policy of affirmative consent in an official capacity, I remain frustrated about the fact that the conversation about sexual assault on this campus remains confined to people who are not the real source of the problem. How about the men who have hurt my friends? And the ones who still fail to understand that a woman saying “no” isn’t an invitation to convince her otherwise? These are the ones who must be engaged.

Boys, I don’t want you to feel offended or alienated by these statements. I believe in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. And, when I tell you this, I don’t want you to run away from the pile of burnt bras you might imagine next to me. Instead, I want you to ask questions. Female solidarity should never threaten you—it should invite you to want to learn more.

Jennifer A. Gathright ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Currier House. This piece originally appeared in The Harvard Crimson.

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