Li: I Am a Woman

Unawareness of implicit gender inequality stigmatizes feminism.

by Lucy Li | 7/20/17 11:15pm

While studying abroad in Barcelona last term, I had a dinner conversation with my host mom, Lídia, about feminism. Up until this conversation, she and I had touched on feminist issues — negative encounters on the streets with cat-calling, overly aggressive men in dance clubs, her experiences growing up as a woman during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship — but we never directly brought up the word “feminism.” When this word was finally stated during dinner, she responded, “I am not a feminist.”

This conversation took place in Spanish, and while I was fairly conversational in Spanish at that point, I thought that I had misunderstood her. Here was an eloquent, self-educated, absurdly independent and empowered woman who somehow did not identify as a feminist. Amused by my confusion, she said, “I am a woman. I don’t need to identity as a feminist in order to be one. Being a feminist should be inherent to being a woman.”

Which, I realized, it should be. It should be in every woman’s self-interest to believe in her own advancement. However, feminism has taken on a somewhat negative connotation these days, and I often find myself apologizing for ever bringing it up. I realized that Lídia’s decision to disassociate herself from the word “feminist” did not mean that she was disassociating herself from the values that the word embodies, but instead the negative connotations that the word carries.

Feminism — the advocacy of female empowerment based on the simple idea that women and men are equal — is a movement that has become central to my identity, and these days I feel as hopeless as I am empowered by what I am fighting for. It drains me to compulsively apologize for raising topics related to gender that are central to my and other women’s self-conception, and it’s enraging that a lot of people don’t even seem to realize that there are problems left to conquer. I believe this plays a huge role in feminism’s bad rep. If you don’t believe that there are problems left to solve, then we all just look like a hoard of bitter, angry women who can’t seem to give the world a break.

It’s difficult to see the problems that are left because they are less visible. For the most part, women really do have equal rights. Instead of being written on paper, modern gender discrimination lies in the way that men and women have been socialized differently, and they exist in our everyday interactions. There are times when even women cannot recognize the injustices they face because those injustices have become so normal.

My hypersensitivity to the gender dynamics around me has made me realize how much being a woman has affected who I am in ways I wish it never had. Just like I know what is causing systematic gender violence around the world and unequal pay for women, I know why I have felt uncomfortable in certain classrooms, why I was never able to comfortably speak to certain professors, why I don’t go to certain fraternities and why I felt small during certain interactions. I can imagine that a lot of people, who have not felt oppressed or discriminated against, will be critical of what I’ve shared and will argue that my take on my experiences was simply that — my own take. I’ve heard it before — other people are not responsible for how you feel.

After a certain number of negative past experiences, you will try to protect yourself from similar experiences in the future. In the past, certain male professors have talked down to me and other men have made me feel objectified as a woman of color. These experiences drive me to avoid uncomfortable situations in which I feel singled out as a woman.

From the negative comments that I’ve received from men on previous columns and in regards to conversations about feminism, I’ve realized that this concept is difficult to put in perspective. Oftentimes, men will view feminist rhetoric as an attack against them to call them out for being bad people. In reality, feminist rhetoric aims to point out the negative actions contributing to gender inequality. Good people do and say the wrong things when they don’t know that those things are wrong. This is another huge factor that adds to the stigma surrounding feminism; a lot of men are too quick to view themselves as targets of criticism in the face of feminism.

The most dangerous side effect of gender inequality is that women begin to doubt themselves and their capabilities. This side effect is not caused by overt injustices or lack of opportunities; it is caused by the way that women are constantly having to rearrange their world to fit a male-oriented world in order to avoid those injustices or attain those opportunities. It is caused by our compulsion to apologize unnecessarily and by the gender dynamics that silence women.

I am proud to be a woman, even if I have to consciously remind myself to be unapologetic and take pride in my abilities and my contributions. I am proud to be a woman because of the strong women I am surrounded by, and I hope for their sake that gender equality is within reach. While history tells me that we have many more fights ahead of us, my optimism tells me it’s possible.