Finding Femininity

by Eliza Relman | 11/18/10 11:00pm

Femininity. The term tends to conjure up images of lips, breasts, hair and high heels. Women who society considers "feminine" tend to fully embrace the attributes that delineate them from men, creating a greater physical, and perhaps social, gender divide.

But is there a relevant definition of femininity that supersedes physical appearance? In describing the "ideal" woman, Dartmouth students note qualities like friendly, comical, spirited, ambitious, open-minded and healthy. These qualities, however, have no gender bias and could apply to any human being. Yet, the ideal woman at Dartmouth is undoubtedly different from the ideal man.

"She's smart, interesting, social, in shape and community-service oriented," Chloe Greenbaum '12 said of the "perfect" Dartmouth woman. "She's not sloppy or out of control when she parties, but she's great at pong and hangs out. She hooks up with guys, but doesn't expect a relationship out of it."

The idea that women are expected to be "impossibly well-rounded," as one female student put it, surfaced repeatedly during my conversations with students and faculty.

"The ideal woman stands up for what she believes in, even though it might not necessarily go with what is popular; is moral, accepting, consistent and not hypocritical," a female member of the Class of 2012, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "Dartmouth's ideal is someone who is involved in activities on campus, pretty, skinny and fratty."

The same theme is prevalent at our peer universities as well. As a female Duke undergraduate explained in Rolling Stone magazine, "Reading on the treadmill with the highlighter see, that's Duke in a nutshell. You've got to do everything at once, and you've got to do it well."

The concept, in itself, of there even being an "ideal" woman and an "ideal" man is gender normative and indicative of our society's preoccupation with the differences between the sexes. When discussing femininity at Dartmouth, however, gender relations between women and men must also be considered.

"The ideal woman at Dartmouth is someone who is confident, yet won't encroach on practices on campus that are dominated by males," Hikaru Yamagishi '12, a co-leader of FemNEW, the Feminist Network for the Exchange of Wisdom student organization, said. "She is very independent, but stays in her own space, she'll never do anything degrading, but also doesn't approach men about things that bother her."

This, Hikaru explained, is her understanding of a Dartmouth man's perfect girl.

Discussing gender relations at Dartmouth inevitably leads to a discussion about the Greek system. When women were introduced to the College in 1972, male-only fraternities dominated Dartmouth's social scene. Since the 70s, eight sororities have joined the system however, as nationals, five of these exclusively female organizations are unable to host open parties. The three local sororities on campus, who host occasional open parties, are no match for the 14 fraternity houses, and thus the majority of Dartmouth's social scene is still controlled by males.

The College's current ban on the establishment of new local sororities is a much-debated issue, and considered one of the central institutional inequities for women on campus. Thus women are forced to adapt to socializing and drinking in the spaces dominated by men.

College President Jim Yong Kim said he understands the reasons for contention concerning the administration's policy on additional local sororities, and is exploring ways to provide more spaces for students, and for women in particular, to socialize outside of the fraternities in gender-neutral settings.

"I've heard a lot that one of the solutions to these problems could be more local sororities," Kim said. "At first I heard that and I said, You want me to create more places where women can serve beer?' But I understand now that that is not the only consideration, that there are many, many considerations that could make that a move toward greater gender equity."

In regard to the ban, Kim explained that lack of funding is one of the major hurdles to instituting new local sororities.

Kim added that his administration has explored creating more gender-neutral social spaces in the remodeling projects his administration has undertaken, including that of The Class of 1953 Commons and the Hanover Inn. He cited One Wheelock's success as an example of this type of student space.

As a whole, Kim said he believes Greek organizations are and have the potential to continue to be a positive strong force on Dartmouth's campus as well as a "source of strength and comfort" throughout Dartmouth students' lives. He added that the Greek leaders have a responsibility to work with administrators on efforts to tackle issues like binge drinking and sexual assault, which "have been linked," but are certainly not limited to Greek organizations.

Yamagishi argues that undermining or blaming a system in which the majority of eligible students, including herself, is intimately involved is ineffective and "backward."

"Yes, there are structures that are inherently gender polarizing, but instead of blaming these structures for our problems what needs to happen is people need to exist within the structures with self-respect and dignity," she said. "When people work with the institution in a way they feel is comfortable the institution will shape the way it operates."

Men and women, however, engage with one another in other settings that further warp the gender dynamic. Many believe that there is a stark difference between the relationships and behavior of students in the classroom and in social settings.

"There is a work hard, play hard' mentality here that means you have to be perfect in every aspect of your life," Yamagishi said. "You have to be smart in the classroom, cool in a frat, respected when you're in a sorority and independent when you're unaffiliated. But there are inconsistencies with values and practices on this campus and if you're a consistent person you can't always be fine with everything. It's hard to reconcile being sure of one's morals and existing in different structures on campus."

The shift in relations between men and women from the classroom to the basement seem to be exacerbated, or even facilitated, by alcohol consumption. Intoxication, loud music, dim lights and sweaty bodies mashed together in packed rooms inevitably creates an environment at odds with the relative sanity of the classroom.

It is in environments like the male-dominated frat basements where women seem to lose some of the equal footing they have concretely established in the classroom.

"The interactions I see between men and women in the classroom I think are just exemplary," Kim said. "I think the way conversations happen and the way men and women talk to each other is respectful and I don't see any sort of bullying or male dominance, but I have heard from many women that things change when you get to Friday and Saturday evening and you go into, say, a fraternity basement. Then gender relations change quite a bit."

Women's and Gender Studies professor Annabel Martin said she believes that the dichotomy between student behavior inside and outside of the classroom influences the perception of females' position on campus.

"From what I see and hear in the classroom, I think there are two very different ideals for women at Dartmouth," she said. "In the classroom women are allowed to be independent, outspoken and affirmative in their thinking and beliefs and male students in general are very respectful, however I think the social life on campus does not necessarily promote the same types of values."

Martin argues that the definition of a Dartmouth woman's femininity changes when she leaves the classroom and enters, in particular, a male-dominated social space.

"From the vantage point that I have, the woman in the social scene is a vision of femininity that comes from a masculine lens," Martin said. "I think it's contradictory in some sense to what happens in the classroom [the] classroom allows women to be free, [the] social scene may not allow for that freedom."

This "masculine lens" has also caused misconceptions about femininity and what it means to be a feminist at Dartmouth. Michael Bronski, a professor in the Women and Gender Studies program, defines a feminist as "any human being" who believes in the complete equality of the sexes that's right, the term does not just apply to women.

Yamagishi argues that the term feminism suffers from a stereotype associated with female aggression or "man-hating," rather than a positive, gender-neutral, definition.

However, activism concerning gender relations on campus and women's social position cannot come from above, according to Kim, it must come from students.

"I don't think my role is to try to shape the culture I can't do that," Kim said. "I have to stay away from trying to be moralistic or tell [students] how to behave. What I do have to do is be a champion for [those issues that disproportionately affect women], and have zero tolerance for the kind of blatant sexism that erupts on a lot of campuses." The issues of gender inequity are not unique to Dartmouth, as Kim also noted, but why should that stop us from disrupting the status quo? Femininity is clearly about more than just a short skirt and perfect highlights and must it be defined anyway?

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