Allard: Flattened by Feminism

Assuming women must embrace some particular version of feminism isn’t feminist at all.

by Sydney Allard | 4/20/20 9:31am

“Wouldn’t classes be better if girls always had to speak in class before boys were allowed to participate?” A professor asked me this last term in an attempt to build rapport. The question was rhetorical and my opinion was taken for granted. Surely I, a young woman, wouldn’t disagree.

What bothered me about the question wasn’t so much the fact that I disagreed with its suggestion — though I did. It was that I felt cornered by it. Disagreeing wasn’t an option; my assent was presumed. I could either pretend to agree or be forced to contradict my professor’s assumption. 

This wasn’t an isolated incident. People often make comments expressing ideas that they assume all women will agree with. Some are overt — “Don’t you hate men?” or “Don’t you wish boys would just shut up in class?” Others are subtle — “Don’t you wish we had a full year of paid maternity leave?” or “Shouldn’t colleges do more to push women into STEM?”  Some people agree with these statements, and others disagree. But as people use them, all of these comments imply an assumption that I — and all women — will agree simply on the basis of gender. 

The assumption that  I inherently believe in certain ideas because I’m a woman, or that I would prefer to — all else being equal — vote for a woman over a man ignores the fact that I have agency and can think for myself. I admit it: I often agree with the sentiment that these feminist comments express. But when we assume that women think only on the basis of their gender, we do a disservice to feminism by limiting the variety of women’s ideas that are shared. And we limit women by reducing them to a homogenous group. 

I find myself confronting these assumptions all too often — forced to decide between suppressing my thoughts or being seen as an anti-feminist, which isn’t at all how I identify. I believe strongly in the equality of the sexes; all opportunities that are available to men should be available to women who have the same requisite abilities. I spent my early childhood raised by a single, working mother who taught me that women can — and should be able to — both work and raise a family without either suffering. 

But on many issues, my opinions are more nuanced. I think our conversation around the gender-pay gap often misses the mark, and three years of courses at Dartmouth have shown to me that while in some departments males participate more readily than their female classmates, in other classes the opposite is true. I want to be able to share my nuanced ideas without being seen as a traitor to feminism itself. Honest feminism should make space for women like me to share complicated, unexpected opinions. 

Ironically, it is when people assume that I must agree with their “feminist” ideas that I feel most restricted by my sex. I know that sexism is a more tangible threat for many girls than it is for me, largely thanks to the immense privileges I have grown up with. But that’s precisely the point — my experience as a girl is only mine. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I ask that no one else speak for me. I don’t want to be dismissive of feminism, but I do want the chance to be honest about my beliefs without being accused of undermining feminism.

The goal of feminism and all its proponents should be equality of men and women. Expecting all women to think and behave as a unit gives us less autonomy, not more. A feminism that forces me to submit and agree, to be inauthentic about my bolder opinions lest I contradict the party line, is not truly feminist. I want room to express nuance, to show individuality and to disagree with prevalent narratives. Men get that privilege, and so should we.