I used to be a Psychology major in university. Back then, when people asked me what I was going to school for or what my major was, it was a lot simpler. They’d ask, I’d respond “Psych,” and they would give me a nod of understanding. The nod of understanding might not come close to the nod of admiration that they’d have given me if I’d said “Engineering,” but sure is easier than the response I get now. The response “Women’s Studies” seems to bring about blank looks and a confused expression. “What’s that?” they ask quizzically. It’s as if they’re trying to grasp why I’d study something so obscure, and how this thing called “Women’s Studies” has anything to do with real life.
And how are you supposed to give a 30 second synopsis of an interdisciplinary field like Women’s Studies? Maybe I pre-judge too much, but it also seems to me that if the term Women’s Studies gets me a blank stare, then mentioning feminist thought, historical feminisms, and the philosophy of feminism won’t get much recognition either. And even those descriptions are broad, vague, and not really conveying the importance of Women’s Studies.
So what is the importance today? I’ve heard countless times that the feminist struggle is over, that women have achieved equality with men and that gender is no longer a limiting factor. A brief look around society shows that this, however, is not really the case. Rantsalamode’s recent post about how some men (university educated men) think violence against women is funny is the perfect example of gender inequality in society. When I’ve mentioned to certain university educated men (often with a “practical” degree like Engineering) that I’m a Women’s Studies major, they laugh. Maybe this can just be attributed to how western society’s ideologies support the promotion of rational, positivistic thinking (most evident in science and technology degrees) over abstract, critical thinking -- especially when this critical thinking is geared towards the social issues. But just as it’s too easy for people to laugh off Women’s Studies degrees as a program only for irrational women who blow women’s inequalities out of proportion or for hard-core “man-hating lesbians,” it’s still too easy in our society for both men and women to brush off and act flippantly about the real and hurtful inequalities that women have to live with on a daily basis.
Look around. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin Madison has found that girls perform just as well as boys in the area of mathematics. Which is good news for equality – but isn’t at least it a little disconcerting that in 2008 we still have professionals out there promoting the idea that there is a biological difference between men and women which makes women naturally inferior when it comes mathematics? Wouldn’t we rather have moved beyond these essentialist ideologies? Most women-orientated magazines (such as Cosmopolitan) still seem to focus on training women in how to please men, and many major internet sites seem to follow suit. Everyone’s read the Cosmo headlines: “10 Best Tips Drive Your Man Wild!” “Real Guys Tell Us Their Biggest Turnons!” “How to Get the Perfect Beach Body Before Summer!” “Jeans For Everybody Type – Make Your Butt Look its Best”. CNN has published an article instructing women about what not to say on the first few dates. They seem to be offering advice on the assumption that most women have a least some type of emotional or mental health issue (which is obviously a big turn off for men, who clearly are not interested in putting effort into a relationship with these types of women -- obviously men desire uncomplicated women who are focused on pleasing them). And why is the article directed toward women? Is there nothing that men say on first dates which are a turnoff to women? Maybe there should be a list telling men that they should probably not make flippant comments about violence against women until they know the woman better. Mentioning children they have with other women may is also something women may not be too thrilled to hear about. And here’s a good tip to the men – if you’ve cheated in a previous long term relationship, don’t bring it up right away. Most women will brand you as a player or an asshole, or some combination thereof.
Women are barraged with a constant message of how to act in certain situations and how to live up to an arbitrary ideal. Is this equality? And of course, there will be critics who say “But the media puts out messages about how men should act too!” Yet these arguments ignore the fundamental difference – the ideal that women are supposed to live up to, is an ideal that is focused on pleasing men. It is an ideal which (sometimes subtly) denotes women as second-class citizens. It is an ideal which works to paint an illusion of equality, so that the current and on-going problems can be ignored and brushed under the rug because “we’ve come far enough”.
Well we haven’t. And you’re damn right I’m a Women’s Studies major. And you’re damn right I’m going to demand you listen to what I have to say in conversations. Because complacency is not going to get us where we need to go.