I’ll always remember the condescending smile on the face of my interlocutor as I finally walked away.
The argument was, unbelievably, about the continuing need for feminism, which my adversary contended was out of date. “Can you name a single instance in your life where you’ve been discriminated against?” My failure to come up with one was her moment of triumph: I couldn’t name any personal discrimination, therefore feminism as a concept is dead. Hail, hail, a toast with the cheap white wine at this policy event where we so blithely celebrate our achievements in assessing and passing judgement on the lives and work of others.
It is true that I live a life of privilege and it takes meticulous thought on my part to identify times where my gender has negatively impacted my work or my education. Out of the heat of the moment, a little heap of these moments has collected in my brain, fodder for a cannon I’ll never fire. And those are only the ones I actually recognise, not the ones where others’ or my own unconscious bias played a part in leaving a door closed, an offer ungiven.
The thing that left me speechless overall, the thing I wasn’t able to get out of my mouth to this triumphant woman, is that the mental and emotional work I put into feminism and other -isms isn’t to advance my own personal status or position but to understand the experience of others.
Doing that work might indeed help me advocate for myself, directly or indirectly. But its most important role in my life is to help me appreciate the difficulties that others go through, sometimes at my instigation (directly or indirectly), and to mitigate those inequalities to the best of my ability.
More than ever I believe in the importance of this work. Something that had become a noble yet abstract ideal was brought back into sharp and personal focus by this moment, renewing my zeal for personally working in every way that I know how for a more equitable society. If you see me smiling triumphantly, it is a recognition of this opportunity to renew my commitment.
I doubt there are many competent women who have not been “limited” for their gender. From being put forward to a job I was ideally qualified for and finding they were only looking for men (in Saudi Arabia), to being called “too forward” and “too confident”, or a host of other things-every woman will at times think-would you really treat me like this if I was male?
I see my students, and the loss of women at every step-women who frequently lack positive role models to show that they can do it, and there are opportunities, women who hear “a woman with a PhD is the third gender” as they contemplate the implications of doing a PhD on their career and marriage prospects. Women who get told “women can’t do fieldwork” or “women are no good at statistics”……when exposed to a constant stream of limitations-people may accept them, rather than battling to show they are capable.
Sadly many men and some women also think that there is no longer an issue, blithely ignoring the weight of published studies showing the unconcious biases in every step-from assessing CVs to teaching ability in controlled experiments where ranking’s were done based on the same material with a male or a female name assigned.
Feminism will be needed until we deal with the subconcious as well as the overt biases in society….and sadly in many societies that may be a long time coming
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Alice. I think a step in the right direction is continuing to be vocal about the ongoing biases that women and other minorites face, and not to take for granted that everyone is working from the same set of assumptions and understandings about this.