Monday, November 10, 2014

Feminist Confessions

This was originally posted on the PostCalvin Blog, but since their site is having a little trouble as of late and I wanted to reference this particular post in another, I felt a repost here would not go amiss.

When I think about feminism I often remember Sarah, a girl I played soccer with at Calvin. We were a tough team, known in the league (a friend from Albion once told me) for hard knocks. On picture days, girls who wore their hair down for a prettier photo were mocked. It’s soccer, we said. We’re here to win not look pretty. As if that was a self-evident dichotomy.

Sarah did both. Some days I would meet her on the pathway down to the lower practice fields. My ankles were taped up and I was banishing poetry class from my thoughts, trying to focus on drills and sweat and the upcoming game. Sarah found a dandelion and stuck it in her hair. She had wide blue eyes and her hair was always flying out of any ponytail she put it in. I’m not sure she ever pointed out the shapes of clouds to me as we walked together, but it feels true when I remember her.

Back in my first year at Calvin I was introduced to feminism by Simona Goi, my political science professor. I adored that class—the readings, the lectures—but the only moment from it I actually remember is the day Professor Goi gave us her policy on pronouns. No more “their” or generic “his;” use “his or hers” or switch between them.

We protested. It sounds awkward. “His” means the same thing; we know it stands for both. When Professor Goi, visibly disgusted and frustrated, asked the women in the class we were being left out. I remember not caring, thinking she was blowing the importance of pronouns out of proportion. My shoulders shrugged with others’: exiled from the text, a small sacrifice for the sake of fluid prose.

I don’t remember who changed that for me. Maybe it was the Bechdel test. Maybe it was Joss Whedon. Maybe it was how ridiculous people sounded talking about Hilary Clinton’s hair instead of her politics. It might have been my self-defense instructor, her short, silver hair a curly halo as she led us in meditation one minute and then explained every way to gouge out an attacker’s eyes the next. It might also have been Pastor Mary, whose relatable and eloquent sermons reminded me—I don’t confess this lightly—of the disdain a younger me felt when I attended a wedding presided over by a female pastor.

In perhaps sophomore year Professor Vander Lie challenged my linguistics class to observe in our classes the number of times a female student spoke versus the number of times a male student spoke. Most viscerally I remember men, who were physically outnumbered in my theology class, volunteering information twice as much as the women in the class. Five years after that little experiment I’m still horrified by the ratios I see in my own classroom.

Somehow, years before, I’d put myself in a box. I could either be pretty or a bad-ass soccer player, not both, and it was obvious which the superior choice was. I began to recognize that my submission and silence for greater societal good—clean pronouns in prose, for instance; less contention in class—was harmful for myself (lacking in confidence) and others (lacking diversity). We are never one thing nor should we be. My teammate Sarah probably still comes to mind because I try to emulate the freedom she had. She was, like we all are, vulnerable, intelligent, whimsical, hard-working, clever—a million different things all at once.


Just last month I wrote a short piece about my journey to feminism, a gradual awakening similar to how America’s love for Taylor Swift has become more and more acceptable. This past week I was encouraged by a similar story from EileenPollack, a physicist-turned-writer, who came to Purdue University to discuss why women self-select themselves out of STEM disciplines.

I found her story compelling. Pollack grew up in a rural, underfunded public school system. Without any advanced courses, some of the parents in the district complained and a new system was set up: students who did well on a test would be advanced a year in science and math courses starting in middle school, and then during their upperclassmen years of high school could attend classes at the local college. Pollack was disappointed when she was advanced with many of her male classmates and livid when she found out the principle had held her back because, “everyone knows girls don’t go on in math and science and it would have been a waste of a seat.”

So she taught herself calculus and got herself into Yale where she majored in physics—publishing a couple papers on the way. At the end of her four years, she quit the sciences and turned to creative writing (where she has since published two books and several collections of short stories and currently teaches at the University of Michigan). Why? Why would such a gifted person leave the STEM disciplines when she clearly had the potential for a stunning career? By all accounts she was a brilliant physicist—doing all the work required of her with little to no institutional support. Why would fail to even consider a continued life in the STEM disciplines? Why would she fulfill her middle school principal’s prognostication that she, like other women, would not go on in the field?

These are important questions with sad answers. Pollack didn’t get “distracted” by a desire to make a family. Nor did she lack the innate ability to do math or science because of her gender. No one overtly bullied her or harassed her for being only one of three girls in the entire physics department. They ignored her and called it equality.

Pollack spoke of the time her pantyhose caught on fire when she spilled a chemical on it during a college lab. The hose going up in smoke and her leg, bloody and burned, caused her to scream in surprise. At the time she was wearing the pantyhose because she’d come from temple and a religious holiday, but other women have recounted the challenge of dressing for the sciences: too feminine and you don’t get taken seriously; too nondescript and you’re no longer “womanly.”

Pollock described the demographics of her classroom and the physics department—white men and a few white women—the pictures of past physicists (white men), the study groups conducted only in the boys’ dorms, the feeling of always being behind, outside, a token woman—representing women everywhere if she failed in her quest and an outlier if she succeeded. And so, without even considering it, Pollack threw away her career in physics for something less isolating, where her work could simply be work and not something she had to prove.