Reality and Sexism

sexismHere is an absolutely incredible piece by Megan Petersen about attending Scripps College, a women’s college.  It’s like someone climbed into my head and pulled out all the reasons I love going here.  If you don’t want to read it, the rest of my blog post will still make sense, but I still highly recommend it.

So here’s a little context for Petersen’s blog.  In December, a Scripps College student, Elizabeth Pfeiffer, wrote an article for The Huffington Post entitled Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer.  In it, she talks about how Scripps helped her develop into a stronger leader and student.  She in no way shames co-ed colleges, nor really says anything negative about them at all.  She simply expounds upon the merits of Scripps, trying to break down some of the negative stereotypes and preconceived notions that surround women’s colleges, refraining from denigrating a co-ed educational style.

In February, a Claremont McKenna (co-ed) College student, Shannon Miller, wrote a response article for the CMCForum called Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Don’t Encourage It.  In it, she directly attacks each of Pfeiffer’s arguments.  Pfeiffer believes that being surrounded by strong women helps her develop leadership skills?  Miller believes that being faced with ‘the practical challenges that women face (culturally embedded gender roles, male dominance, etc.)’ will allow the women of CMC to challenge ‘those notions by giving women the opportunity to work directly alongside men in prototypical boys’ clubs—something uniquely unavailable at a women’s college’

I think The Golden Antlers, a CMC satirical news source, summed up the argument most effectively in a series of photos with captions, my favorite of which is:

CMC Admissions Office Touts “Real World Sexism Experience”

So is real world sexism really necessary for stronger leaders?  I believe that there are many, many benefits to a co-ed education, but Miller doesn’t tend to argue anything beyond ‘we mirror the real world in terms of gender gap and sexist practices’ (obviously not a direct quote).

This is where Megan Petersen comes in with her own personal blog response to Miller’s article.  Petersen argues that Scripps isn’t important because it mirrors the real world, but rather because it teaches us the language to dismantle the sexism in the real world, and helps ‘me put these constructions (and their dismantling) at the top of my priority list’.  She recognizes that she’s ‘going to be hit head-on with all the patriarchal bull shit’ once she exists Scripps, but now ‘I’m armed. I can identify the subversive tactics typical of the patriarchal structure. I can articulate not only that something is “sexist,” but I can make a point about the discourses surrounding it and propose alternatives.’

Surprisingly enough, the rest of this blog post isn’t going to argue that women’s colleges in general make better or more leaders, just that they make different ones (I’ll leave it to professionals to argue the better/more with facts and figures).

First of all, and I say this many times over to people in real life, just because I go to a women’s college doesn’t mean when I face sexism I collapse crying to the floor.  There is a difference between a college being a Bubble of Ignorance and a Bubble of Protection.  My high school was a Bubble of Ignorance.  I attended an elite private high school where although we were taught much of academics, very little was taught to us of social justice, privilege, sexism, racism, or homophobia.  We lived in our little bubble world where we all focused on getting into college, and although we were aware all these other issues existed, we very rarely analyzed them unless they were included in thesis such as ‘Shakespeare was misogynistic. Explain how.’  I knew so little about anyone else’s experiences in the U.S., and attended a high school with students who were so much like me (or were silenced), that I never really thought about what the world was like for people who didn’t have my privilege, or that privilege even existed.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t learn about privilege and social injustice and social structures at co-ed colleges.  What I am saying is that I did learn these things at a women’s college, even though it is a type of bubble.  The difference is it’s a Bubble of Protection and Education.  I am aware that men exist outside of Scripps. I know sexism exists. I know the patriarchy exists, and as Petersen says, ‘I’m armed’.   I can work around the structure as well as dismantle it, unlike my high school, where I was unaware the structure even existed.  College is not some strange development oven, where women need to be ‘cooked’ by misogyny until they are done.  We do not need to be exposed to a certain amount of hate and hurt before we are ready.  We need to be armed and prepared with the language to explain why what is happening to us is wrong, and to borrow Petersen’s voice again (she’s just so articulate), it allows us to find ‘the words to describe the experiences that used to be nasty memories, knots in my stomach’, and Scripps does just that.

Scripps is a college where deconstructing the patriarchal structures and analyzing gender relations permeates much of our learning, and I happen to enjoy that.  I enjoy it in the same way an environmental activist might enjoy a school with a focus on being greener, or someone interested in science might enjoy a tech college.  Does the environmentalist cry when she leaves her green college and realizes how much waste and pollution exists in the real world?  No, she fights to bring her green practices to all of America, not just the haven she graduated from.  Does the Scrippsie faint when she experiences sexism in the real world?  No, she fights to bring gender equality to all spaces, not just Scripps.  This isn’t to say that Scripps doesn’t have many other wonderful academic strengths, but many of those strengths can be found at other elite colleges.  What makes Scripps special to me is that it constantly teaches me to be a leader aware of structures (and not just the patriarchy), and arms me with very specific tools for fighting it.  I may have learned these tools in a protected space, but they will be just as applicable to the sexism of reality.  I’m about to make a unprovable claim, but I believe that if I were to have attended a co-ed college, I would not have felt nearly as comfortable identifying as a feminist, would not so readily speak up against what I perceive as injustice,  nor would I have learned to defend my positions as strongly. I don’t know if it’s made me a better leader, but I can honestly say I believe that as a safe space it has allowed me to develop a stronger voice.

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About A Lewis

Please check out @alicenlewis

Posted on April 8, 2013, in Claremont, Gender/Sexuality, Growing Up, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Having just finished reading “Teaching Community,” I’m currently in the mindset of analyzing everything through the lens of bell hooks. I think the point you’re making fits in well with hooks’ statement that “as democratic educators we have to work to find ways to teach and share knowledge in a manner that does not reinforce existing structures of domination (those of race, gender, class, and religious hierarchies).” This is a sentiment that, as a teacher, I agree with wholeheartedly. The role of a women’s college to create a protected space in which to build an understanding of feminism and domination without being subject to a large degree of it makes sense to me. After a month of reading your blog I have come to admire your voice and I believe you when you say that you would likely not have developed it to the same strength without the support of Scripps College.

    However, I can’t help but wonder what place there is for males to be educated in feminist theory if the best feminist educators are only teaching to women. I came upon my path to feminism through means outside of my college experience. I realize now that I was privileged to have grown up in a divorced family with a strong activist mother and sister (I will never forget the day my sister slapped me as a child the one and only time I ever used the B-word). Is the only way for males to become feminists to be surrounded by feminists in their social spheres? How does a male brought up in the culture of dominance develop such social spheres if the university setting doesn’t provide him access to feminist theory?

    Please understand that I am not posing this question as an objection to your argument. I feel that women’s voices should be more important to the feminist movement than those of men, and that, if a women’s college is the best environment to strengthen that voice, I support it wholeheartedly. I pose these questions out of genuine curiosity for what the alternatives may be.

    • I would like to start by saying I sincerely appreciate the fact that you recognize that feminist spaces are female spaces first, and although we want to hear male perspectives and voices, there’s always the danger of men accidentally appropriating the space.

      Moving on, I believe a key difference you are pointing out here is between needing to educate others in feminist theory, and the need to have spaces to work out how best to move the feminist movement forward. You seem to be specifically asking how we can create spaces of education. Scripps College (my college) is actually part of a consortium, with 4 other colleges attached, with the other four being co-ed. Anyone (including males) from those 4 colleges can take Scripps classes (which often have a feminist slant), and receive the same feminist foundation I did. The question is whether people (male and female) want to take these classes, or end up discovering the same love for feminism I have.

      You ask ‘How does a male brought up in the culture of dominance develop such social spheres if the university setting doesn’t provide him access to feminist theory?’ and I answer, at least for the consortium I attend, that I hope he uses whatever resources are at his disposal. Yes, feminists will try to spread their ideas and educate those around them, but it is also the responsibility of the privileged to educate theirself. Luckily, Scripps tends to provide more than enough resources for feminist theory, as long as a student (of any college) is open to receiving them.

      Unfortunately I am only able to give this type of clean-cut answer because a. Scripps is an academic feminist space and b. Scripps is part of a co-ed consortium. This makes it much easier for a student from any of the colleges to find a safe space in which to explore feminism. How can this be generalized out to nonwomen’s colleges? Although feminists (and activists) are under no obligation to cater to the male gender, I know of many groups (at least on campus) that host open dialogues for both education and discussion. Perhaps these other groups exist on other college campuses as well, and the trick is getting the males ‘brought up in the culture of dominance’ to listen, or even realize these voices exist in the first place. I assume these education spaces exist in most academic settings, but probably need to fight to have their voices heard.

      Can these types of forums occur outside the college environment? I would like to say yes, but I will freely admit I am an idealist who has little exposure to fighting for feminism outside of Scripps College. I unfortunately don’t have many answers or opinions regarding this topic, and I will be sure to give it further thought, and perhaps respond again one day when I have a more substantial opinion. I hope what little opinion I do have made sense in this response.

  2. I have to say, Shannon Miller’s argument strikes me as a little bizarre. I understand how having experience dealing with sexism can be helpful in combating it, but it seems to me that she’s making the argument that the best way to combat sexism… is to make sexism as prevalent as possible. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the right approach (¬_¬).
    Jeff makes an interesting point on the topic of men learning how to deal with sexism – I’m not really sure what to say on that…

    • Yeah, she got torn apart for that article. If you ever have the free time, try reading it, then checking out the comments underneath. There are some beautifully written rebuttals that I highly enjoyed.

      I wrote a wall of text to Jeff that you can read and respond to if you want, I’d love to hear commentary on it because I was mostly musing aloud.

      • Yeah, I saw a lot of good counter-arguments in the comments.
        In response to the above ‘wall of text’:
        As it stands, Colleges and Universities are probably the best places to learn about feminism (or any other social movement, really), and I suspect this is particularly true when compared to the workplace. However, the thing with offering courses on feminist theory, or with a feminist slant, is that they will overwhelmingly only be taken up by those who are already passionate about, or at least supportive of feminism. This is great for teaching said people about how to express their views more clearly and eloquently (which is, of course, a very useful thing), but it doesn’t address the problem of a more general ignorance about the movement (especially in males), which is something I feel like Jeff is talking about. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many opportunities there are for a person to learn about feminism if they’re not interested in learning. How can we address this broader ignorance, and all of the accompanying misconceptions? I I feel like that’s the question we should be asking.
        To bring it back to what Alicen and Jeff are saying, I guess my point is that simply offering some courses probably isn’t going to change much, although they’re not a bad start.

  3. Daniel Baratheon

    I have a few problems with Pomona, Pitzer, and Scripps, and a few more with Scripps in particular. A big part of it is the”holier than thou” attitude that comes from all three institutions, especially when I enter spaces and identify myself as a CMCer. I realize the banality of white, male-bodied, cisgendered men complaining that they’re being judged. This isn’t exactly about that What bothers me is that the other 5C’s houses are not so much more in order than CMC’s. Casting sidelong glances at whatever stag has put a hoof in their mouth is a pretty good distraction from cleaning your own house. Don’t ignore the plank in your own eye for the speck in ours.

    Don’t get me wrong. Shannon Miller’s article was horrible. I took a few potshots at her myself in the comment section. But I don’t know if Scripps is the place to go to if you’re all about activism, especially with low little Claremont College students interact with their community. In any case, the Claremont Colleges are demographically very similar. While there are some differences, it is a space that is composed mostly of moderately liberal, white children of upper-middle class to upper class parents. We don’t have many POCs in campus and we have a laughable amount of diversity in terms of economic background and in terms of race.

    Scripps still gives me weird paternalistic vibes. Just like CMC can’t help but show how much it was a GI Bill school where Marines could learn about government and accounting to get jobs in longstanding institutions, Scripps can’t shake the “finishing school” qualities that mark it as a women’s college of a certain age. The resistance to getting HvZ on Scripps’ campus was absolutely ludicrous, and I’m not so sure how I feel about how Core is handled. They’re courses I’ll never get to take, but I’ve seen questionable things in friend’s notes. The reason that there are so many pianos and kitchens in dorms isn’t because Scripps wants students to have “complete, well rounded lives”. There’s another ideological agenda there. Just like how Scripps doesn’t use the same sort of cleaning services like Pomona and CMC.

    Scripps as an institution is just as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Going to Scripps and patting yourself on the back is like thinking you’re a good human being for shopping at Whole Foods. The issue is a lot more complex than that. And I’ve glad you’ve learned a lot and fallen in with a good crowd, but I think the whole “are Women’s colleges good or bad ” argument is as uninteresting as it is tired. They are. They exist. There are pros and cons to each one. Let’s look at the college at hand. And the college at hand isn’t some weird liberal utopia. There is plenty of good work being done at Pomona through their part of the GWS faculty and Africana studies faculty. Painting Scripps as a bastion of feminism or anything else seems misguided. A relationship to the college should be more complicated than that.

    One of the horrible things about CMC is that CMC as an institution doesn’t really know how it’s evil or that it’s evil. It also means it doesn’t really try to hide its misgivings. I’ve had plenty of professors up front talk in support of Yaron Raviv. There is something that can be learned from being in a place where you have something to push against. And the humanities departments encourage a lot of similar critical thinking. The English department at Pomona has a lot of great people. I don’t so much seek to dispute the fact that Women’s colleges really empower people but to add a “Yes, but,” or caveat emptor. Know what you’re getting. And know its legacy and genealogy.

    I spent last summer at a co-op in Cal. It was a crazy summer for a lot of reasons. But it put what student activism could be and approaches to it in a different light. And let me say, I’m not impressed by Pitzer. I’m not impressed by Scripps. I’m all for safe spaces for women to organize, but I don’t know if “Women’s college” is the best option for people to get educated or be involved in the community. I know if and when I have a daughter, and this conversation comes up, it’ll be a long and kind of complicated one. Yes, Women’s colleges bring great things. But mind what you’re losing. Miller’s article was awful. But that’s because she went about the wrong way and she really isn’t all that thoughtful. There’s are any number of criticisms that apply.

    I realize I’m talking past a lot of your points. But this is the very discussion that gets lost and lets people sit on their laurels thinking that they did something great in and of itself by deciding to go Scripps and take classes that have “feminism” in the course title. Or that Scripps having its doors open are really a good or viable or ideal method of education for anyone else. There are plenty of sources that may or may not better to get an education in social justice than in a Scripps classroom.

    • First of all I’d like to say that I didn’t mean to imply that Scripps is a ‘bastion of feminism’, a ‘liberal utopia’ or perfect in any way, or that I was ‘patting myself on the back’/feeling particularly enlightened for attending Scripps. Scripps is flawed, as are most liberal arts colleges.

      I would like to preface both the original blog post and this response by saying I do not feel holier than thou for taking classes that have aspects of feminism, I don’t feel like I’ve done something great, and I don’t feel like by educating myself I’ve actually brought about any type of meaningful change. To me Scripps is a good first step towards education about the patriarchy, but not a particularly good place on how to *fight* the patriarchy beyond giving us the vocabulary to understand more about it (and in my case a stronger voice).

      You also state that my relationship to my college should be more complicated than just how I relate to feminism, but I think what I perhaps didn’t convey clearly in this blog post is that this isn’t the entirety of what Scripps meant to me, it was just a particular aspect I wanted to analyze. Each of the points you brought up, the ‘finishing school’ vibe, the need for a new core curriculum, the resistance to HvZ, are all perfectly reasonable arguments against Scripps, but I don’t necessarily think that just because those are negative parts of Scripps, it invalidates the fact that Scripps tends to be fairly feminist as a whole (perhaps I’m wrong, I’m just speaking from my own observations), and that the environment of feminism can be empowering for some students (although I only speak for myself).

      I’m not saying you can’t find this type of environment at other colleges (you pointed out that Pomona has good GWS and Africana studies programs), just that Scripps as a whole tends to focus on it (at least feminism, most definitely not activism in general), instead of just one department. As I said, I don’t mean to imply that you can’t receive this type of education at a co-ed college, just that in my opinion it might be easier to find/fall into (I never expected to be such an advocate for feminism) here, and I do recognize that Scripps is flawed in many, many ways. I also acknowledge that I did not learn to be a better activist at Scripps, but without Scripps I don’t think I’d even really quite understand *why* people are activists (yes I had that sheltered of an upbringing). Activism is important. It would be nice if Scripps had a better program for creating student activists. I fully acknowledge that it doesn’t, and never meant to suggest that Scripps is perfect in its feminism.

      If I wanted to, I could write another blog post about other parts of Scripps I find flawed, but in my opinion (and perhaps it’s just my inexperience at writing showing), I don’t think I could have included that type of critical analysis in this particular article without it becoming long and cumbersome, and thus I chose to analyze just one part (which most definitely isn’t the only part of Scripps).
      When you say ‘Yes, Women’s colleges bring great things. But mind what you’re losing. Miller’s article was awful. But that’s because she went about the wrong way and she really isn’t all that thoughtful. There’s are any number of criticisms that apply,’ I would like to point out that I in fact acknowledged the fact that Miller’s article completely skipped over perfectly reasonable arguments against women’s colleges, and that those arguments do exist and are valid. I was just arguing for one particular part I found positive about Scripps, and didn’t mean that this part made up for any number of flaws that exist in the system.

      Perhaps there do exist people who feel like ‘good people’ for taking feminist classes, or feel like they have done something great just by educating themselves. I don’t. I’m thrilled that I’ve managed to learn new things that help me understand the world in a new way, but I don’t think I’m a better person for it. I especially don’t think I’m necessarily contributing anything. I would not call myself an activist. Yes, I’m vocal, yes, I argue, but I don’t organize for social justice. I will admit I feel slightly frustrated because I can’t tell if this article was actually written in a ‘pat on the back’ tone that suggests that I’m superior and Scripps is perfect, or if you are just placing that tone upon it because you think too many people feel this way (I’d love if anyone who happens to be reading this, which I doubt anyone is, would chime in).

      Finally, if you believe that the Women’s College argument is ‘uninteresting’ and ‘tired’, I invite you to have stopped reading this post when you realized what it was about? I don’t mean to shove my opinions down anyone’s throats, which is why I post them in a blog, and because no one is obligated to read them, I don’t feel guilty adding my own voice and opinions to an argument that really doesn’t have a conclusion. If some people feel the topic has been exhausted, I would not feel hurt if they chose to skip this particular post. I would like to thank you for reading it and commenting, though, because it gave me a lot of good food for thought, even if I feel like you might have misinterpreted (or I just failed to convey) my tone as a whole. I would also love (although you obviously don’t have to) if you could clarify on any of your points if you feel like I’ve misunderstood them, or if my reply to them doesn’t make sense.

  4. I think the problem that Daniel is getting at lies in something that has always irked me when I’ve visited college towns, and that is the whole nature of a college town as being some privileged place where knowledge is gained but not applied. Growing up in Chicago, I lived in a big city throughout my college education. I worked my way through school part-time, taking about ten years to receive my degree. Doing so allowed me to apply the knowledge I was gaining in my classes immediately to real-life situations. For me, my courses dealt with how to care for and teach young children. Working first as a swimming instructor and then as a preschool teacher made these courses meaningful for me.

    Through my activist and my research work I’ve developed relationships at quite a few universities (including the co-op in Cal that Daniel mentioned). In this I’ve seen many different types of student activists. And the best student activists are the ones who extend their activism beyond the borders of their university, into the so-called “real world.” The ones who don’t just sit around and discuss Marx in a classroom reading Derrida, but who take that Marxist theory and use it to build a movement to fight against sweatshops. People who will take the knowledge they’ve gained from a course on the Civil Rights movement, and go out and move into one of the poorest housing projects to work alongside the people to build a movement against racism and police brutality. The ones who will take their knowledge gained from feminist courses and go out and do clinic escorts at a local Planned Parenthood.

    These are all concrete examples of excellent student leaders I have had the honor of working with. In applying their knowledge to real-world situations, these activist students were able to not only make a difference in the world, but also to deepen their understanding of the knowledge that they were gaining in the classroom. These were situations that were made possible by the fact that these students were attending college in a major metropolitan area.

    However, bell hooks contests the idea that the university setting is a place that is necessarily set apart from the so-called real world. She tells us that, “the democratic educator breaks through false construction of the corporate university as set apart from real life and seeks to re-envision schooling as always a part of our real world experience, and our real life.” She discusses the fact that there are always power dynamics at play even within the most progressive of universities. This is something that has come out in the past in this blog (i.e. “Dress Codes” ). The question, then, isn’t one of determining whether or not the university you attend is somehow set apart from the “real world,” but rather of determining how knowledge gained in this setting be applied to the “real world” without having to wait four years to do so.

    This ties into the question that Synarite is posing. If students make an effort to take their knowledge beyond the confines of the classroom and build an activist movement, they can utilize what they are gaining in what Alicen refers to as a “protected space” while at the same time helping others to have protected spaces as well. Of course, this is all well and good in the abstract, but still doesn’t answer the concrete question of “How?” This is a question that may not be answerable in a general way, as it could very well depend on the specific community in which you operate and the concrete conditions of the people who make their lives there.

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