I’ve been thinking about this for quite a long time now. I’ve searched my soul, watched countless speeches, talked to close friends, done my research, and have decided to announce myself to the world. Yes, I’m a feminist.
Why is this such a big deal, though? Why do we continue to ask female celebrities whether they consider themselves a feminist? Why is there still a need for a headline when a character like Katniss Everdeen emerges as a “strong female protagonist?” Why is there such negativity and misunderstanding surrounding the #YesAllWomen hashtag currently trending on Twitter? And the biggest question of all: WHY did I feel so nervous about declaring myself an advocate for the equality of women and men?
I was a fair mix of mud-under-the-nails and Disney princess growing up. My day was filled with equal parts dress-up and Barbie as it was with baseball and football in my yard. I graduated high school in the top ten percent of my class and am on track for a summa cum laude graduation in the upcoming year. And yet, in my twenty one years of life, I have grown into a world where I am still not always recognized as equal to my male counterparts.
In fact, I witnessed this firsthand at my younger sister’s track meet several weeks ago. An unbelievably talented athlete, she can run a mile in under six minutes. At this track meet, the students ran their mile co-ed, and she was maintaining a fairly substantial lead. The boy running in second place behind her began to get harassed by a male on the sidelines: “Come on, you can’t let a girl beat you! Run faster, you can’t lose to a girl!” The boy ended up dropping out mid-race due to an injury, and still I heard the man say to a coach “I would’ve quit too if I were losing to a girl.” I was furious. How could this man possibly attempt to invalidate the dedication, hard work, and success of my sister based solely on the fact that she is a female? And what is the effect of the message imparted upon that young boy – still developing in his knowledge of the world around him – that it’s better to exit the race entirely than to see a girl ahead of him?
We are teaching girls to make themselves smaller to pad the ego of boys. We are teaching boys to feel inferior and devastated if they fall short to a girl. On average, women still make less than men despite decades of publicity surrounding this fact. Dress code bans in schools cite not inappropriate female clothing, but instead the distracting impact it has on the boys who look at these outfits. We tell young girls that if a boy is mean to her, it probably means he likes her. We tell a boy who missed a routine ground ball at second base that he’s playing like a girl. We teach girls how to protect themselves against rape without attempting prevention for the other side of attacks. We continue to debate the legitimacy of conditions surrounding a rape rather than acknowledge a “no means no” policy. We are markedly more concerned when our sons want to play with dolls than when our daughters want to play with trucks. It is the 21st century. Why are we still stuck here?
If I were to ask any male friends what they did on a daily basis to protect themselves from sexual assault, there would probably be a long pause and maybe the occasional “don’t walk down a dark alley.” If you were to ask me, though, I could tell you that I make sure to never walk anywhere alone in the dark. If I do, I call my roommate or boyfriend while walking. I walk longer distances if it means a well-lit path. When my friends go on dates, we have a safe word or phrase just in case the date does not go according to plan. Before I get in my car, I check my backseat as well as any individuals in the cars parked adjacently. Once I’m in the car, I immediately lock my doors and leave as soon as possible. I don’t make eye contact with anyone on subways or busses. I listen intently for footsteps behind me, I watch for cars driving strangely, I am always alert to the people and sounds around me on a busy street. While I do all this, I also attempt to look confident and not project any fear or weakness despite nervousness or discomfort. These actions are a conscious effort and constantly running through my mind on a daily basis. I have been taking these precautions and many more for as long as I can remember, because these are things that I and my female peers have been socialized to understand as necessary to protect ourselves.
It’s not my wish to blame or persecute any individual men or women when it comes to this issue. We are all products of our cultural body. However, we also have a responsibility to examine and shift those beliefs which have become outdated or are purely unjust. I am tired of explaining why I think feminism is an issue. I am tired of feeling apologetic for using the buzzword “feminist” because we have been influenced to believe that feminists are whiny, discriminatory, and ineffective. This is an issue of humanity and the inability to acknowledge the existence of a problem. It is a problem of language, of tradition, of media, of stereotypes. And it is a problem that those who feel inspired to change any of these issues are put down as man-haters or discriminators themselves and, for the most part, are eventually silenced.
I am a feminist because I am a woman and not a victim. I am a feminist because I don’t think that boys should be made to feel inferior if a woman is winning. I am a feminist because I don’t think that girls should be made to feel guilty or undermined if they are the one ahead. I am a feminist because I do not owe anyone my mind or body simply because of my gender. I am a feminist because I do not wish to dampen my intelligence or stifle my beliefs to make people feel more comfortable. I am a feminist because I am a human and I believe that we all deserve not only to feel, but to be equal.