Feminism in the Post-Smith-College World
Guest post by Amanda Rose Smith
“I’m not going to Smith College.”
That’s the first thing I said to my college counselor, when at 16 years old and a junior in highschool, I came shuffling into her office in my leather jacket and walmart-bought steel-toed boots. It’s safe to say that just about nobody would have ever called me a paragon of femininity or a “girly-girl,” but even so, the word “feminist” had always seemed a little bit like a dirty word to me. I felt that it implied victimhood, a need of special treatment, and was determined to prove to anyone who would pay attention that I didn’t need that. As such, I found the idea of an all female college completely repugnant. Still, despite my statement and the finality of decision-making that it implied, I did, in fact, end up going to Smith College. It was mostly a matter of financial aid, school reputation, and proximity to home. Also, they had a *great* program in what I wanted to do. It was a bit perplexing to me, but everyone kept saying how perfect it would be for me, and how much they knew I would love it. Despite the fact that I still had some misgivings, I went. Aside from that whole “no guys thing” as I called it, it made sense.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the school (although I sort of suspect anyone reading this kind of blog probably is) it is one of the few originally all female schools left that still only admits women. It is one of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the entire country, male, female, or co-ed. It has graduated tons of famous women, including Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, Tammy Baldwin…it is also the Mecca of feminism. Smith was where I learned about the different ways of spelling woman (womyn, for example) I learned the pronouns that you use for transgendered people and aaalll about “The Patriarchy.” While other girls were going to frat parties and joining sororities, I was eating vegan cutlet and discussing affirmative action. That’s not to say I was immediately converted. During freshman (sorry- I meant to say, “first year”) orientation, all the new girls in my dorm sat in a circle, taking turns telling the group what they hoped to accomplish at Smith. When they got to me, I smirked and said, “I’m just here to find a nice man.”
That’s pretty much how it went the entire time. As I had when I was younger, I struggled against the idea that I was somehow disabled because I happened to have been born with a vagina. In fact, in a bizarre kind of way, I sort of liked the idea of things being a little harder for me than they were for other people. I liked the challenge. I liked the idea of doing more with less, and so, whenever I heard other girls complaining about it being harder to “make it” in their areas of study, I would roll my eyes and think, “If they just worked a little harder, and shut up, everything would be fine.” I mean, if they really did do as good a job as their male counterparts, they’d HAVE to accept them, right? RIGHT?
I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t love being at Smith. I did. I really did. It was an amazing environment for learning and I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life there. The women I spent 4 years brushing my teeth next to in the morning are now lawyers, doctors, engineers, publishers, and then there’s me, the hybrid technologist/artist. We’re a pretty awesome bunch, if I do say so myself, especially having reached all that before the age of 30. ANYWAY.
So then I graduated, and moved to NYC to start my freelance career and to go to grad school. My degree at Smith had been in classical composition and now I was going for a masters in Music Technology. It was my entrance into this kind of work that introduced me to the fabled misogynist.
The first few times that it happened, I didn’t really think much of it…being passed over for internships which went to guys who were a lot less intelligent and experienced than myself, being talked down to by employers in a way that didn’t seem to happen to my male counterparts. There were times that I suspected what was going on, but after being so inundated at Smith by people talking about discrimination, and seemingly blaming EVERYTHING that went wrong in their lives on that dreaded Patriarchy, I REFUSED to be THAT girl. I would keep quiet. I would work harder.
The thing is, it only got worse. During my third internship as a sound designer at a post studio, I was leaving the studio late one night with one of the senior engineers. There were 11 interns, 10 young men and me. During the ride down in the elevator, the engineer was complaining about how us interns hadn’t done well enough in our duty of cleaning the studio every day. I shrugged. He continued, “Hey, you’re a girl. Why don’t you teach the rest of them?”
Now, I’ve always been loathe to let anyone accuse me of not being able to take a joke, even when it comes to things that a lot of other people wouldn’t find funny. So, I dutifully waited for him to crack a smile or say “Just kidding!” or something to that effect. Nothing. I stood there in shocked silence for a minute before saying, “Yeah…and then maybe I can make you a sandwich. How would that be?” If what he said had been a joke I didn’t get, he didn’t get mine either. After another moment of silence, the doors parted and I went off on my way.
After a few more incidents like this, I began to get angry. As a house engineer at a nightclub I had to watch bands give their mix directions to my male intern rather than to me, and have drink orders yelled at me by rowdy patrons assuming my having tits made me a waitress. Visiting male engineers wouldn’t let me lift gear because they assumed I would break like a delicate flower the first time I tried to lift with my legs. Male co-workers would stop talking when I came around the corner during their re-tellings of a previous night’s hot and heavy date. I found that attempting to create a comfortable space by telling MY stories of sexual conquest was mostly met with awkward foot shuffling. So much for being one of the guys.
I felt betrayed because being “one of the guys” was exactly what I wanted, and what I’d always figured I could have. Every time I sat at Smith and listened to these stories of sexism, there was a part of me, steeped in that environment of female power, that didn’t believe them. Somehow I had internalized this feeling that those women who told those stories, unless they were talking about “the olden days,” well, they were just being oversensitive. I didn’t believe that sexism was still real. I thought that feminism was all about special treatment, not about equality, because I had been under the impression that I already HAD equality.
So here I was, considering the things I had learned at Smith, years after graduating. I felt trapped. I didn’t know how to approach this problem. I didn’t want to be viewed as “THAT girl,” as I’d always thought of that stereotype, but now that I’d had some first-hand experience, I also felt that I couldn’t let certain things pass anymore. Whenever I hear people say that certain jokes are out of bounds, or talk about being “offended,” I usually want to retch. So. how do you talk frankly about something, and how do you address the fact that jokes sometimes ARE telling of a person’s actual prejudices without being that stick in the mud, lame “womyn” that no one wants to hang out with? I couldn’t stay in the Smith College world forever. I HATE vegan cutlet.
Navigating sexism today is hard, and I meet a lot of other women and girls who like I used to, react to it by way of refusing to admit that it exists. At first glance it appears to be a place of power, but in large part they are actually doing themselves a disservice. Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away, and can in some cases actually be interpreted as acceptance. Of course the new-wave pseudo-feminist technique of dwelling on it doesn’t really help either. Problems need to be acknowledged, and they need to be overcome, but there is a difference between working to change something and using it as an excuse. The two get mixed up a lot, and when the problem is as subtle as it often is these days, its easy for someone who doesn’t have to deal with it, like your male friends or coworkers, to assume that you’re making something out of nothing. The real challenge is trying to communicate, in an effective way, why these things aren’t, in fact, “nothing.”
I don’t yell at every person I hear make a joke that could be interpreted as sexist, I don’t automatically assume that I didn’t get a job because I’m a woman, and I don’t, ever, if I can avoid it at any cost, use the word, “Patriarchy.” Here’s what I do: I pick my battles. If you’re on someone about every little thing that they say, they’re never going to stop to consider anything that YOU say. Instead, try to just respond to something here and there, as innocuously as you can. Sometimes making a joke works too:
“Hey Amanda! What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing! haha! You already told her twice!… OW! WHY DID YOU KICK ME?”
“That was me telling YOU once. Don’t tell that joke. If you still want to be able to walk home, don’t make me tell you twice!”
Thats how I’d like to deal with it, and would have (ahem…actually did…once) but this is probably a better way:
“Hey dude…that’s kind of a shitty joke. I know lots of girls who’ve been abused.”
“…I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a joke”
“I know. And I get that, but I mean, what if someone here has been knocked around and you’re bringing that all up again? I’m just saying, its not a good idea.”
“Ok. I guess you’re right. Sorry.”
We’re all allowed to grow, right? There is of course a chance that he won’t react as favorably as all that, but if he does, rather than alienating someone by yelling at them, you may have actually caused them to think about what they’re saying, and that’s a great thing.
So, post Smith College, here’s basically what I think about trying to be a “feminist” out in the normal world: I’ve learned that denying that sexism exists isn’t the way to get over it, and distancing yourself from feminism as a way of being accepted by the people perpetrating it won’t help you in the long run. Just be tactful and honest, funny when possible, and give people the benefit of the doubt.
Amanda Rose Smith is a film composer and audio engineer. She lives in Brooklyn with a nifty man and two cats. Visit her at www.amandarosesmith.com.