During the summer of 1992, I served as a residential advisor (RA) at Duke University's Talent Identification Program for a group of bright girls, ages 12 to 16. I had hoped to encourage these young women to make the most of their talents and to guide them towards a future where they could develop their potential.
Until another, more enlightened RA told them they had no chance, no choice.
He told them they would be controlled by male standards that brainwashed them into shaving their legs. He said they would be oppressed by masculine discourse and that they could well be direct victims of male violence, as one in four would be raped or sexually assaulted.
And this was a guy telling them all this!
I'll admit, I felt the irony of the situation rather keenly--particularly because the fellow holding forth on all these evils was keeping any of the girls, or even myself, from getting a word in edgewise. His consciousness-raising lecture only had the effect of panicking them. I resented his glib determinism, which essentially dismissed all possibility of rising above the evils men inflict upon women. For a group of Southern girls, many from traditional backgrounds (one girl's mother was alarmed when her daughter confessed to wearing jeans and a baseball cap to class instead of bothering to dress up for the boys every day), these revelations were hardly a successful call to feminist revolution. If anything, my colleague's well-intentioned lecture served only to alienate them from feminism in general.
This is not a good method of empowering women.
Unfortunately, these diatribes about women's oppression at the hands of male-dominated society have become the norm for modern feminism. We all want something to be impassioned about, and at times being enraged is both easier and more glamorous than being rational. Too often, debates on gender issues become polarized between a feminist left and an antifeminist right, leaving precious little room for those who criticize both of these camps as flawed.
There are, however, women and men who want to create a fair society that does not judge individuals on the basis of gender. These "equality" or "individualist" feminists hold to the ideals of treating men and women the same way, as human beings, rather than calling for legislation that enshrines the alleged difference of women, as "gender" or "difference" feminists have done.
Equality feminism rejects the idea that there are separate female standards of morality or justice, that there is a "woman's way" of approaching the world. To assert different natures for men and women is to deny our common humanity. Believing in gender war brings women no closer to their goals of equal treatment. Instead, men and women continually switch roles of domination and submission in a societal game of S&M.; Equality deteriorates from a vision of true partnership between the sexes to a hope that men will spend equal time on the bottom.
In this brave new world, some people's suffering is more valid than others'. When several male students at Vassar were declared innocent of false charges of date rape, the college's Catherine Comins, the assistant dean of students, said she recognized their pain, "but it is not a pain that I would necessarily have spared them. I think it ideally initiates a process of self-exploration. 'How do I see women?' 'If I did not violate her, could I have?'... These are good questions." Perhaps they are--but if I were falsely accused of murder, I doubt I would thank my accusers for giving me the opportunity to reflect upon whether I was capable of killing someone. Nor would I expect others to justify my ordeal as a vehicle for consciousness-raising.
Only when we distance ourselves from the people in question and deny that their humanity makes any demands on our sympathy--only when we see those Vassar students as men and not as people--do we dare to callously declare that their suffering should be a learning experience.
For centuries, feminists protested against defining a woman by her sex rather than as a free and equal individual. But when today's activists insist that there is only one way to be a feminist, or only one perspective that truly represents women, they deny and insult the individuality of women who fail to live out gender-difference assumptions. Organized feminism may talk about accepting a diversity of views and may even genuinely desire to be tolerant--but belief in gender difference means that some views are more authentic than others. Women who don't think, act or vote the way a woman's nature should dictate are traitors and frauds, (like Kay Bailey Hutchinson, slammed by Gloria Steinem as a "female impersonator") or victims of patriarchal mind-control (like Wendy Kaminer, an anti-censorship feminist who comments, "Do you know how many times I've been called 'male-identified? By other feminists?").
To pigeonhole an individual human being, in all his or her complexity, into a category based on sex is wrong, both morally and descriptively. Everyone agrees to this when we talk historically about male stereotypes of women, but people find it much harder to condemn when women are the stereotypers. Women differ as much from one another as they do from men; no single Woman's Point of View exists, nor should it.
Psychologist Carol Gilligan gave us the notion that women speak "in a different voice;" what women need now is for all our different voices to be heard. Equality feminist organizations, on campus and on a national level, provide a voice that has too often been missing from contemporary feminist debate and at the same time allow for a diversity of women's voices within their own groups.
I am an equality feminist not because I am angry with men or with difference feminists, but because I have great hope for the future and confidence in the abilities of women. I hope that the young women I knew at TIP will become advocates of a feminism based on abilities and strengths rather than on constraints and weaknesses. I hope they will fight sexism and gender stereotyping wherever they find it, whether it comes from male chauvinists who think women are incompetent or from difference feminists who think men are violent, dangerous and evil.
Fundamentally, it is not too much to ask for each one of us to be judged on our own merits rather than by blanket assumptions about gender.
Rebecca M. C. Boggs '95 is the founder of Radcliffe and Harvard Students for Equality Feminism.