Let’s talk about women’s studies.
I am a women’s studies concentrator. Three weeks ago I switched from government, before which I was a history and literature pre-med. I’m currently in the Health Policy Certificate program. To put it mildly, I’ve seen what Harvard has to offer. And I love Women’s Studies.
While my roommate struggles each night through chapter after chapter of hellish chemistry bore, I read about hermaphrodites and the 14 sexes. While my other roommate memorizes every artism there ever was, I ponder the implications of Freud’s theory of female penis-envy on modern relationships. It’s a great life; I’d highly recommend it.
Besides the interesting topical material, the women’s studies department is small and friendly, where professors know who I am and care about my ideas. (The government department still thinks I am a government concentrator, yet no one has noticed that I didn’t register for junior tutorial and am not on track to graduate.) Frankly, I’m thrilled with my concentration and couldn’t be happier academically.
Unfortunately, there’s more to it, because there are certain connotations that go along with my new department.
My first problematic confrontation as a women’s studies concentrator took place right here on The Crimson’s editorial page. A few weeks ago I wrote an Op-Ed pointing out that terrorism is male dominated. I received an unprecedented response, which I attributed to the mildly controversial nature and timing of the piece. I didn’t blink at the onslaught of letters to the editor and to my personal inbox. A plethora of students responded, four of whom accused me of using a national disaster to “forward my own political agenda.” (To clarify, I don’t have a political agenda.)
A few of the e-mails went even further. One of them compared me to those two icons of American morality, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And one particularly inflammatory respondent pulled out all the stops: He called me a femme-nazi.
Still, I didn’t connect any of the response to the last line of the piece, which read, “Arianne R. Cohen ‘03, is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House.”
A few days later, the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) invited me to discussion my piece on Tuesday evening. I was thrilled to have a forum debate my ideas, and was intrigued to discover that RUS had invited two students who had sent negative letters to the editor.
The ensuing forum went splendidly, with 20 students openly voicing their opinions on the role of gender in terrorism. But one attendee’s thoughts caught my attention: A student, who quite eloquently disagreed with my article and general theories on life, mentioned mid-comment that my “women’s studies had taught me those views.”
Never mind that at the time the article was written, I had never set foot in a women’s studies classroom. Never mind that the article, if mistakenly construed as an extension of feminist theory, would be eaten alive by any women’s studies professor. Never mind that the article was the only Crimson editorial I have ever written on women’s issues.
And yet, suddenly, I was a femme-nazi.
Let us take this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about women’s studies:
First off, the name “women’s studies” is misleading. The department covers much more than just women. The construction of gender alone is intimately attached to race, religion, class and a myriad of other markers, as is proven by the different divisions of the sexes in other times and cultures. The majority of my studies take me far beyond the bounds of stereotypical feminism, and well into the realm of ethnic studies and psychology.
Second, there are no “women’s studies views.” Just like any other good concentration, a women’s studies education provides only an additional set of tools with which to view the world. If anything, I’m just more open-minded than before.
Third, the women’s studies department has not always been marginal. In the early 1990s, women’s studies courses were very popular at Harvard, with the introductory courses attracting more than one hundred students each year. (Some of these students were even—gasp—men.) The current smallness of the department is a direct result of the much larger anti-feminist backlash of the late 1990s.
This would be the same backlash by which the phrase “femme-nazi” has conveniently attached itself to me.
This overzealous connotation is troubling, particularly as a writer, when 800 written words are my only means of expression. I don’t get a picture and 20 minutes to explain my full views. I fear that connotations will either distract from my opinions, or detract by adding unintended meaning to my words, as has already happened. The latter fear is much more threatening, because the reader assumes a leftist feminist political agenda that doesn’t really exist.
Regrettably, I don’t have any real options, aside from trusting the reader, waiting for feminism to come back in vogue and re-applying for a Crimson column so you can see what I look like and come talk to me. And every once in a while, I’ll just have to take the time re-explain myself.
—Arianne R. Cohen