Knitting a Revolution

Last week, those lucky enough to drop into the Women’s Center on Tuesday were treated to a most merry proposition indeed: free Halloween caramel apples! Visitors couldn’t fail to realize that the Women’s Center is certainly a very friendly place.

Unfortunately, that’s about it. For all the pro-Women’s Center drum-banging about dialogue and awareness-raising, so far the net result of this victory amounts to little more than an expensive pile of free food and xeroxed paper—including song sheets for The (exclusively male) Din and Tonics, no less! Attendance at the Radcliffe Union of Students’ weekly meetings is already down from around 15 near the start of term to as few as four people nowadays.

One reason for the directionless state of this spanking new organization is that its very premise was faulty. Many of those in favor of the Center acted as if it were possible to mandate social change—a kind of “so let it be written; so let it be done” attitude to the complex network of beliefs and experiences that influence our behavior. Supposedly, the very existence of a formal college organization concerned with women would convince people that sexism is a problem and soon thereafter eliminate it.

Fortunately, the Center’s director, Susan Marine, understands that the issue is a little more complex than that; her response, however, has been to reject the goal of effecting social change at all, leaving the organization adrift. The Center plans some helpful projects for next term, but currently features such weekly domestic delights as two hours of knitting circles, one hour of “crafts,” and possible cooking classes soon to come from the Conservative Women’s Forum. Marine speaks of an “evolving” Women’s Center, but to play a useful role on campus, the Center needs to recognize that—Women’s Center or no Women’s Center—the only people who can change student behavior are students themselves.

Forming a cohesive picture of sexism on campus is difficult because individuals’ personal experiences are patchy—some have direct knowledge of assault or discrimination; others have neither heard of nor seen such incidents. As a result, students are cut into two distinct groups: those who believe sexism to be an overwhelming blight on College social life, and those who are convinced the issue is one made up by zealous “feminazis” who argue that all “penetration is violation.”

Yet this divide need not exist. All of us, male and female, experience seemingly innocuous social pressures that push us towards prescribed gender roles. For example, the public still sees female sexuality as taboo—porn and erotica almost exclusively target men, while most people treat female masturbation as either astonishing or shameful. Similarly, boys still grow up learning that to be a real man they have to be out winning the bread, not at home baking it with their kids. Culture tells people these differences are “natural,” and many internalize them so thoroughly that they unthinkingly adhere to them.

The insidiousness of this problem is not unique to Harvard, but it is harder to tackle here on a campus where, formally at least, each sex has access to most of the same choices and opportunities as the other. Despite this “legal” equality, students find it too easy to swim along with the subtly sexist cultural flow—or judge it too hard to avoid. Although women don’t like the idea of lining up outside a final club, dignity drops down the list of priorities when there is nowhere else to go on a Saturday night. Likewise, while a lot of men don’t necessarily want to regularly vomit up eight pints of cheap beer, if saying no brands them a boring killjoy, they’ll join the “fun.”

The College is supposedly a community of people selected for their initiative and “leadership skills,” yet disturbingly few students are demonstrating the initiative required to question and defy gender roles. This is what makes the Women’s Center’s task so difficult, and why, thus far, almost all of its projects and plans are entirely beside the point. Creating a “safe space” for dialogue does not create dialogue: Most people don’t discuss gender because they aren’t convinced there is a problem, not because they lack a couple of couches.

The Center could potentially make a difference, were it to launch an energetic and pervasive campaign pointing out the hundreds of concessions women and men make to match gender expectations. It is not a victory to simply draw students with free tea and tours; showing that “feminists are friendly” might be nice but it is irrelevant to the problems most students face. The Center has now had five months of hiring and planning time, as well as over a month in operation, and has failed to create even a ripple on campus—a curious accomplishment, given how controversial its establishment was.

But even if it does get its act together, the responsibility for change lies with individuals on campus. Although society still categorizes individuals by their sex—and thereby pushes people toward “girl talk” or “guy things”—social pressure is not the same as necessity. Almost all students have a large degree of choice over their adherence to gender stereotypes. Stifling personal tastes and instincts for the sake of fitting one’s gender is not only weak, it smothers social change before society is even able to recognize its problems. Those individuals who pretend such norms don’t and never will affect them are either unimaginably lucky or blind.

Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.