A Divisive Discourse?

Straddling the gap between divisive forces, amidst a growing sense of apathy, what does "feminism" mean at Harvard today?

Natasha L. Coleman

Meghan E. Grizzle '07 with her true baby: Pro-Life activism.

A standard-sized, individually wrapped condom of the kind put in dispensers in Canaday, Weld, and Greenough last spring measures 2 inches by 2 inches and is about a quarter-inch thick. Usually made of latex or occasionally polyurethane, the modern condom can stretch to 800 percent its normal size, if necessary—both a prophylactic and a practical joke waiting to happen. As a method of birth control, it boasts a 98 percent success rate, and when used to protect against STDs, one incurs less than a quarter of the risk one might incur through unprotected sex. As prophylactics go, condoms are pretty solid, not as foolproof as abstinence, but a far sight safer than nothing at all.

Also, and almost exclusively, men wear them. So how did they become a feminist issue, or a women’s issue? Or, was the campus imbroglio generated by those three condom dispensers really part of the greater issues of female sexuality and politics at Harvard?


THE PROBLEM THAT HAS NO NAME

Some rightists still think of Harvard as the apocryphal Kremlin on the Charles, a hedonistic far-left paradise peopled by sloganeering alpha-women (and about to be led by one), pelting the remaining handful of lonely moderates waiting for Mr. Right with dated girl-power platitudes and free condoms. An opposing, liberal conception views Harvard as the most fertile breeding ground of white-collar sexism, where boys will be boys and women will be quiet, or otherwise risk immediate backlash from the men who make up an overbearing majority of student government and faculty positions.

Between the caricatures of the hedonist and Puritan poles lies a vast, silent swath of the student body that is consciously apolitical in regard to gender. In an age of irony and apathy, post-Third Wave feminism (see sidebar), women especially are willing to speak up for or against war, Social Security, or even a nebulous category of “women’s issues,” as long as they can keep a safe distance from the term feminism, which conjures images of angry, man-hating lesbians. Not only are Harvard’s conservatives and liberals battling each other over different visions of achieving gender parity, and, indeed, what that parity would look like, but both sides are also struggling to legitimize their feelings of gender-based oppression to a student body that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to care. And they’re distancing themselves from more moderate feminists, reluctant to join either side.

Last year, when the Undergraduate Council (UC) voted to pilot a program installing condom dispensers in freshman dorms, four square inches of concern for student health became a hot topic on campus. Those in support of the measure applauded the UC for taking steps to encourage safe sex among freshmen. Among the set of those opposed, however, several surprising characteristics emerged. Their conservative voices were considerably louder than expected at ostensibly left-wing Harvard, and women were a substantial component of the vocal opposition. They accused the availability of free condoms as objectifying women; by tacitly making sex no big deal, the argument was, women suffered. The viewpoint is nothing new; a rightist minority had been gaining momentum at Harvard for years, before the condoms and a not-for-credit class called Female Sexuality (FemSex), held at a newly opened Harvard College Women’s Center, gave students of all political backgrounds something to say. But the name the conservative women were giving themselves, one previously almost universally aligned with a liberal political mentality—“feminist”—gave campus politicians pause.

“Feminism...is somebody who believes that her views are views that would most advance the cause of women,” says conservative polymath Meghan E. Grizzle ’07, a former president of Harvard Right to Life, a former board member of the Harvard Republican Club, and a writer for The Harvard Salient. “In that respect, I would consider myself a feminist: I like to call myself a feminist when I’m around the more stereotypical description of a feminist, because I do strongly believe that my beliefs”—anti-abortion, pro-abstinence—“will most help women.”


THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN

Feminism-as-F-word is nothing new. The problem itself dates back to the 1920s in the United States, after women won the right to vote. It surfaced again in the 1990s after the hard-won successes of the 1970s had receded far enough into the past to seem culturally commonplace. Harvard women gave the the anti-feminist movement a unique spin, focusing on a perceived dedication to the status of victimhood by feminists; for the typical Type-A Harvard student, lacking agency is an unforgivable vice. By the mid-90s, even such seemingly innocuous organizations like Take Back The Night, which devotes itself to raising awareness of rape and sexual assault, were derided in The Crimson’s op-ed pages as encouraging women to wallow in a mindset of persecution; using the V-word, as it were.

“Rape victims—and even those who have been hurt while purportedly enjoying the so-called freedoms of the sexual revolution—need help. What they do not need is the chance to further demonstrate their victimhood by blaming what happened on a thing called Patriarchy, or an entity called Man,” wrote Kelly A.M. Bowdren ’94 of the participants in 1994’s Take Back the Night events. The idea of an institutionalized system of patriarchy that had created women’s role as controlled, and men’s as controller, was officially passé.

At the same time, the membership of Students for Choice had suffered exponential decay, plunging from 80 members to six over a period of just a few years, and the Harvard College Democrats and Radcliffe Union of Students, all bastions of the common conception of feminist activity, were in similarly dire straits. In Harvard’s feminist heyday, Democrat Bill Clinton was president, and the political climate of the country was heading to the left. “I think part of that might have been because of a complacency that was bred by success,” says Radcliffe Union Public Relations Chair and active Dems Member Kyle A. Krahel ’08. “The 2002 elections, when things started swinging to the right, I think woke up the Harvard left.” By some measures, it did. Membership in the College Democrats, the Radcliffe Union of Students, the Institute of Politics, and Students for Choice has soared again, though not back to peak numbers. However, female representation in some of these groups continues to lag.


THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL

In last year’s UC presidential and vice-presidential election, the name of only one female was on the list of candidates. She and her running mate eventually dropped out of the race. At the end of last year, women, half of the Harvard student body, didn’t even make up a full quarter of the UC. The new president of the College Democrats is female, as is 60 percent of the board, but the HRC executive board is still all male.

Ryan M. McCaffrey ’07, editor of the Salient, says women in top positions are rare: Only a few females are listed in the masthead. “Men have always outnumbered women, there’s no question about that,” he says. “It’s just not something that women are interested in. They’re not interested in power, I don’t think. It seems almost unnatural for there to be an equal number of women in those positions.”

Brigit M. Helgen ’08, president of the College Democrats, disagrees. Helgen, who says she and UC president Ryan A. Petersen ’08 recently spoke about reviving a UC women’s caucus, has been a prominent voice on the rise of women in politics and the gender-based judgment of female candidates.

“The fact that this is seen as so revolutionary,” says Helgen, “shows we have a long way to go. If six out of ten people on the Dems board were male, no one would talk about it.” If the leaders of the Harvard Republican Club were all female, she says, “they would talk about it, and that they’re all male, well, ‘such is life’.” In 2004, Helgen’s freshman year, she recalls that of the 12-member College Democrats board, only two members were women. “I definitely noticed right away that there were very few of us, and that it was very masculine. Myself and many other women felt excluded,” Helgen says. Now, two women are president and vice president of the Institute of Politics. As McCaffrey says, in reference to women’s rights in public and private, “I don’t think women have much cause to complain. They got what they wanted.”

On the contrary, according to Helgen. “The political scene still needs a lot of work. The UC needs a lot of work. I think a lot of women on this campus like to think that we’ve already achieved gender equality, and if they suggest that they don’t, they’ll be seen as feminazis, and not be taken seriously, and I think that’s stifled discussion,” she says. She blames the lack of women envisioning themselves as potential political entities on a dearth of role models, at Harvard and on a national stage. In the age of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and other powerful female politicians, the victimization complex may appear to be rearing its liberal, hippie head—but Grizzle, a four-year veteran of conservative Harvard politics, agrees that women in politics, no matter their affiliation, face challenges.

“Most of [the conservatives] are guys; you definitely have to act more like a ‘guy,’ stereotypically,” she says. “I don’t think I was ever discriminated against, because I am very vocal and opinionated about my views, but if I had not been so ‘masculine’ about it, I probably would not have been as successful.”


SEXUAL PERSONAE

The concept of victimization doesn’t limit itself to the political arena. Perhaps the oldest stage, as well as the one most relevant to young adults between the ages of 18 and 22, is the theater of sexual relations. The intersection of gender and sexuality at today’s Harvard resurrects a feminist rallying cry, but as a question: Is the personal still political? Marital rape is, after decades of lobbying, a crime in all 50 states. Battered-wife syndrome is now a part of the cultural discourse. What falls outside the new boundaries between the two realms? Is the proliferation of hundreds of Facebook.com groups, for example, solely created to mock “Dumb Bitches” (DBs for short) merely a series of boyish pranks, or do they represent a societally constructed pattern of ways men relate to women who displease them?

Perhaps due to the language that often accompanies the topic—despite the efforts of those who “Love Female Orgasms!” with the help of a raunchy facilitator, not many women feel comfortable using the word “clitoris” above a whisper, if at all—discussion of sex as it relates to gender and thus, to feminism, is often dismissed. Either the subject is inappropriate, or distasteful, or trivial.

Sarah M. Kinsella ’07, co-founder with her boyfriend of True Love Revolution, an abstinence-until-marriage group, is concerned by what she sees as sex’s position as “more of a recreational sport than as an expression of love between two people.” Kinsella views her crusade for abstinence as “at the most basic level, really a public health outreach.”

“I guess I’d phrase it that we’re trying to present an alternative view of sex that’s not often seen on this campus—one that’s different from the hook-up culture, and that really takes into account a person’s entire emotional and physical health,” she says.

Not everyone agrees. “It makes sense that [the body’s] a place where you would focus an intergender question on sex,” Trumbull Professor of American History Nancy F. Cott says. “There’s been so much more focus for 10, 15 years on the physical body—it’s the locus of where a lot of personal identity issues have been fought out.” In organizations like the oft-maligned FemSex, where women learn from dominatrix and midwife guest lecturers and “TFs” who are alums of the class themselves, 300th Anniversary University Professor Laurel Ulrich sees a return to an earlier time: “This is exactly the thing that was developing in the 60s—self-help groups, meeting informally and unofficially. People in the health field thought that women in the feminist movement were kind of anti-baby, anti-body.” The fact still remains that women who have sex frequently, or with many partners, are often considered at best physically unclean and at worst, somehow mentally or emotionally deficient. Grizzle references a “Twilight Zone” within which these women allegedly operate: “I just don’t understand how they can believe that, that women’s empowerment comes from porn, and going to sex shops, and whatever else the [FemSex] syllabus has on it. I called it the Twilight Zone because I think it’s irrational—it just doesn’t make sense.”

Kaya N. Williams ’07, a former chair of the Association of Black Harvard Women Action Committee, sees a benefit to open sexual dialogue like that shared in FemSex or other frank discussions of sexuality, “Harvard campus in general is not really all that friendly, and women have to find different positions that they can make themselves comfortable in, and for some FemSex fits that ideal. I think that for a lot of people who take it, it’s a very meaningful experience.”

Many men, virgins, and final club regulars have all participated in FemSex at Harvard in the past, but charges of exclusivity are still leveled against the group, and toward the Women’s Center and the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentration, due to the inclusion of a specific gender in their titles. Acting Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentration Karen P. Flood says, “Theoretically, gender studies should include studies of women, but I think the worry was that taking that word, ‘women,’ out of it could signify a turn away from the study of women as a group.”


THE DIALECTIC OF SEX

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to explain away conservative, liberal, and non-partisan feminist’s concerns with female sexuality as “just about sex”—the sex drive has proven to be a compelling societal and emotional urge, as well as a biological one. Women have not always had control over who can access their bodies. That much of the discussion surrounding their empowerment centers on the right to control a person’s most basic possession—his or her own body—should not be surprising. It is the different approaches to that control, whether it takes the form of a speculum and hand mirror, a series of sweaty final club hookups, or abstinence until marriage, that perhaps more than anything else illustrates where the deep divisions in the feminist community lie.

Oftentimes, the left aligns abstinence with repression, and those on the right conflate sexual liberalism with a pathology of need, while each accusing the other group of limiting women’s options and forcing them to conform to a sexual ideal. Meanwhile, the majority of women at Harvard continue on as they always have, trying to distance themselves from both extremes. The pop-culture ideal, to enjoy a “Sex and the City”-style series of casual hookups while walking the line between enough sexual activity to keep one from being a prude, but not enough to make one a slut, is virtually impossible to achieve, and leaves many women conflicted about the place of sex in their self worth.

At an informal discussion in Lowell Dining Hall on sexuality, the complications become clear. “It’s weird that Harvard does have this really liberal reputation when it comes to sex,” says one female student, “because I’ve found, when it comes to talking about it, people fall back on conservative sexual terms.” A male student added, “I feel like sometimes women are very vocally politically feminist, but when you get them into a room with some alcohol, they’re not very forward.”

Questions of female objectification and empowerment also arise when pornography and sexual liberation comes into play. Grizzle cites the use of erotic material as a major flaw of FemSex. Many conservatives place the moral responsibility for sexual behavior on women. McCaffrey says, “I would say women are better at [controlling sexual urges], so I think they have more responsibility, but it’s something that men can be a part of. In the past, pretty much all women were very sexually reserved; you could always find prostitutes, but virtuous people were just not sexually promiscuous. In this day and age, people aren’t like that. So it’s impressive to me, to see men who maintain their moral dignity.” According to Grizzle, the onus is on women to keep from tempting men: “That is doing a great service to our brothers; they’re being tempted constantly by our dress and our behavior.”

Others point out the seeming incongruity of this position. “Sexual violence is construed as a women’s issue when 99.9 percent of rapists are men—it would seem to me that rape is a man’s issue,” says former Strong Women, Strong Girls Director Tracy E. Nowski ’07. “When you talk about gendered things on campus, women tend to show up. It’s hugely misleading, because obviously ‘gender’ involves both men and women. But all these terms, sex, sexuality, gender, are aligned with women.”

For the record, a companion Facebook.com group search for derogatory terms for men reveals hundreds of groups started by women with the same trite, profane, yet oddly resonant plea: “Chicks Before Dicks!”


SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL

So, about those condoms. They, along with the baskets of dental dams next to the push-pins at the Women’s Center, the stay-at-home-or-work debate, and the final club problem, are perennial favorites in the inter-feminist and anti-feminist conversation. The institutions are relatively innocuous compared to the implications made by the arguments, built precariously upon them, that often stand in for actual issues of substance. These imperfect scapegoats are, in many ways, an indication of the luxury feminists at Harvard enjoy: However snide and insidious is the sexism that feminists say they face, Harvard is at least forced to pay lip service to an equality of genders. Now, the challenges facing feminism are more de facto than de jure. It is fairly obvious that two-thirds of final clubs are all-male, and that those two-thirds control a great deal of money and property. But they are outside the jurisdiction of the university. There is nothing Harvard can do to compel them to behave differently than they do—the best people on either side of the debate can do is to make first-years aware of social alternatives, but to belabor the point against them seems almost masochistic.

Similarly, the constant debate over whether women should stay at home, work, or balance both ignores the simple fact that for the vast majority of women in most of the world, not working simply isn’t a financial option. Drawing up lists of the rights of men and women won’t necessarily achieve anything, according to Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53. “I don’t want to play the game of always comparing what the other sex has with what you have,” Mansfield says. “And I want to emphasize that I think any new feminism would have to be made by women, for women.”

Women’s Center intern Kameron A. Collins ’09 agrees with Mansfield’s call to look forward. “I think people, when they discuss these kind of social issues, are too academic a lot of the time—they really care about it in section, they care about it in class, but when they relate it to their own personal lives, Harvard students can be less compelling,” Collins, who considers himself a “moderate feminist,” says. “It doesn’t make sense to quote Judith Butler in a casual conversation, or live your life by theory. I think people study up on these things, but I think people don’t really internalize them enough.”

Williams describes the special challenges facing members of ethnic minorities, who have not found identifying as feminists as easy as have the white middle-class women who characterized Second Wave Feminism. “For the black community, issues that we’re most involved with are things like health care, and poverty, and AIDS,” Williams says. “I think the basic issue at the corner of race and feminism is that if you’re a part of an ethnic minority, then you have more than one thing going on, and you have to choose. No one wants to do that. And it’s not like you can stop being black, or stop being a woman.” Collins adds, “After a while, we have to sit back and think about if starting clubs and making posters is enough. We have to think about what we’re getting from this place, and what we’re going to do with it.”

Flood and professors Cott and Ulrich all stress the need for Harvard students to know women’s history in this country and at Harvard, and encourage them to think beyond their dorm rooms. If the problems facing women are brought down in size, smaller than a planet or a country, to the dimensions of a bunk bed, or a final club library, it’s easy to get tripped up, easy to be trivialized, easy to oversimplify. Can an exploration of the influence of the patriarchy over women’s stunted liberation (sexual and otherwise) be bounded in the four walls of the suburban kitchen that many feminists characterized as the 1970s battleground of women’s rights? Women at Harvard are reluctant to join their sexualities and identities to political parties or groups of people; this is a legitimate sentiment, but too often the result is a muted or nonexistent reaction to sexism when it manifests itself on campus, because women feel no common bond of gender. As Cott puts it, “There is a paradox between recognizing the problem of women as a constructed group in society, and then the individualistic aims that the group wishes to accomplish.” The best way to resolve the paradox is not to deny the first condition, which only creates a weak foundation at best for the second—rather, the key to change is to combat the problem where it manifests itself, thus taking apart the construction piece by piece.


AIN’T I A WOMAN?

Gender parity takes more than a condom, a club, or a career. It’s a consciousness. Many undergraduates can relate stories of being in mixed company, hearing a man tell a misogynist joke, and feeling compelled to laugh along rather than risk making anyone uncomfortable. Caring about women’s issues doesn’t jibe with the ironically detached Harvard woman of today, who wants everyone to stop being all sensitive, so nobody gets angry—or worse, starts acting like some kind of feminist or something.

Nowadays, the condom dispensers in the freshman dorms are almost always empty. It could be because freshman students are having nightly orgies in their Greenough suites, spurred on by a Harvard-issued license to fornicate; or it could be because repressed conservative students stole all the condoms and destroyed them in a measure to keep female sexuality under the Man’s thumb. Most likely, it’s because “free” is every Harvard student’s favorite price. Can we talk about something else now?


SIDEBAR: A Brief History of Feminism

Multimedia