We live on a campus where over $20 million of property is reserved for men and their dates, where the location and circumstances under which sexual assault happens are allegedly obscured by the University, where some students are forced to choose between becoming academics or becoming mothers while others take up illegal unpaid internships on which the school casts a blind eye.
And yet: At this year’s Women’s Week, there were discussions about gender in children’s literature and the intersections of feminism and hip hop, but nothing educating women on how to organize for equality. At Take Back the Night this month, most of the events were panel discussions covering sexism everywhere but Harvard itself.
Feminism at Harvard is too cautious, too fearful of disagreement to erase gender inequality at the school. No more explanatory events or speaker talks—what we need is to face the inequities within our own campus.
The landscape of Harvard feminism is currently largely dominated by Radcliffe Union of Students, a group derived from the former governing student body at Radcliffe College. The organization’s mission is broad—it is both the vehicle for feminism activity on campus and expected to present a wide variety of feminisms. RUS wishes to impart “an image of feminism on campus that is all-encompassing,” said Keerthi Reddy ’14, one of the group’s co-presidents (as well as a Crimson Arts chair). As a result, the group focuses on events and activities, not specific campaigns. These are, for the most part, non-controversial and apolitical.
Many of the women involved with feminist activism I talked to expressed frustrations with this broad outlook. And there’s the possibility of some new activity. Kate Sim ’14 started the International Women’s Rights Collective last February, frustrated with “lack of radical feminist vision I imagined I would be getting involved with [at Harvard].” Much of the group’s approach seems sound: Sim noted that they had been attending workshops and educating each other on the fundamentals of activism and organizing. The group, however, mostly looks beyond Harvard’s borders.
What we need is a group driven by a similar spirit, but that would focus on Harvard itself. In terms of education, the organization could follow Sex Week’s example and help provide answers to questions that Harvard students often have but are afraid to ask. Here are two for starters: “How do I go about reporting a sexual assault?” and “how do I confront my friends when I find their actions to be sexist?” In addition, the organization would be the source for direct actions and campaigns, housing efforts to release sexual assault statistics or increase the university’s day care support. Activism on campus means recruiting from an ever-changing student body and setting up a concrete structure would help ensure that these concerns do not go forgotten as one class graduates and another enters.
When I talked with representatives from RUS, they argued that their friendly approach allowed them to reach out to many people and have “them rethink things in whatever way we can.” Should the situation arise, they would take a more aggressive tactic. “If we were at Yale last year…we would want to respond in a way that was just as in your face,” Reddy explained to me. While it’s not my place to compare sexism at Harvard with that of another school, I do not see how the examples of daily inequalities on this campus do not deserve a strong response. In fact, shouldn’t a feminist organization respond to these situations before they escalate into legal confrontations?
Activism can be difficult on a campus, where we are all in close contact. Someone whose views you oppose could be in your section or living in your entryway. He or she might even be a friend. I think it’s this fear—as well as anxieties about confronting authority or attracting controversy—that leads so much of feminist activity on campus to be quiet, friendly and polite.
But we owe it to each other to be direct about the sexism we see in our own surroundings. Harvard is our home for four years; students carry away ideas formed here throughout the rest of their lives. What authority do we have to go out and change the world if we are not improving the issues that face us day-to-day?
It’s wrong to think that others will join your cause if you simply draw attention to it. You don’t get people involved by making them aware, you get them involved by making them angry and making them implicated. If we want to make Harvard a place where equal opportunity is more than just a possibility, we need to stop being afraid to speak our minds. Let’s ask for what we want—it’s the only way we’ll ever get it.
Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.