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Why Can’t Helen Keller Drive?

Advocates for a women’s center should focus on reaching the rest of us

By Hannah E. S. wright

Answer: because she’s a woman.

Maybe it’s the fact I’ve heard the punch line a hundred times that makes the joke so uninspiring, but most days I can’t even muster enough energy to glare at the guilty party, who, let’s face it, is often only looking to get a rise out of me anyway.

I’ve never really felt the need to stand up for my sex in earnest. I’ve never felt discriminated against on the basis of gender. Sure, sometimes the guys ignore me when they start talking about Big Ten sports, but that has nothing to do with the fact I’m a girl and everything to do with the fact that I’m not so into football.

It turns out there’s a diagnosis for my sort, what researchers at the University of Michigan have termed the “not me” syndrome. “Not me” women recognize that gender discrimination and cultural stereotyping create serious social and economic problems but have a hard time believing that such attitudes apply to them.

Harvard is full of “not me” women, and why not? We’ve made it to the top of the class, and from where we’re standing, our lot in life doesn’t look much different from that of our male peers. I’d suspect there’s also a large percentage of “not me” men (my term now), guys who assume no problem exists because they personally think of women as equals.

Whatever we’d like to believe, gender discrimination still occurs, as most of us will eventually discover. The office I’m headed to next fall has an entering class with a 50-50 gender split. But of the few dozen partners, only two are women. While the hiring rates for jobs in many sectors have finally begun to look gender-neutral, the discrimination gap remains strong when it comes to promotion—even among candidates with similar performance marks and equivalent hours logged.

As sociological studies increasingly point to implicit biases, acknowledging that these trends exist is the first step in driving real change. Being able to talk about them here would be a godsend for those interested in promoting women’s equality. Where else will you find such a collection of intelligent, passionate people who are going to make their mark upon the world?

Unfortunately, these discussions currently take place only on the fringe, in a handful of groups that are not taken seriously by the rest of the student body. You can blame it on a history of dismissal that has made “feminist” a semi-derogatory term—only 24 percent of women identify as feminists, while 65 percent say they support equality of the sexes—or on the “not me” types like yours truly who’ve never identified with the female cause. But if women’s issues are going to be taken seriously on this campus, they have to make it into the mainstream.

Which leads us to the women’s center. The Undergraduate Council has kindly posted a survey on its website so that undergraduates can give feedback on the proper scope and design, but as I’ve never been one for brevity, the character limit to the comments section is unhelpful.

If you’re going to argue for a women’s center, don’t argue for a café or for social space. Don’t ask for the things that every other group on campus needs just as badly. To be endowed with special status (even unintentionally) can only alienate more people than the associated benefits will help.

Don’t justify the center with references to “final clubs” and “safe spaces.” The clubs may indeed be an anathema to campus life in their present configuration, but putting a women’s center at the other end of the spectrum isn’t the answer to equalizing the social playing field—final clubs will still have more money, more alcohol, and no University oversight.

If you really want to change the gender dynamic on campus, you’ll need to reach out to the members of these institutions. And none of these people are going to be receptive if they feel like their lifestyle is being attacked.

Advocates need to realize that when they call some spaces “safe,” there is an implicit suggestion that others are not. And if they say they need a women’s center for this purpose, they suggest that it’s men who are causing the problems. Improper advocacy of this sort will just reaffirm stereotypical beliefs that women’s rights groups are man-bashing sisterhoods, which may drive both men and “not me” women away.

More than anything, it is essential to realize that this is a solution that is both temporary and foundational. In a decade or two, there will be good reason to argue for a women’s wing in a shiny new student center. How seriously that request is taken will depend in large part on the framework that is established today.

For now, the future directorship should be modeled after the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which provides grant money, helps coordinate events, and supports a range of educational projects. Sure, many of the services it provides aren’t so glamorous, but it brings interested students and faculty together and gives them the resources they need to present their issues to the rest of campus. That is the point, is it not?

Raising campus awareness of women’s issues is a worthy goal, but space alone is not a cure-all. Advocates need to carefully consider both the short-term and long-term ramifications of their demands. Because “not me” isn’t about not caring, it’s about not identifying, and that’s something a women’s center has a chance to fix.

Hannah E.S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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