On a clear evening during one of the final days of the spring 2016 semester, hundreds of Harvard students, mostly women belonging to final clubs and sororities, filled Harvard Yard.
Marching around its perimeter, they chanted: “Sexual assault is not our fault!” They yelled: “Who run the world? Harvard women!” They shouted: “What do we want? Safe Spaces! When do we want them? Now!” Among their many signs, some read: “Don’t make women collateral damage.” Their megaphone calls and large numbers received national attention, as evidenced by the camera crews who were present on the day of the march.
“Hear her Harvard!” the marchers demanded. Their chant was also the name of their movement, a protest opposing sanctions against members of unrecognized single-gender organizations, including final clubs and sororities.
Hear Her Harvard garnered extensive attention on social media, inspiring a number of posts on Facebook. Numerous members of female final clubs and sororities posted pictures with their friends accompanied by long captions expressing gratitude for their bond and the inspiration and support they felt the groups provide. Some declared the “Hear Her Harvard” movement a triumph of campus feminism.
Yet some students retorted that the women’s spaces under threat—female final clubs and sororities—contain barriers to entry. Each has a “punch” or “rush” process, which involves multiple rounds of meeting and mingling with current members until prospective members are welcomed or denied admittance to the organization. Additionally, all final clubs and sororities require membership dues, with varying amounts of financial aid available, from full coverage to none at all.
While “Hear Her Harvard” was ostensibly all about women at Harvard, it raised questions about the legitimacy and inclusivity of the supporting organizations’ feminism. Critics deemed “Hear Her Harvard” exclusionary, claiming the organizations are unwelcoming of low-income, non-white, or non-cisgender women, among other markers.
Feminists lie both within and beyond final clubs’ and sororities’ boundaries. Unwana Abasi ‘17 is a member of the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Black Students Association, and of the female final club the Pleiades. “I don’t have to pick between race and gender,” she says. Unwana says that members of the Pleiades are particularly conscious of race issues. Their meetings, she says, always include discussion of the importance of race in their community–women of color were among the Pleiades’ founders.
As I sat in my freshmen dorm and watched the protest unfold, I wondered: Who is the “she” of “Hear Her Harvard,” and which Harvard is she fighting for? Is her experience representative of those of all Harvard feminists?
Curious to discover what constitutes feminism at Harvard, who’s practicing it, and how it manifests, I talked to a handful of students of different backgrounds and campus affiliations.
There seems to be no mainstream understanding and practice of feminism at Harvard
“Feminism means something different to everyone…. There’s no one-feminism-fits-all. Everybody has had a different experience, and everybody faces different challenges, and everyone’s own version of feminism reflects that,” Joanna Liu ’18, former president of the Asian American Women’s Association, says.
“Advocating for Gender Justice”
“My feminism is really fighting for equality, and I think that’s really what the goal of feminism should be. It’s fighting for men and women to have equal opportunities in our world,” says Emily M. Hall ’18, president of the Network of Enlightened Women, an organization for politically conservative women at Harvard. Acknowledging that competing and conflicting ideologies that fall under the feminist umbrella, Hall maintains that “the overall goal should be just to look for equality of opportunity so that women can determine their own futures just as any man can.”
Among the students I interviewed, definitions of feminism often include belief in some form of equality. But who exactly that includes—women, men and women, all genders, non-male identifying individuals—varies depending on whom you ask.
Referencing feminist political theorist Iris Marion Young, Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19, an organizer with the sexual violence advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, says feminism is about creating “gender justice.”
“Basically, the forces of society gender us. There’s a specific set of people who by virtue basically of their genitalia and a couple of other biological characteristics are gendered as this social group: women,” Goldberg says. “And as a result of being gendered as women, they’re treated in very specific ways, which often involve being oppressed or being dominated, lacking specific opportunities, and manifest in lots of different ways, depending on other contexts, like class, race, sexuality, et cetera.”
Some who advocate for gender justice have distanced themselves from the term “feminist” because they see mainstream feminism as exclusive of socially disadvantaged groups, such as people of color, queer people, trans people, and individuals with disability concerns.
“Feminism calls up a pretty specific ideology. It’s very white, it’s definitely not trans inclusive; at Harvard, it’s very upper class, or socioeconomically privileged,” says Hanon McShea ’18, a member of Trans Task Force. “There’s lots of fighting that women can do and have done both under that name and not under that name.”
Lily M. Velona ’18, a fellow member of TTF who identifies as non-binary, says they would “absolutely” call themselves a feminist.
“I don’t think that saying I’m a feminist is at odds with being non-binary,” Velona says. “I don’t think saying I’m a feminist is at odds with advocating for gender justice more broadly than within the binary.”
Among some campus circles, you’re likely to hear the word “feminism” accompanied by the term “intersectionality.” While the idea and practice of addressing gender equality alongside other social issues previously existed among feminists of color, scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw coined the term in a 1989 essay. Intersectional feminism recognizes that the overlapping of individuals’ identities—for example, as Crenshaw has analyzed, black women’s race and gender—creates unique, challenging circumstances. Analyzing their lives from just one aspect of their already marginalized identities ignores these challenges.
For many feminists, particularly women of color, “feminism is not actually feminism unless it takes into account different types of oppression,” says Kelcee A. Everett ’18, a member of the Seneca, the Association of Black Harvard Women, and BlackCast.
And some students say that feminism needs to do more to recognize intersectionality on a structural level. That would mean recognizing how institutions such as the law, education, family, and politics affect people with overlapping identities.
“A lot of ways that people are experiencing danger are necessarily linked together. Transphobia is necessarily linked to misogyny in all forms and necessarily linked to racialization, so anyone who’s thinking about any one of those things need to be thinking about all of those things,” says McShea.
“If we don’t attend to the ways that issues like race, class, and sexuality constrain people’s abilities to participate in feminist project, you’ll end up with a form of feminism that perpetuates other forms of oppression,” says Goldberg.
According to Lizzy K. Shick ’19, a board member of the International Women’s Rights Council, conversations at Harvard need to go beyond those envisioned at the “Hear Her Harvard” protest.
“When we have discussions about feminism on campus, when we’re talking about hooking up, we’re not just talking about what it’s like to be a white, able-bodied upper class woman who’s hooking up at a final club–it has to be [about] what it is like for any woman on campus, including women who aren’t straight, including people who are gender nonconforming,” Shick says. “Being a feminist doesn’t just mean protecting your interests. It means protecting the interests of women and ultimately the interests of any disadvantaged group anywhere because racism, sexism, [and] homophobia all stem from the same idea: that some people deserve more than others.”
Feminism In Action
The students I spoke to execute their feminism and advocacy both on and off campus, in activism and service work as well as in non-explicitly gender- or feminism-focused extracurricular activities and organizations.
Trans Task Force, for example, has been advocating for gender-neutral housing for freshmen, safer drug injection facilities in Massachusetts, and solidarity with the Anti-Islamophobia Network, among other efforts. Additionally, the group hosts hangouts for trans people, because they believe in the equal importance of both secure spaces for togetherness as well as formal organizing.
Eliza B. Mantz ’18 strives to put feminist ideologies into action through art. Mantz helped to found a partnership between the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and the Harvard Radcliffe Drama Club. Together, the two organizations seek to “promote workshops and uplift theater projects that deal with gender justice and sexual violence and discrimination of any kind,” she says.
“Fit for a King,” the show Mantz adapted and directed this semester, “gave non-male-identifying actors on campus the opportunity to play roles written in Shakespeare plays traditionally for men.”
“There’s a push in the wider theater community to open up those roles to people of color and non-male-identifying individuals, but less so on our campus,” Mantz says. “I really wanted to provide unbelievably talented actors with opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have to explore their strength and to show the community how powerful non-male individuals can be when given the opportunity.”
Other students have focused on different angles. Nadya Okamoto ’20 channels her feminist energy into the fight for menstrual equity and for access to menstrual hygiene. Through the organization she founded and directs, PERIOD, Okamoto and her team provide menstrual hygiene education and advocacy and distribute menstrual products to women in need.
Hall seeks to foster ideological and political diversity among feminist circles, specifically hoping to cultivate a feminism that welcomes conservative and pro-life women like herself. “Any group, no matter who you are, you are strengthened by diversity, and that includes so many different types of diversity, including ideological diversity,” Hall says.
Noting that feminist activism often stresses “pro-abortion” views, Hall feels feminism can be exclusionary to pro-life women, and should focus more on empowering women and celebrating their achievements—which she seeks to do as co-chair of the Fellows and Study Groups program at the Institute of Politics.
“I hope my group and other groups can begin to work together to promote ideological diversity and allow conservative ideas of feminism and conservative ideas generally to make it farther than our own little circles and to get to the broader community,” she says.
In The Future
In McShea’s ideal world, gender would not exist.
“I feel like gender is a violent thing,” says McShea. “Making it such that gender doesn’t hurt people, I think would be the same thing as getting rid of gender. It’s just a mode of violence—colonialist, capitalist violence.”
According to Goldberg, “successful” feminism would mean that talking about women’s rights or gender justice would not be necessary. “The category of women and gender will no longer be socially salient, to the same extent,” she says.
For Okamoto, feminism ideally “empowers all genders to be equal.” She describes policies that ensure women’s rights and cultural changes in parenting and the workforce. “And everyone would have period products that they need, of course.”
Some feminists and gender justice advocates at Harvard have more concrete dreams and desires for the near future. Velona hopes to see people hold themselves to higher standards of gender inclusivity.
“I just don’t think it’s all that hard to be trans-inclusive. I think if we set the expectations at actual gender inclusivity, at actual liberatory feminism, then people would rise to that bar,” Velona says. “I trust that people here will rise to the occasion if it becomes a norm to ask for people’s pronouns, for example, and it becomes a norm to not use binary language.”
Further, Velona hopes to raise a broader understanding of feminism, engage in solidarity with undocumented students, and to protect access to clean water, “from Standing Rock to Flint.”
This past January, hundreds of thousands of people across the world, including Harvard students, took part in the Women’s March. Participants marched for various reasons: in resistance to President Donald Trump to show solidarity with women in what they perceived as a sexist political and social environment, or to advocate for human rights policies.
While, like “Hear Her Harvard,” the marches were open to everyone, the Women’s March received similar criticism as Harvard’s own feminist campus protest—some said that it epitomized and promoted exclusionary feminism.
If we understand Harvard feminism as a microcosm of larger social movements and attitudes, and if we truly listen and Hear Her Harvard, what does she have to tell us? If Harvard women or feminists “run the world,” what are the implications for this contentious political climate? What does feminism at Harvard mean for an ever-expanding social order, where marginalized people are fighting to be seen and heard, and historically dominant groups often see fights for equity or liberation as a zero-sum game?
For Kelcee Everett, compassion is the answer. “I think especially in this time we all have to care for one another and look out for one another, making sure that we’re looking at experiences beyond our own and helping out people the same way we want to be helped out in our struggles,” she says.