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Coming to Harvard was one of the most validating experiences of my life. Yes, it was nice to feel that my hard work had paid off, but more important was my peers’ expectations of me. At Harvard, my fellow students see me as a future scientist, doctor, politician, businesswoman, and expert in whatever field I choose. At Harvard, I am a unique and powerful individual. Where I came from, this was not the case.
I spent most of my childhood in Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth. It was an educated and liberal place. I didn’t notice sexism much in my life until my family moved to Utah and I started high school.
Utah has many redeeming qualities, including its breathtaking mountains and extraordinarily friendly people. However, I have experienced undeniable sexism. Growing up in such an environment affects you.
A recent study found that women brought up in more sexist states, such as Utah, experience a larger wage gap regardless of where they ended up living. While women are technically free to choose their lives, this study suggests sexism has long-term detrimental effects. One manifestation of sexism in Utah is that women are not expected to have careers.
I distinctly remember many conversations with female friends about careers. One friend, when asked about her future aspirations, said she didn’t know, paused, and then halfheartedly said “maybe nothing.” Another joked about how she wanted to be a trophy wife. A 4.0 student in my statistics class told me she didn’t want a career at all. And these are just three of many conversations that have stuck with me. Many women in my high school graduating class had no intention of pursuing a career unless absolutely necessary.
Some women (and men) will find happiness and fulfillment as stay-at-home parents, and I do believe staying at home to be a parent is a worthy cause that is implicitly undervalued in our society. But if you took half the US population and forced them all to do the same job, surely many would be unhappy. People are diverse in interest. Some may love networking, while others love analyzing data, and others love teaching. When we recognize that women are individuals with agency and infinite potential, then the idea that all women should be stay-at-home mothers will rightfully be recognized as preposterous and oppressive.
At first, it broke my heart that so many of my peers, people I know to be intellectual, compassionate, thoughtful, hardworking, and unique, were constraining their ability to make a larger impact. I respected their decisions, but it became clear that this was not a genuine decision, but rather a cultural funnel into which they had been born, regardless of their capabilities, interests, or character. A male student with the same grade as me in physics class was a budding scientist. I was a dutiful student. An adult would ask the boys in the room their future career plans. He’d ask the girls what college they would be attending. Someone would inquire after only my brother’s major with me standing next to him. When I would say that I wanted a career, people would often look surprised, doubt my faith (an important part of my identity), and believe me to be selfish. If from the moment you were born, people had zero expectations for your professional life, if for 18 years you were told that it was your nature and duty to be a stay-at-home mother, would you have career aspirations? This is no real decision.
I feel sickened by the lack of faith in a woman’s ability or right to contribute. My family, an anomaly, has always told me and my three sisters that we can do anything we put our minds to, that we are strong, and intelligent. Without them, I do not know if I too would have had my potential hidden from me.
At Harvard, I am surrounded by women pursuing their passions, and peers who expect me to do the same. I’m asked about my concentration, career plans, and aspirations. For the first time ever in my life, I was asked at what age I would want to retire. Such a simple question completely shook me. I had never considered this before. No one had ever assumed in conversation with me that I would be so dedicated to a career that I would work until retiring age. It is so liberating to have my future and potential assumed and acknowledged.
Harvard may not be perfect, and sexism is ever-lurking, but the community here validates that I am an individual with the agency to choose my own path. Here, I am not a woman with characteristics and goals projected onto me regardless of who I am in reality. At Harvard, I am encouraged to pursue my dream of contributing to society, whether or not that includes children of my own.
Annabelle Finlayson ‘21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.
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