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Columns

We The Women

By Lauren Yang
By Reshini Premaratne, Contributing Opinion Writer
Reshini Premaratne ’21 is a joint concentrator in Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Every night back on campus, usually after dark, when I find myself departing some study spot on the river to walk back to my house in the Quad, I invariably hear someone say: “Are you sure you want to walk back alone? You know, as a woman…”

I would never suggest that there aren’t real risks to women, but more relevantly to anyone, who chooses to walk across our campus at nighttime. I have heard stories of friends getting mugged or harassed, and have even experienced moments myself of feeling slightly frightened or concerned while making that nightly trek.

But, I do feel confident in saying that reducing or equating this concern to my womanhood is entirely unproductive. More times than I care to count I have been told about some experience that I must understand because I, myself, am a woman. Whether they are tales of catcalling or fearing for one’s safety after dark or feeling threatened by a male colleague, I have noticed that people can be quick to generalize the female experience. But, what does that mean then for those of us women who may not have experienced some of those events that are repeatedly treated as a rite of passage?

I can’t recount a specific instance of being catcalled, for example. It’s entirely possible it has happened, especially considering the volume at which I listen to my music when I stroll down city streets, but I can honestly say I have never felt objectified by a passerby. And, besides the occasional volunteers asking for signatures for a petition on the sidewalk, no one had ever propositioned me or approached inappropriately. Even when working over my gap year, I never had to brush off sexual comments or innuendos from male co-workers. Yet, when I talk to my girlfriends about their experiences, it’ll often seem like these kinds of encounters are assumed, just part and parcel of being a woman. Am I not a woman then?

On the other hand, media, and film often portray women as being pitted against one another. The celebrity world is often plagued with questions of which actress wore an outfit better. Tabloids are full of dramatic, overblown “catfights” between musicians. The popular narrative on womanhood either overgeneralizes by assuming universal experiences that are not always shared, or it does the extreme opposite by actively dividing women between the jealous and the coveted, the beautiful and the not so much, the haves and the have-nots. Either way, women are divided, demarcated, and disassociated, at a time when true unity is needed the most with emerging conversations in feminism and the Time’s Up movement.

Indeed, women will often try to generate such universal definitions of womanhood in order to engender solidarity, but in reality, it only further divides us. There is no singular, common experience. Surviving sexual assault does not make me any more a woman than one who, thankfully, has not had to. Choosing to dress up in frilly frocks and glide across the ice rink as a figure skater every morning before school for 14 years certainly does not make me any more a woman than my sisters who played on their schools’ field hockey teams or any less of one than my best friend who played no sports whatsoever. Having many guy friends, not being particularly “girly,” and preferring the color blue to pink are not demerits in some kind of tally on my female experience.

In the age of feminism, a conversation has emerged not only on what is required to be a proper advocate for gender equality but also on what it means to be a woman, period. One approach has been to universalize the female experience, but that inevitably leaves some women feeling alienated; another has been to actively divide women along arbitrary categorizations. However, the best approach would be to recognize and embrace the multidimensionality of womanhood. Instead of speaking for all women, let’s speak for ourselves and encourage other women to add nuance to the conversation by doing the same. Even though the term ‘womanhood’ implies a singularity to the experience, women everywhere today prove how multifaceted the female experience really can be — even in mundane instances like walking home, alone, in the dark, to the Quad.

Reshini Premaratne ’21 is a joint concentrator in Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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