This guest post is by Kelly Scott, our student panelist from Rutgers University—Camden when we visited for our Offline and Unfiltered tour. (Have an interest in bringing us to your school? More here.) Kelly is a graduating senior at Rutgers, where she is the founding president of the Gender Studies Organization. She is double majoring in (self-proposed) Women’s and Gender Studies and History. She is queer, white, able-bodied, and proud to come from a long line of feminists.
As the only Gender Studies major (it only exists as a minor here) on my commuter campus, I have a very different college experience from those around me. I’ll use a recent experience to prove my point. I was in one of my Gender Studies/Literature classes, and we had a guest speaker. He was a fellow student presenting a paper he wrote which incorporated some feminist history among other things. As the professor was introducing him, she referred to him as a feminist. His response: “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. I believe in gender equality, but I’m not a feminist. Most feminists believe in gender superiority, but I believe in equality.” Most students on my campus wouldn’t have even registered the statement. Actually, they probably would have, but decided that it meant he wasn’t a threat. My reaction? Well, to my credit, I didn’t raise my voice or anything, but you can bet I couldn’t let that statement fly.
Unfortunately, this is the norm where I go to school, and I’m sure it’s the norm in a lot of places (maybe even most). As the only student to take over forty Gender Studies credits on my campus, I experience incidents like this all the time. I’ve listened to professors teach the difference between sex, gender, and sexuality more times than I can count, and still no one seems to know the difference. It probably comes as no surprise that “feminism” is a bad word on this campus, and you don’t find very many women who are willing to apply it to themselves (and even fewer men). When I started trying to revive our campus’s long-dead Women’s Studies Organization (now renamed to the Gender Studies Organization), you can imagine participation was sparse at best. Of course, as a commuter campus, it’s hard to get students to come out to events anyway, but, well, we faced a few extra challenges. There is no feminist community on my campus. There is no sense of why feminism is necessary on my campus—in spite of all of the recent legislation that is so hostile to women’s health. The words “feminism” and, even worse, “feminist” conjure up angry lesbians who don’t shave their legs (maybe it would help if I, as the Token Feminist, weren’t exactly that). It’s a dangerous situation.
Dangerous seems like a strong word, but when your campus is in one of the most dangerous cities in America and rape is on the rise, there’s a lot to lose. But I don’t need to tell you why feminism is so important: it’s all around us. The GOP has all but declared war on women and the stakes keep getting higher and higher. Of course, I have more personal reasons to be concerned. Last semester, the secretary of the Gender Studies Organization went to represent our group at our Campus Involvement Fair. Every year at this event, we set up a table with a poster that shows our mission statement and a few events we like to do, and we take a basket of condoms and lube to give out. I’ll confess, it’s partially to get some attention to our group, but it also starts important conversations about the importance of access to contraception and sex positivity. Normally, we get a few giggles from some students, some quiet embarrassment as condoms slowly but surely disappear, and a few of the aforementioned important conversations.
This year, however, we also got a school newspaper reporter grilling the group’s secretary on sexuality and morality. “But don’t you think that giving out condoms will encourage students to have sex?” Thank god I wasn’t in attendance, because my response would have included, “What planet do you live on?!” Fortunately, the secretary is very level-headed and did her best to try to educate this person. This incident got me truly worried about the state of affairs on my campus, especially once I realized that these students will someday soon be in the workforce, and some of them may even become our policy makers (or at the very least, our voters). This is how a, erm, “person” like Rick Santorum can make a bid at the presidency and not be laughed off the podium. There is a lot at stake.
I truly believe that the best way to get beyond this hostility towards women (and anyone else who’s not white, male, able-bodied, straight, Christian, “Just Like Me™,”…) is to start with creating understanding. Alright, I’ll say it outright, Gender Studies courses should be mandatory, and I don’t just mean at the college level. Everyone should be taught about power structures, oppression, and privilege. Everyone should have to know about intersectionality. I know that education does not a good citizen make, but hey, it’s a start. So what am I doing about it? Well, I’m trying to form a feminist community in a place that desperately needs it. I’m trying to make it so that when someone is introduced as a feminist here, they don’t feel the need to distance themselves from the label as much as possible. I’m trying to make sure no one makes the mistake of assuming feminism is a belief in “gender superiority” again. It’s a challenge—on my campus, you have to promise free pizza in order to get anyone to show up for anything—but the stakes are too high not to try.