Last Sunday I took part in the nude “Celebrating Women, Celebrating Bodies” photo shoot sponsored by the Women’s Resource Center. I showed up with nine of my friends. The building is tiny and we were packed in with members of the women’s lacrosse team, who were posing with their sticks and toting them around on their shoulders. I had to duck a few times. We were asked to fill out a survey: what were our initial thoughts and feeling? My thoughts and feelings… I was thinking about the macaroni & cheese I just ate in Moulton Dining Hall. I was thinking about the chaos and the people running around. I wondered if I remembered to shave my armpits and then wondered if in this space having unshaved armpits would actually be the more popular choice.
The ten of us went into a side room, stripped down to our underwear, stood side-by-side, laughed nervously, sweated under the bright lights, and click click click. We put our bras back on and then the rest of our clothes.
I grabbed a Dove chocolate on the way out. It advised me to “Do what feels right.”
The feminist conversation at Bowdoin is hyper-focused on body image and emotional and sexual empowerment. We’re told by the Women’s Resource Center to “explore how we experience being women,” and I don’t mean to trivialize these issues. Many of them are vitally important, especially activism to end sexual violence and the discussion around the intersection of body image, food, and eating disorders. But they are not the sole issues of feminism (and, as Jesse Ortiz ’16 pointed out in his recent column, are not even exclusive to women).
We seem to believe that the only feminist issues that concern us are the ones that apply to us (well-educated, privileged women) right now (age 18-22, single, unemployed, and not parents). This navel-gazing, repetitive rhetoric (Don’t use “fat” language! We don’t have an obligation to men to shave our legs, armpits or pubic hair!) absorbs so much of our attention and energy that it distracts from broader socio-political problems that we should care about regardless of whether we will ever individually face them.
The so-called solutions of “self-improvement” and “empowerment” are, in fact, disempowering. It is a goal without a concrete end. When do you say, “OK, now I’m empowered, let’s get to some other stuff”? You can spin your wheels forever in search of empowerment.
American parental leave policy is a national embarrassment: 12 unpaid work weeks is all that is legally required of employers to give expecting mothers. There is virtually no systemic support for single mothers. The U.S. provides the least government aid to single parents of any economically comparable nation, according to a recent study conducted by the women’s rights group, Legal Momentum. Child care is expensive and often inconvenient, and school schedules are often incompatible with work schedules. Many professional career trajectories are totally at odds with female fertility. And let’s remember: women are still not constitutionally equal to men, because the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass. Anne-Marie Slaughter does an elegant and compelling job of identifying these systemic problems and suggesting how they could change in her Atlantic magazine article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
None of these things will be fixed if we only look within. We have to engage with our government and take action in the public sphere, and not just as individuals, but collectively.
Do we think that we will escape this tension? That the system will change before we get there? We’re only five or ten years away.
Do we think we don’t have any power? We are adults, registered voters, and somebody’s constituents. Additionally, our status as single, unemployed, non-providers gives us tremendous power as advocates. We don’t need to worry about losing our jobs. We have free time during the work day. If we, with all our privileges, resources and time for leisure, can’t take action, then who can?
Visiting Professor Susan Faludi made the point at her recent talk about the contemporary American women’s movement that it is publicized as a movement that is all about what rich women can do for themselves. The CEO has no empathy for the Wal-Mart cashier. But we’re even narrower. We don’t even have empathy for our future selves. We’re stuck looking in the mirror.
Julia Mead is a member of the class of 2016.