Op-Ed: Swat’s Feminism Phobia

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I am calling for a moderate, inclusive women movement at Swarthmore. I’m not talking about bra-burning, dick-hating, Freidan-worshipping womyn (a common perception of feminism here at Swat), but Swatties who believe in thoughtfully working towards gender equality. If we go with the most basic definition of feminism, as the belief that men and women should be equal, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say most Swatties are feminists to at least an extent. However, most Swatties I know actively avoid anything that uses the word “feminist”, assuming it would also be radical and weird. Using my own experiences, then, I’m going to make the leap that most Swatties support gender equality, they just don’t feel like the approach to gender equality on campus is productive, inclusive, or moderate.

It’s time for us to engage feminism and gender equality in ways that we all think are productive, inclusive, and moderate. Ideologies like feminism can be diverse and welcoming, especially at somewhere like Swarthmore. Our feminism should account for multiple definitions of equality and ways to reach it. It should accept the contradictions that occur when we try to resist something we’ve internalized (why is it kind of cool when James Bond is an ass to every girl always?). Our approach to gender equality here can include all of this because we represent different backgrounds, ideologies, and perspectives that may not fit into our stereotype of “feminist.” And since gender inequality is a problem that is relevant to everyone regardless of gender, culture, origin, race, major/minor, class, or anything, Swarthmore’s approach to women’s issues and gender inequality should be–by its nature–for everyone. Think about it: Swarthmore’s feminists and supporters of gender equality could just be Swarthmore.

Swarthmore is a school for action and resistance. Our alumnae include the first woman to receive a PhD, one of the leaders of the movement for the nineteenth amendment, a slew of radical student activists in the 60’s, a former NOW president, and the founder of Radical Doula. I mean, Lucretia Mott is one of our founders. I’m not saying we should protest outside the White House until we’re detained, but our college’s history should be a motivation to mature our lackluster approach to gender inequality. My academic experience has consistently involved feminism in my classes, but it’s way too easy to argue one perspective in class and live a totally different reality. It’s time for us to take action and engage feminism in our own way.

Where to start is a tough question, and that’s a decision that needs to involve our campus community. However, a place worth considering would be the WRC, which is already trying to include all genders into women’s issues. This semester, the WRC is hosting a Women’s Week that will run from Friday, March 22nd to Thursday, March 28th (see wrcwomensweek.wordpress.com). Women’s Week is having 10 student groups plan individual events on women from their perspectives. They’re using spoken word, movie screenings, and panels to cover topics like women and water in the Jewish traditions, depictions of Latina/o women in the media, and women in politics. The idea of Women’s Week is easy: every Swattie should feel relevant and think at least one event is relevant to them. Hopefully you can feel involved and interested in women events on campus, even if you never have before.

I’ll be honest. My goal of debunking the myth that women’s movements are radical, exclusive, and useless is to take away your excuses. Just because you shave your legs, think women in high heels look beautiful, inexplicably enjoy Desperate Housewives, or think Barney from How I Met Your Mother is both awesome and hilarious doesn’t mean you can’t be “feminist” or engage with gender equality on campus. On the contrary, I’m urging you to redefine Swarthmore feminism. So come to a Women’s Week event. See the WRC. And start considering what it really means to be at Swarthmore and want equality.

Op-ed submitted by Kassandra Sparks ’15


  1. This is a wonderful piece! I also wonder how we as students can take part in this week long event? Any information on joining something?

    • Hi Arya,
      If by “joining” you mean helping out, feel free to shoot me an email- we always need an extra hand haha! If you want to “join, join” the WRC, you are always welcome to apply to be a housesitter or a board member. And if you also want to include your profs/ other members of the Swarthmore community, you can invite your women-identifying professors to the women’s luncheon on Thursday. We hope to spark discussion between faculty, staff and students on the theme “having it all.” RSVP to edurnin1 🙂

    • Hey Arya!

      All of the planning is done, however I encourage you to participate in the events going on over the next few days.

      More information can be found on wrcwomensweek.wordpress.com

      If you want to be more involved with the WRC (as a housesitter or board member) contact Sabrina Singh (ssingh1) or Raisa Reyes (rreyes1)!

  2. I’d like to add that it’d be great if we could focus on how race, ethnicity, class, and so forth interact/intersect with gender – after all, these are all essential to equality and cannot be separated out from gender.

    More articles on contemporary feminism that may be of interest to people: http://www.newstatesman.com/v-spot/2013/03/how-do-you-get-teenagers-think-feminism-cool (fyi, the article is English, and when using the word “fag” it means cigarette – I don’t know if people in the US still do that, but I doubt it) and also: http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2013/03/feminism-one-f-word-makes-eyes-widen-polite-company

  3. While I can appreciate the intention behind this article (trying to make feminism accessible to larger swarths of campus), calling for a “productive, inclusive, or moderate” rather than radical movement may not be the key to actual inclusivity, though neither is calling that movement “radical.” One of the major issues with feminism over the last few decades has been an assertion of “moderate” feminism (think Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan, etc.) combined with a silencing of more radical voices as, well, too radical. In large part, “moderate” feminism has been shaped by white, middle and upper class, straight and cis-gendered women–those who identify with the gender identity they were assigned at birth–who enjoy more immediate access to media, and whose stories and demands aren’t directly threatening to capitalism, white supremacy or any of the other factors that keep the patriarchy going. The stories and demands of moderate feminism resonate strongly with those of similar backgrounds to Friedan and Steinem, but less so with folks who don’t share the same backgrounds and experiences. Communities of color, working class people, trans* folks and non-Western feminists (to name a few) have typically been excluded from moderate feminism, meaning that the popular image of feminism doesn’t represent a lot of the resistance to patriarchy that’s happened outside of it. The problem isn’t that women need to change their feminism to be less aggressive or “radical” (again, not the best of terms). People should feel free to “dick-hate” if they want to, and take up demands, tactics and messaging that resonate with them and their communities. Feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and part of opening feminism up (or creating another, potentially more inclusive movement capable of bringing about gender liberation) is acknowledging its flaws and the ways it’s hurt and excluded people in the past. I think we do need “radical” movements to confront rape culture and sexism, but at the same time we need these movements to be anti-cissexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-classist and actively inclusive. Ideally, we can do away with terms like “radical” and “moderate” altogether.

    • I very much agree with all of this, except about “dick-hating”: that sort of thing is a horribly transphobic remnant of second wave feminism. Misandry? Fine, and carry on; men don’t suffer from systemic violence. But the actual hatred towards/revulsion of penises and the people who have them? Crappy, because people’s body parts shouldn’t be subjects of moral valuation, and fashioning a feminism that alienates women with penises isn’t going to build the inclusive movement for which you’re advocating.

      • Agreed on all counts. I guess why I picked out that statement, as opposed to “Friedan-loving” and “bra-burning”, was because I (probably unfairly/inaccurately) read it in the author’s phrasing and placement as a comment on separatism. If I could edit the comment, regardless of whatever the author’s intention, I’d take it out because “dick-hating” is a pretty crappy phrase to be propagating for all the reasons you listed, and definitely not part of the movement I’d want to see or be a part of. Thanks for pointing this out!

      • As someone who is not well versed in all of this can you please why misandry is tolerable or “fine” as you say, simply because men do not suffer from systematic violence? In what ways does that serve to bring about change or progress in areas of social justice and the like? To be honest its such comments that make me and I would assume many uncomfortable (seriously/physically uncomfortable) during discussions about gender on campus. Is misandry really something a movement should take up and/or approve?

        • If by misandry, you and/or SortaHere mean something that is an actual parallel to misogyny, then that’s not a real thing, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any credible movement in favor of it.

          Otherwise, here is one take on the issue (which may not be what SortaHere meant, but it’s still useful):

          Regardless of individual men’s behavior, the facts of patriarchy give women ample reason to resent men collectively simply because “male” is a privileged social category in relation to which women experience oppression. This is quite different, however, from holding individual men accountable for the existence of patriarchy and blaming them simply for being men.

          In other words, when a woman says, “I hate men,” this doesn’t necessarily mean she hates me, Allan. But, living in a society dominated by individualistic thinking makes it easy to lose sight of the crucial distinction between men as individuals and men as a category of people.
          Women’s anger is an important engine for change, and if women have to tiptoe around worrying about whether it might hurt a man’s feelings, they’re going to be silenced. – Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot

  4. Yes.

    One difficulty I have felt, as a male (cisgender and straight), is that I often don’t feel like I belong in circles labelled as “feminist” because of my gender, even though I fully agree with the goals and ideals of the gathering.

    Of course, there are some spaces for which it is appropriate to be closed to a particular in-group, in this case women, but “feminism” should be a cause men should feel comfortable not only believe in privately, but also talk about publicly. Saying something along the lines of “People of all genders (even men!) are encouraged to come,” could go a long way.

  5. Thanks for the article, Kassandra. Also, thanks for working so hard with the Women’s Week. It’s an amazing set of activities!

  6. Betty Friedan was considered a moderate feminist until she decided to include Lesbians in her Women’s Movement. It seems like things will never change. The movement has always been afraid of being called bra-burning, dick-hating, etc. etc. I’m sick and tired of trying to be inclusive and moderate with people that are afraid of the word feminist. At my age I just want to say that what we need is a matriarchy. Let’s just jump to that and forget all this other crap!

  7. I’m glad you’ve raised this issue (and grateful for the work you and the other organizers are doing for Women’s Week – Staceyanne Chin was amazing!). But I also have a pretty different view of what an inclusive and relevant feminism should look like, and I’d like to try to address that here.

    First, I can’t say I support the idea that feminists at Swat need to distinguish themselves from “bra-burning, dick-hating, Freidan-worshipping womyn.” Yes, that might make feminism more palatable to some people who are on the fence about it now, but we need to think about *why* it would have that effect. Why does the presence of angry, aggressive, perhaps “unfeminine” women in a social movement automatically invalidate that movement? What’s so bad about “bra-burning, dick-hating, Freidan-worshipping womyn” anyway? (Depending on what you mean by “dick-hating,” that could be an actual negative for the reasons SortaHere gives, but the rest?) I want my feminism to fight for a future where these women are accepted, and where their presence in a movement is an asset and not an image problem. And I’m willing to prioritize that goal over the goal of increasing our numbers.

    I also want to second what Jersey Grrrl said. We need to distinguish between making feminism more welcoming to people who have historically been excluded from it (people of color, trans people, queer people, etc.) and making it more palatable to others, especially more privileged people, who are reluctant to identify with feminism because they think it’s too radical. An effective feminism will necessarily represent some sort of loss of privilege for the people who currently benefit from patriarchy (and related oppressive systems); of course it will seem threatening to some, if not most, of those people, and probably also to a fair number of people who don’t benefit as much from patriarchy but have still internalized the belief that it’s the only possible social order. But if we try to deal with that problem by calling for fewer and less drastic changes to the system, we’ll be left with a feminism that mainly benefits women who are fairly well-served by the system already. Instead, I say we should keep working to show why patriarchy is such an urgent problem and why it might demand a radical response, and draw people in that way. This may result in a smaller movement, but I would argue that it will also be a more effective one.

    tl;dr: Making feminism better serve the needs of all marginalized people will not necessarily make it more popular or more socially acceptable.

    • I would love to know why people downvote reasonable and thoughtful comments like this. People, put words to your feelings. Don’t just click the angry red thumbs down button.

    • If this article calls for the exclusion of “bra-burning, dick-hating, Freidan-worshipping womyn” from a feminist movement, then I agree that it is wrong.

      This article resonates with me because I interpret it differently. I see no call for excluding individuals from a movement, but rather a call for identifying the ideas and goals of a movement as distinct from what a (nontrivial) segment of the population believes the ideas and goals of “bra-burning, dick-hating, Freidan-worshipping womyn” are likely to be.

      Namely (and surely some will disagree with me), I see two arenas in which a productive feminist movement could deviate from what I think of as an unproductively radical movement.

      At a grand ideological scale, it is possible to envision a feminism that attacks the injustice and violence that women face without also taking aim at capitalism. Maybe this is can never get you more than a fraction of the way to the end goal, but it can get you an important fraction. It is possible to imagine a capitalist society in which women are rarely raped.

      At a minute ideological scale, it is possible to envision a feminism that attacks the injustice and violence that women face without taking aim at things like the consumption of pop culture or the seeking/enjoying of female attractiveness defined by cultural norms (i.e. women who make an effort to conform to those norms and anybody who appreciates that when they see it).

      This isn’t to say that there is no room for radicals who wish to see the end of capitalism and leg-shaving too. It is to say that these desires MUST be clearly distinguishable from the aims of a feminist movement. No, not quite… it is to say that there must be at least one available feminist movement that these people can join–and would want to join and would feel welcome in. Otherwise, the movement loses a great many genuine feminists.

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