Harvard undergrads reshape feminism debate

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/17/harvard-undergrads-reshape-feminism-debate/

CAMBRIDGE – Earlier this month, more than 100 Harvard University students, both male and female, declared themselves to be feminists at the seventh annual “Feminist Coming Out Day,” the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported, a tradition started by undergraduates to openly discuss what the term means to them.

More than 78 percent of U.S. college women consider themselves feminists, according to a survey released in June by online women’s magazine Her Campus. But the publication said that  the meaning of feminism today, beyond the basic concept of equal opportunity for men and women, is less clear.

In recent decades, the feminist movement at Harvard has expanded its objectives, from pushing for equal academic opportunity to confronting language usage and challenging all-male “final clubs.” To some, the movement has been taken too far, while others say the once all-male Harvard College still has a long way to go.

Harvard boasts several women’s groups with varying missions, including the International Women’s Rights Collective, the Radcliffe Union of Students and The Seneca, among others.

At five years old, the Collective is the youngest of the elite college’s women’s groups. With a focus on international human rights and feminist activism, it might be considered part of a larger social-justice movement on campus. Leaders of the group declined to comment.

The Union, which originated from the former all-female Radcliffe College’s student government when the school merged with Harvard, focuses its efforts on combating gender discrimination on campus. The Union describes itself as “a voice for women undergraduates and feminists of every gender” and the leader of feminist groups on campus.

“We keep the name to remind us that Harvard has not always had any kind of commitment to educating women, and that with that lack of tradition we must be constantly watchful. There is still a long way to go,” according to the organization’s website.

Seneca, unlike the Collective and the Union, takes a slightly less political approach to women’s issues. A membership organization with a rigorous application process, it was founded in 1999 by a group of undergraduate women to create opportunities and networks for women in social, educational, and professional environments.

The group is more about networking than providing a sorority-like social organization and sponsors speakers and discussion events that are open to the entire campus. In addition, Seneca holds a variety of member-only functions, including retreats, brunches, dinners, discussion groups, career panels and alumnae networking events. Seneca leaders didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Collectively, the women’s groups often sponsor or participate things like Women’s Week – a period devoted to lectures on women’s issues and the role of gender at Harvard – and Take Back the Night, an annual nationwide march to protest sexual violence.

A year ago, Harvard’s student government began a campaign called Side by Side to discuss gender norms on campus, an effort that also provided a campus-wide forum for women’s issues.

On Labor Day weekend, eight students on campus gathered for an “edit-a-thon” to recast pages from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.org to make them more sympathetic to feminist and human-rights causes. The Crimson said it was described as an effort to “dismantle the patriarchy.”

But some undergrads nevertheless find current campus feminism too tepid.

“Feminism at Harvard is too cautious, too fearful of disagreement to erase gender inequality at the school,” Crimson columnist Madeleine Schwartz wrote while studying at the school a few years ago. Her series of articles on the topic rallied feminist activists and condemned final clubs – exclusive single-sex off-campus social organizations governed by students and alumni boards. Women-only final clubs also exist, including the Pleiades and the Bee, but they don’t own their houses as the male clubs do, according to an article in Elle magazine.

Another student, writing in the Harvard Political Review last year, argued that even the term “feminist” is biased.

“Maybe we can coin a new term – equalism? Genderism?” author Tasnim Ahmed wrote, adding that today’s feminism is more nuanced, and should focus on the experience of the minority woman, as well as women around the world.

Powell Eddins, in a February 2015 piece published in the student-run Harvard Independent, a weekly news outlet, argued for a “fourth wave” of feminism on campus that includes the defense of transgender women and femmes, himself included.

“Third wave feminism clearly isn’t working for feminine men and trans women,” he wrote. “I want a feminism that defines the reason why femininity and gender-non-conformity are stigmatized across all genders, instead of forcing people to distance themselves from the expression that is causing them discrimination.“

To read more about sex and gender on campus, click here.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.