This fall I had the great privilege of designing and teaching the first Sociology of Gender class to be offered at the City College of New York. My goal of the class was for the students to leave able to apply a nuanced gender lens to whatever social problem tickled their fancy. One night reading their weekly reflexive journals, I witnessed that “click” moment when the students start to engage with the class material in very exciting ways. More importantly, I realized I had stumbled upon the next generation of gender justice thinkers. They were asking questions and making connections that I knew the movement needed to hear. How could I NOT invite them to blog here at Girl w/ Pen, a space that has long supported the next generation of feminists? So without further ado, here are some of my star students, chatting about a few of the key debates we had in class this semester. Enjoy!
Throughout the semester, we debated whether the goal of a movement for greater gender justice should be the expansion of gender or the explosion of gender. In other words, is your utopian vision a world with a multiplicity of genders or a genderless world? Where did you end up in this debate?
Alex Constantin: Although I understand some (utopian) reason behind the call for exploding gender to reach a genderless, liberated world, my personal sense of justice lends towards the expansion of gender. There are still far too many oppressive gender rules for me not advocate for expanding gender. We have an entire outdated archive on the male and female dichotomy that calls for an urgent expansion above and beyond the binary.
Gloria Robles: I personally believe that the goal of a movement for greater gender justice should be on the expansion of gender – not the explosion, or elimination. To draw a comparison of gender to race, it’s important to recognize that there are differences and to not promote “color-blindness.” We are all unique and have many nuances to who we are and that should not be disregarded but celebrated.
Sandra Prieto: I can’t really relate to a genderless world. A genderless world would only allow some other category to restructure how we relate to each other, like sports team affiliations or preferred ice cream flavor. Maybe I’ve read too many Orwell novels, but the only genderless world I can imagine is where we all have to mask our faces and bodies. Sure, it might create greater equal opportunities, but might it also strip away one way we express ourselves? That is why I find the expansion of gender more appealing. With the introduction of more genders, we would no longer be able to assign masculinity to just males and femininity to just females. Instead of expecting everyone to fit into one of two ideal categories, we would be creating more flexible gender norms.
Shari Mohammed: For me, this is a both/and question. To successfully move towards greater justice, we need to expand gender, which will eventually entail the explosion of gender. Not that this will result in a genderless world, just an exploded understanding of what is gender. We need to recreate how we think of, react to, and how we express gender. My utopian world would be everyone expressing their gender however they wish without fear of social sanctions. The first step, in my opinion, is eradicating the sexism inherent in our current binary system and then working toward an expanded sense of acceptance.
Dairanys Grullon-Virgil: We need an explosion of gender. Today people more than ever are becoming more comfortable and proud of who they are. The problem is that we still judge individuals based on socially constructed ideologies of gender. I think that the conversation about having greater gender justice should revolve around acknowledging the multiplicity of gender identities, instead of imposing gender identities to individuals.
Erin Crowder: It is difficult for me to pick a side in this debate. Expanding what is considered normal sounds utopian at first, but then I think about how much I despise the word “normal.” It is quite clear that norms are always regulating and oppressive, so why simply create more? On the other hand, however, I feel a genderless world is problematic too. I believe there is an internal force creating gender that creates our identity. Personally, my gender is central to my identity, although, I do not know if this is a good thing. What I do know is that in a genderless world I would lose this part of my identity. Lacking this identity could be detrimental, but it could also be a source of liberation. I find myself somersaulting between the two sides in this debate.
Kenya Bushell: I feel that we should live in a genderless world. The world shouldn’t have expectations of anyone for any reason, especially regarding genetics. It shouldn’t matter that a person was born a male or a female. They had no control of this outcome and therefore should not be controlled by it. As we continue to conflate gender and sex, a genderless world is the only way I see out of this conundrum.
One of your first assignments was to go out in public and do your gender differently in a way that challenged current gender norms. What gender norm did you choose to break and what was the experience like for you?
Alex: This assignment was a green card to pursue some good-willed anarchy against oppressive gender roles and rules. I initially worried that I did not have the guts to see this assignment through. However, living daily amongst Neanderthals (my family) and reading feminist poetry to cope with this gave me starting ground. Every year my uncle throws a dinner party with about 30 to 40 people. Patriarchal stereotypes are served with every dish. Provoked by sexist attitudes early in the evening and inspired by Pat Parker’s poem “My Lady Ain’t No Lady,” the dinner table became my gender rule-breaking stage. I did some of those “unlady” deeds Pat Parker describes: I ate with my hands (but, that felt rather delicate); I burped; I took up more space by spreading my elbows wide; and I gradually started to raise my voice whenever I spoke. I was mirroring the men’s behavior at the table, who soon started to mock me or attempt to find excuses for my disturbingly unladylike behavior. I explained my behavior was not due to some sleep deprivation but to the constant righteousness deprivation women in general (but, especially in this family) experience. It felt liberating to do and say all of that and to reject the patriarchal entree and dessert from the menu.
Gloria: As someone who truly enjoys acting and looking feminine, the hardest way for me to break gender norms was to not play that stereotypical female role. I forwent my usual morning ritual of spending hours on hair, makeup, and clothes. Stripped from the comfort of being dolled up, it was eye opening to see that I didn’t feel like myself without the add-ons I was so accustomed to putting on because I was raised that that’s what makes a girl. Purely as myself in the most natural way, I felt like a boy and was embarrassed to go out in public. Immediately I noticed people weren’t as receptive to me, less polite, didn’t go out of their way to open doors, etc. In today’s society, a woman’s worth is almost directly correlated to beauty.
Sandra: I decided to break the gender norm dictating expected Halloween wear for women, because I was upset female superheroes aren’t addressed as superheroines… the word doesn’t even exist in the dictionary. So, when my boyfriend asked me to be a superhero for Halloween, I thought of a devious way to give him exactly what he asked for. By the end of the day, I found myself wearing a Batman-muscle suit. At first it was all fun and games. My boyfriend and I caused heads to turn as we walked down the street. Some people smiled, some people averted their eyes, and some just looked distraught. Maybe it was the fact that I looked like a boy or maybe it was the fact that I was wearing a Batman suit weeks before Halloween. Who knows? I only remember how vulnerable I felt the second I said goodbye to my accomplice and found myself taking the train home alone. I probably would’ve continued feeling the sense of empowerment I felt leaving the costume shop if I did not need to remove my itchy mask. Only then did I become aware of the connection between my false sense of confidence and hiding my true identity behind a mask. I remember how people darted their eyes back and forth trying to figure out my story. I was extremely self-conscious and paranoid, believing that they were all secretly judging me. And that’s when I realized how difficult it must be for gender outlaws to travel through public space alone. By the time I reached my house, I understood how courageous those individuals are.
Shari: The gender norm I decided to break was how women conduct themselves in public. I dressed up as a man and lowered my voice for the entire ride on the J train to the basketball courts of Highland Park in Brooklyn from the city. My behavior, including my body language sitting and standing, was manly. The reactions I received were surprising. I mean I thought that it was 2012, and that people especially in NYC would not have reacted the way they did! I was met first with isolation: basically people just ignoring me. Then I was met with disapproval by both the younger generation making sly remarks to their friends, or the blatant stares and mumbled curses from the elder generation. One guy literally sat down next to me and tried to convince me that I shouldn’t be a lesbian because I was too young and that I had apparently never had a real man before. He assumed by my appearance that I was gay, which annoyed me. But when he tried to convince me that how I was supposedly was living my life was wrong, and how he could (sexually) show me better, I was downright disgusted. As soon as he left, a proselytizer joined the train car. When this man saw me he decided to have a field trip. He started preaching about how wrong it was that men sleep with men and women with women. He kept on glancing at me, loudly proclaiming that if gay people changed their ways, God would forgive them; otherwise, they would burn in hell for eternity. When my stop finally came, he shouted at me that I was influenced by Satan. That is when the doors closed shut. Standing on the train station platform, I decide to not feel angry at him but sorry for him and everyone who is likewise close-minded.
Dairanys: I decided to hang out with the boy’s crew during a night out with my friends. When we got to the bar, I followed the guys to order drinks while the other girls grabbed a table. They ask for a round of tequila shots for all the guys, but the only woman in this case (ME) was not offered one. So I asked for one myself. When the bill came my friend paid for it without asking even though I told him I could pay for it. I then ordered a martini, to which my friend commented how I was “such a girl.” But he didn’t say anything when I had my tequila shot. With this assignment I realized that gender norms are not only the obvious ones that we see in daily bases, but also the more subtle ones like my friend’s reaction to the type of drinks that I ordered.
Erin: I identified a gender norm that masculinity often allows a man to scratch his genital area in public, but it is quite “unladylike” and unacceptable for a woman to do so. In three public spaces – the subway, a coffee shop, and a busy street – I scratched my genital area. I felt defiant but also self-conscious, a little shame (like I was doing something wrong), and even dirty. I was actually surprised at the extent of these emotions. They revealed to me just how internalized certain gender norms have become to me. In each location there were obvious reactions from people; however, reactions on the subway were the fiercest. One woman stared at me with a disapproving, disgusted look. Then men tended to look more surprised and quickly turned to face another direction. In particular, I chose to scratch my genital area when a man was blatantly staring at me – checking me out, if you will. He went from confidently staring at me to being startled and walking swiftly away. Another man went so far as to say, “Awwww dude!” before walking away. He was openly distressed, which then overwhelmed me with embarrassment. Ironically, I switched to the 2 train at the next stop only to sit directly across from a man incessantly grabbing his genital area.
Kenya: On a daily basis I break the norm of lifting and carrying heavy materials. At work I help unload shipment, a task I love to do yet am barely assigned. When I lift the boxes I am either told to “be careful, mami” by our store security guard or told not to do that because I’m a lady. I love pushing my muscle groups and actively using the limbs I was born with. Yet others around me try to stop me from using my body and my strength because as a woman I shouldn’t. It angers me that I’m being told not to use the body I was born with while I live my limited time on earth. Why should I not do what I am capable of, whether it’s difficult or simple, because I am a woman?
A class that was personally meaningful for me was our discussion on femininity. We read excerpts from Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and the anthology Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls. What do you think the role of femininity should be in the feminist movement and vise versa? Anything else that stuck out to you from this discussion?
Alex: I particularly enjoyed this discussion, because I have always felt somewhat responsible for not fully embracing my femininity or trying to include femininity as part of my feminist work (and generally failing at being an outspoken feminist myself). Reading Serano and Harris and Crocker gives me great hope for femininity and feminism as they offer me powerful language to express the same issues of oppression and discrimination I have felt. Maybe what we need is a constant reassurance that femininity is simply a genuine desire of being.
Gloria: According to current societal standards, femininity is not strong enough to stand on its own. In order to succeed or get ahead in the “man’s world,” you need to abandon your feminine traits and try to act more like a hegemonic man. Or you can hang onto your femininity as purely an ornamental and only be a compliment to your man. Neither of these options are very satisfying. I think the terms feminine and masculine should be eliminated because they’ll always be tied to feminine being female, and masculine being male, so at birth you are automatically subscribed to a set of qualities whether or not you actually merit them.
Sandra: Before the readings, I used to believe the feminist movement was a hopeless cause because it failed to unify all types of women. Race, age, socio-economic status… there was always something dividing their interests. However, from the readings I gleaned that femininity may be the great unifying factor, empowering women and standing against masculinity. If women are able to demonstrate that femininity is not a subordinate trait to masculinity, then all women would finally be able to prove their worth without being weighed down by oppressive ideologies. Unifying all of the genders that identify with femininity is the kind of feminism that I would gladly advocate for because the state of my femininity gives me a more relatable cause than any of the other movements (i.e. those supporting unilateral theories or the deconstruction of gender).
Dairanys: Something that needs to be brought up more is that femininity is not weakness, and that everyone has a feminine AND masculine side. Furthermore, to have an effective gender justice movement, men and women of all backgrounds must be included.
Erin: I think it is very important to talk about femininity in a positive way, as there is so much negativity in the world surrounding femininity. It is frustrating to me, as a person who embraces her feminine side very much. It is also important to discuss the lack of scholarship on femininities and, furthermore, how much the scholarship that does exist on the subject is simply in juxtaposition to masculinity. I believe strongly that it is not purely a yin and yang scenario, but femininity is a powerful entity in and of itself. I agree with Serano that femininity does not need to be abandoned in order to be feminist. I identify as very feminine as well as very feminist. I think femininity must be embraced by the feminist movement in order to end perspectives of femininity meaning weak or inadequate. I see feminine qualities as compassion, collaboration, and understanding, which are all essential to the feminist movement.
Your final assignment was come up with a definition of a gender warrior and to find someone who exemplified this definition. Who did you choose and why?
Alex: Since Pat Parker has been an inspirational and empowering lead in my life as a woman, I wanted to share with the class some of her insights and her acute sense of righteousness. My definition of a gender warrior is someone fighting to love who they want and be who they want to be. Parker is a woman who found a way to fight her own oppression by developing a narrative poetry that was frank in portraying a sharp analysis of injustices, but humorous, truthful and soulful enough to be appealing to all kinds of audiences. I chose her because I need a constant source of humor, love and a constant reminder of not silencing myself whenever I face injustices. Parker is great with that because it seems hard to read her poems in soft voice, for they are so powerful they need to reach out to all men and women engaged in human rights battles.
Gloria: I choose Zahra Kazemi as someone who exemplified my personal definition of a gender warrior because she superseded gender. She was a photojournalist who refused to hand over damning photos of a corrupt government, and was eventually taken to prison where she was tortured and died. Quotes from people who knew her or witnessed her sufferings in prison recalled her spirit never breaking. She always fought back and whether she was male of female didn’t matter – she acted bravely in the face of adversity that is admirable and humbling for any gender.
Sandra: My definition of a gender warrior is someone who does not let gender norms interfere with personal causes and values. I chose Joan of Arc as the exemplary individual for my definition. As a cross-dressing martyr, Joan did not let the gender norms dictating proper Renaissance attire for women interfere with her value of leading a celibate life. It was only after her prison guards threatened to violate her that she decided to protect herself with men’s clothing, fully aware that this act would condemn her to death. Secondly, as a woman who never diminished her femininity or womanhood, Joan proved to the Renaissance world that gender roles are flexible. She was capable of not only undertaking male roles (becoming a military strategist, troop leader, and French diplomat), but also capable of undertaking female roles (becoming an expert at sewing and spinning). Lastly, by turning the tide of the Hundred Years War, Joan broke the biggest Renaissance gender norm for women… by being outspoken. My favorite story about Joan of Arc was how she slapped a Scottish soldier who had eaten stolen red-meat. She was definitely an audacious character for her time and, therefore, a perfect fit for my definition of a gender warrior.
Shari: I chose Elizabeth Blackwell because to me she reflects all the aspects of my definition of what a gender warrior is. My definition of a gender warrior is someone who has the courage and the drive to follow their dreams of accomplishing their goal, whether it breaks social or gender norms. A person’s ability to succeed in their accomplishments is one aspect, but their influence that they had on people of their time as well as the mark they leave on society as a whole to me reflects a true gender warrior. Elizabeth Blackwell’s achievement was that she was the first woman ever in the United States of America to receive an M.D degree from an American medical school in 1849. Her second greatest achievement was that Dr. Elizabeth and colleagues founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children where it was built as a medical college for women that had provided training and experience for women doctors and provided medical care for the poor. One might think that because in these current times there are female physicians, so what is the big deal? Well during those times it was unthinkable and discouraged as a career job unsuitable for a woman. She was denied to every single medical school in New York as well as Philadelphia. The only reason why she gained admittance to Geneva Medical College in western New York State in 1847, was because they made the whole male student population vote. And they voted her in as a joke. However, two years later she had the last laugh when she graduated and became the first woman to gain a medical degree. This woman to me is a great role model for women of all ages, because she fought for what she wanted, and she did not allow her gender to deter her from reaching what she wanted most.
Dairanys: For my gender warrior assignment I chose Eve Ensler’s book, I Am An Emotional Creature. For me a gender warrior is: A person, place, object, book or anything that embraces and acknowledge sexuality and the gender identity of a person. I am An Emotional Creature exemplifies this definition; it is a book that I would like to see read by by little girls, young women, adult women, any woman! This book made me connect to my inner girl and tell her that is completely fine to be who she was/is and that she didn’t have to restrain her feelings and actions just for the fact of being a girl.
Erin: A gender warrior to me is a force that questions the gender binary that continues to be so deep-rooted in our ‘modern’ society. I chose the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, Elizabeth Trotzig. I had not heard of her before this holiday season when the “gender-neutral” Top Toy’s catalogue in Sweden was released. In the catalogue girls are pictured playing with blocks, Legos, etc. and boys are pictured playing with toy kitchens, dolls, and other toys traditionally dedicated to girls. When I stumbled upon an article about this catalogue I was intensely pleased. I had previously looked through an American Toys “R” Us catalogue looking at toys for my young niece and nephew. While perusing the pages I found myself irritated seeing girls playing with vacuums that were, of course, pink, while boys were on completely separate pages playing with guns, building toys, etc. The gendering became extremely apparent when I turned to a page that showed a blue “doctor kit” including a stethoscope, plastic needle, thermometer and bandage and the page directly across showed the exact same kit in pink labeled “nurse kit.” Although I believe the toy and game industry needs a lot of changing, I think Trotzig and the rest of the Advertising Ombudsman organization accomplished something important with their work convincing Top Toys to change their advertising. It is enormously important, as toy advertisements are specifically targeted at children. Unfortunately, explicit gendering in toy advertising is an issue here in the United States that seems to only be getting worse.
Kenya: For my gender warrior I chose Lana Wackowski because she’s an everyday person that did something simply above and beyond because it was rewarding for others. Lana’s HRC Visibility speech just helped multiple people at once. She exposed herself and opened up to many when she really didn’t need to. She’s not a specialist at public speaking, nor has she trained to be an inspirational speaker. She is a woman whose difficult upbringing would inspire many growing adults, if it was shared. So she did just that. She put in the energy and time and shared her past and her thoughts with others. Since a warrior does something above and beyond to help many that they do not know, Lana is a gender warrior to me.
Stay tuned! We’re reviving the Next Generation column and you may be hearing from these ladies again….