There are stark differences in the lived realities of men and women, and sometimes, you just need to listen to learn about gender, as I discovered with my students this semester.
It was nearing the end of my First Year Seminar, which of course I’d given the theme of fairy tales, on the premise that we’d cover all the usual FYS mandates—reading, writing, critical thinking, public speaking—through my chosen lens. We’d covered the history of Western fairy tales and moved into some modern adaptations, and we were halfway through reading the most-excellent novel Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron. The novel asks questions about who deserves that classic happily-ever-after based on gender, sexuality, race, and more.
So I decided to do a fun little exercise with my students.
I put them in different groups than the ones they normally sit with, and then I asked them to talk about the following: when was a time they felt included because of their gender.
As I roamed around the room, answers were pretty much as I’d expected: in hobby and sports groups, on shopping trips for particular items, and so on.
The next part of the prompt was: when was a time they felt excluded because of their gender.
Conversations died down, and picked up again, and kept going until I asked people to share what they’d been talking about with the whole class.
And this is when the differences in gendered realities emerged.
It started innocuously enough, with the women in the class talking about constraints they felt they faced in the gym or on sports teams. They didn’t like working out in the parts of the gym on campus where it was mostly the heavier weight racks, where guys grunted and dropped the weights with loud clangs.
And I didn’t even know this: that area, in our campus gym, is nicknamed the Kennel. Which, on the one hand, is a lovely bit of folkspeech and obviously reflects that we’re the Butler Bulldogs. But on the other hand, there are some negative connotations, which I’m not sure I have time to unpack in this post.
My female students, as a whole, talked about fear. They didn’t always name it as such, though. They talked about conspicuously being on the phone with someone while walking back to their dorms from a late-night study session. They spoke of holding their keys spiky-like in their hands while on public transit. They avoided using public transportation whenever possible, too. They talked about pestering friends to come with them on short or long road trips so they wouldn’t have to travel alone.
The male students had these looks on their faces, somewhere between confusion and disbelief. I encouraged everyone to listen and learn, and I hope they took to heart the lesson that their female peers, so alike them in dozens of ways, live completely different lives based on this one axis.
This is why I teach about gender every opportunity I get: to combat the idea that we are living in a postfeminist society, one where feminism has “won” and all gender/sexual oppression has ended and YAY we’re living in a perfect world now!
Clearly, this is not true.
But I think it’s easy for even people who are clued into the struggle to assume that, oh, it’s not that bad, we’re still fighting for things like abortion access and we’re fighting against the wage gap, but like, on a daily basis, it’s not that bad.
Y’all, it IS that bad. Young women live in fear and must be constantly vigilant, in large part because they know that if something happens to them – if they’re attacked or robbed or raped – it will be framed as their own fault. Some of my students are afraid to travel alone. Or to travel internationally. This is bad. And it’s not that they’re paranoid; rather, they’re correctly reading the culture, and they know that victim-blaming is woven into the daily fabric of our society even as we’re told that we’re all girl-bosses and it’s all good. It’s not all good.
This is why I’m sick of people saying it’s bullshit to keep talking about gender, to keep promoting feminism, to keep having these conversations. Obviously, these conversations need to be had…and they also need to be had about other major facets of identity that structure people’s daily lives: race, disability, class, religion, and so on. Sometimes one facet will take precedence over another in a given context, and sometimes these facets will layer atop each other, creating more complex and intense forms of oppression (a phenomenon that we call intersectionality; if you haven’t heard of it, Vox had a nice write-up here).
And this is also a major reason why I’m a teacher, why I instigate these kinds of conversations in classrooms where, to put it crassly, I have a captive audience. I know students won’t always agree with me completely, nor should they, but I at least hope they’re open to learning from and listening to their peers.
Since I’m still in teacher-mode despite this semester mostly winding down, I’ll give everyone a little homework, too: find someone who is different from you in some way, and listen to them. You needn’t necessarily hunt down a stranger and selfishly ask for their time; this could mean reading someone’s posts on Twitter or picking up a memoir written by someone who is, in some way, not like you.
I picked gender as the topic of this post, but trust me, it’s worth expanding your mind (and your empathy!) by listening to people who are different from you in a variety of ways. You might expand your worldview in ways you didn’t even know were possible.