Feminism compels people to speak up about gender inequity. The fact that “feminism” is often considered almost a dirty word is telling about how women are expected to behave, both in the world of Vassar and outside of it.
Vassar graduate and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute Rachel Simmons ’96, suggests that apprehension toward feminism is rooted in the qualities that constitute a “good girl” in American culture.
On Wednesday September 18, Simmons led a workshop called “Interrupting the ‘Good Girl’” to share strategies for developing leadership skills with female-identified students. During the workshop, Simmons introduced three aspects of leadership: authenticity, assertiveness and self-awareness.
The Women’s Center worked with co-sponsors to bring the workshop to Vassar and to help female-identified students improve upon their leadership abilities.
Women’s Center Director, and Assistant Director for Campus Life/LGBTQ and Gender Resources, Judy Jarvis said, “I was drawn to [Simmons’s] work because she asks students to work on taking small risks and break out of the ‘be a good girl’ mode that many women are programmed into from early ages.”
Simmons asked the students in the workshop to answer the question, “How does society expect a ‘good girl’ to look and act?” Responses included modest, docile, polite, charming and non-confrontational.
Girls often end up paying a steep price for modesty and submission as they mature, according to Simmons.
For example, one must be able to identify their strengths and skills in a job interview. Yet, many girls are trained to fear being perceived as overly confident.
Feminist Alliance member Rachel Tankersley ’17 described how this trend impacts female students on campus.
“From discussion, it seems that many females at Vassar fear speaking too much in class and speaking confidently,” she said.
Simmons said that she believes that confidence also plays a role in the disparity between the salaries of men and women. With confidence, one can negotiate salaries and be a better leader. However, societal messages train girls to be modest early on in their lives.
Outreach and Communications Coordinator for the Feminist Alliance Kayla Neumeyer ’15 commented on the relationship between self-advocacy and success.
“I think there is a direct relationship between self-advocacy, activism and empowerment,” Neumeyer said. “When a group that has faced discrimination and oppression has a voice, they gain collective power. Outsiders who do not have the same lived experience can certainly provide allyship, but empowerment comes from within a movement.”
Feminist Alliance member Elizabeth Snyderman ’17 elaborated on the role of males in the sphere of women’s issues.
“I think it is very important for men to listen to conversations about gender equity [and] women’s issues. However, when it comes to men participating in conversations . . . I have noticed that often times, men will end up dominating the discussion,” she said.
Syderman continued, “If men are given the same consideration in feminist discourse, male privilege will make it impossible for women’s voices to be heard.”
In addition to societal pressures, micro-aggressions such as casual insults and name-calling impact women’s ability to present themselves in various spheres—from the academic to the social to the
“There are a lot of micro-aggressions on the Vassar campus and everywhere [else] such as rape jokes, casual misogyny and slut shaming,” Tankersley said.
Casual insults also impair the ability of female-identified students to fit in.
“Put-downs chip away at female-identified people’s self-esteem and sense of belonging in their classrooms, dorms, and extracurricular [activities],” Jarvis said.
Another problem, sexual violence and assault, can deeply impact the lives of college students. Despite numerous prevention efforts, sexual assault and dating violence continue to occur in colleges across the country. Jarvis said, “[Being] progressive” does not warrant a pat on the back.’
She said she believes that treating others equally should be expected rather than preferred. Students at Vassar are not immune to domestic violence merely because the school has adopted a progressive position on issues of equality.
However, Jarvis asserts that promoting equality is a process, and that prejudice can fade, but does not vanish overnight.
Jarvis said, “Many of the oppressions that women face in our country are replicated on this campus.”
And once again, one of these oppressions involves the concern of feeling uncomfortable speaking one’s mind, one of the fundamental aspects of Simmons’s lecture.
Tankersley explained, “There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a feminist. Women are not able to passionately speak up for fear of being labeled a ‘man-hater.’”
The capacity to speak up is vital to succeeding in many academic pursuits. Class participation not only plays a role in grades, but also in learning.
Being encouraged to speak up in can also prepare one for exercising one’s voice in job interviews, the workplace, and the rest of the real world.
The workshop also incorporated interactive activities and practice to encourage women to be able to speak confidently.
Jarvis articulated her goals for what she hopes students gained from the workshop.
“I hope students who attend the workshop will leave with a spring in their step, feeling affirmed that they do have the self-knowledge and confidence to be a leader, whatever that means for them,” she said.
Jarvis continued, “For some students it may be wanting to be the president of a student organization, or landing a summer internship they’re really passionate about. For others, it might just be working on speaking up more in groups of their friends.”