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What it Means to Be a Feminist in College

Our ears rang with feminism’s definition when Beyoncé dropped her “Flawless” track in 2014. There it was—right in our faces and in simple terms. “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” echoed the voice of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There was no disputing this tried-and-true definition amidst the grooves of an empowering, up-tempo anthem.

Whether you spend your days on campus discussing the gender wage gap with anybody who’ll listen, or you are still grappling with how that label applies to you, it’s important to know where the feminist movement originated from, misconceptions associated with feminism, and what it means to be a modern feminist.

A brief lesson in feminism

It is common to speak of the feminist movement in terms of three phases. The first wave of feminism is characterized by events during the late 19th century to the early 20th century. During this period, women fought for basic rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own property. Second wave feminism began in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. Social equality was the focus here, with the fight for sexual and reproductive rights at the forefront of the movement. The mid-1990s and on marks the period known as third wave feminism, in which combatting sexual objectification and gender-based harassment is the top priority.

According to Dr. Diane Balser, co-director of undergraduate studies for women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Boston University, feminism is “an organized social movement that challenges the subordination of women.” Despite feeling there has never been one solid, agreed-upon definition or ideology behind feminism, she believes fighting sexism is what has united all supporters of the cause throughout the years.

“Sexism toward females is the underlying basis of feminism. People add all sorts of other issues and they have different philosophies, but to me sexism has to be at the core,” explains Balser. 

Racism, classism and other oppressions can also overlap with feminism. Nevertheless, working to eliminate gender discrimination and inequality is what’s at the center of the movement. Today, the rise of sexual violence on college campuses has been a prevalent issue that Dr. Balser says she sees concerning students. This, coupled with the desire to see equal treatment between women and men, is helping prompt college feminists to join the ranks of feminists of the past.  

Feminism, as defined by collegiettes

Feminism is often given a bad rep, having associations with bra-burning, unshaven legs and man-bashing stereotypes. But the college feminist of today is far from a man-hater ready to throw her Victoria’s Secret underthings into a bursting flame. Instead, many collegiettes adhere to the textbook definition of feminism, supporting the equality of both men and women—not a woman’s superiority over a man.

“To me, feminism means gender equality,” says Megan Sweet, a junior at Michigan State University. “It means both women and men having equal opportunities and mutual respect for one another.”

For many collegiettes, feminism’s definition is as simple as that, with gender equality being of the utmost importance. But to some college feminists, there’s more to the movement. For Sara Heath, a senior at Assumption College, there is way too much focus on one gender versus the other. She believes the movement is really about showcasing a woman’s value.

“Being a feminist means showing people that the most important thing about me is what is in my head and my heart,” said Sara. “All I want as a woman is to be valued for my passion and my intellect.”

Challenges with identifying as a feminist

Feminism’s negative stereotypes have made it difficult for some collegiettes to identify with the movement. They admit they’ve been hesitant in the past to proudly speak up as feminists even if they believed they were supporters of the cause. Dani Kluss, a freshman at California Lutheran University, recalls an incident in which she was reluctant to raise her hand in class when a presenter asked who was a feminist.

“Many people think that feminists are men-hating, men-shaming, slut-shaming and bossy,” Kluss says of the stereotype.

After a deep breath, she said she shot her hand into the air, only to find that only one other student joined her in identifying as a feminist. Feminism can be often perceived as an angry movement, which keeps many students from speaking out in favor of its cause. Without an accurate understanding of the movement, many college students may believe identifying as a feminist means saying they believe women are better than men. Out of this fear of placing one gender over the other, many collegiettes have rejected openly presenting themselves as feminists.

“I wasn’t a feminist at all going into freshman year, because I associated it with so many negative stereotypes I had learned growing up,” says Annie Blanks, a senior at Sewanee. “But now that I’m a senior, have taken women’s studies courses, made friends from all around the country and have experienced the world through traveling and study abroad, feminism has become a central part of my identity.”

It is difficult for many to look past the aggressive stigmas associated with feminism. In reality, though, it’s a positive movement that is inclusive to improving the lives of all, explains Julie Zeilinger, author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word.

It doesn’t seek to angrily attack certain groups, but rather attempts to create the type of world we all would ideally like to live in,” says Zeilinger.

Simply learning feminism’s true definition can be a game changer when deciding whether or not to identify as a feminist. Rachel Petty, a sophomore at James Madison University, quickly changed her mind about feminism once she realized feminists are not sexist.

“Once I learned the real definition a few years ago, I now always identify as a feminist,” said Rachel. “Feminism means women getting the same rights as men, not hating men.”

Why collegiettes embrace feminism

While some shy away from the thought of being a feminist, many collegiettes believe sharing their voices is the only way to solicit change (after all, if a 4-year-old can stand up for herself, then so can we!). Katie Barry, a Boston University sophomore, says she’s always challenging her peers to question the gender system in place by expressing herself and encouraging others to do the same.

“I would absolutely consider myself a feminist,” says Katie. “Ambition, success, leadership and confidence are associated with masculinity, but I choose to openly chase all of those things, red lipstick in tow.”

Despite the strides women have made, the social and economic inequality still present encourages many college students to support feminism. Sarah Beth Kaye, a senior at Rutgers University, is passionate about being a community organizer for gender equality. She insists an environment in which women can thrive and succeed is only possible if women are free from the same criticisms that don’t affect their male counterparts.  

“Women need to work together to ensure the safety of all women and to create an environment of support for women to grow intellectually, socially, and politically throughout their university career,” said Sarah.

Aleixka Macfie-Hernendez, a sophomore at James Madison University, is also proud to call herself a feminist, emphasizing that feminists aren’t seeking to overpower males.  

“When I graduate and land the job of my dreams, I want an equal pay band. I want to be promoted and be told that I too can be considered as the head of the household, the one who also has the opportunity to provide for the family,” says Aleixka.

Like Aleixka, many collegiettes believe it is necessary to embrace feminism in order to prove women can do anything men can do. There’s nothing wrong with channeling our inner Elle Woods and going against what’s expected of us—all while wearing heels and a skirt, too, if we so choose! 

The college feminist of today

Many collegiettes believe that you cannot pinpoint what today’s feminist looks like, despite the stereotypes continued from the past. They agree that college feminists are simply comfortable in their own skin and are free to express themselves the way they see fit.

“The college feminist is likely sitting next to you and you don’t even know it. There’s no standard for what one looks like,” says Zarah Kavarana, a women’s studies minor at Boston University.

What she enjoys most about modern or third wave feminism is its inclusion of men, whose support she believes is a key to gender equality. Zeilinger would agree that today’s collegiettes are enthusiastic about embracing intersectionality and male feminists more so than the feminists of the past.

“I think the college-aged feminist is arguably more dedicated to being inclusive of all and approaching feminism from an intersectional framework than ever before,” Zeilinger says, adding, “Our generation understands that in order for any of us to progress, we all must progress together and are committed to making this happen.”

She has observed that the power of the Internet has largely shaped modern-day feminism.

Blogging, social media-based activism and forms of online organization have helped connect college feminists more than ever. They follow in the footsteps of first and second wave feminists, all while joining forces with their male counterparts and ignoring the negative stereotypes of the past.

Being a feminist in college doesn’t mean you have to be a feminism expert or fit into a certain mold. With the movement being as inclusive as it is, it’s okay, too, to have questions about identifying as a feminist—just keep an open mind, ask questions, and be informed about what the movement is trying to achieve. We’ll say this, though—as long as you believe in equality no matter what your gender or gender identity, you are certainly a feminist—even Queen Bey herself will back you up on that. 

“You’re a women’s studies minor? Oh god, are you one of those feminists?”

“Yes, I’m a feminist.”

“So you hate men right?”

Nope. That’s not what that means. Not even close. In fact, the fact that you’re saying that is pretty insulting, boy-at-a-party-who-doesn’t-remember-my-name-but-miraculously-understands-my-moral-values.

I’m way too tired of hearing the same misconceptions about my belief system, simply because I decide to put it under the label of feminism. So I’m here to clear it up: Here’s my interpretation of what it means to be a feminist in college. I don’t claim to speak for all women, or all feminists, but feminism is a huge part of my life and the lifestyle I’ve chosen to adhere to. So I want to share what that means as a piece of a larger whole so that maybe, just maybe, the boy-at-a-party will separate out individual experience from stereotypes that have nothing to do with my ideals.
I’ll tell you about what feminism doesn’t mean. Feminism doesn’t mean that I hate men, my boyfriend can attest. I have male friends, some who even *gasp* aren’t feminists. Just like friends with different politics, we don’t talk about it. But the beauty of this world is that people are allowed to think differently than one another, and although we disagree, I don’t write someone off as a lost cause.

Feminism also doesn’t mean that I can’t wear pink, like dresses, or paint my nails. I do all of the above. I can be in my darling sorority, and enjoy my darling pink dress, and even use the word “darling.” It’s perfectly acceptable. I didn’t have to hand over my pearl earrings when I picked up feminism.

As someone from the south, I hadn’t ever heard of feminism until I heard my studio art teacher use the word. One of the senior, male students was making fun of the movement:

“You’re a feminist? Oh, so you must hate me, right?”

What I wanted her to say was “Yes, but not for that reason”, but instead, she used the opportunity to teach the class something not art related, and in turn, taught me what would become so quickly such a huge part of my life.

She taught the class that feminism is not about inequality, or pushing for women above men, but instead the movement is about recognition of the fact that we live in a society in which life is more difficult for one sex than the other. It’s about not just accepting that we are where we are, but pushing for an equality between all people, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender. Feminism is about making people realize that it’s hard to win the race if you’re starting 100 meters back, and pushing to start at the same line as men.

If you’re one of those people who think that men and women are equal already and my cause is over and done, think again. The signs are all around you. Go onto the T and look around. See how the women are sitting versus how the men are sitting. Who takes up more space? I guarantee there will be a girl sitting there with her legs folded over one another, crammed into her seat, because the man next to her wants to sprawl his legs apart in a manner that can only be described as “unladylike.” Look at the number of male CEOs versus the number of female CEOs of the companies that you use and interact with every day. Women make 77 cents to every male dollar, and don’t use the argument that “that’s a skewed argument, because men hold different jobs than women,” because that’s a huge part of the problem. Yes, men hold different jobs, but doesn’t that ring a bell as a huge problem to anyone? Why does half of the country hold worse jobs because of what they have between their legs?

Studies show that girls are taught differently than boys right off the bat in the education system. Studies also show that girls are more likely to be reinforced for their looks, while boys are reinforced for their intellect, how adventurous they are, and their leadership abilities. Women are less likely to get promotions at their jobs, less likely to get raises, and less likely to be chosen for leadership roles. We’re one of the few countries that don’t legally require paid leave after a woman has a child, nor do we have a state run day care system for working women. Viagra is covered by medical insurance plans for companies, while the same companies fight vigorously against paying for birth control. And who is in the position of power fighting for or against my ability to use birth control, Planned Parenthood, or other modes of reproductive health? Old white dudes. I mean, come on, seriously? I think I know how this stuff works better than they do.  

It’s out there, I promise, and a key component to being a feminist is knowing that it’s out there.

So what does it all mean for me, a 20-year-old college junior? It’s actually really important. When I graduate I have to fight my way in a world that’s already a living nightmare for a poor college graduate, but I’m fighting with a 20lb weight on my shoulders. I’m going to fight twice as hard as the guy sitting next to me in my film classes, just because of my gender, I’m starting to think that Ruby Rose has it right.

It also means that I’m going to learn as much as I possibly can about the inequalities of the world around me before I head out into the world, so I’m not carrying the weight and wearing a blindfold. I’d like to know what I’m facing head on, so that when I confront sexism, I’m well trained and prepared for how to handle it.

Feminism makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel like Superwoman, and the rest of the feminists are like my Justice League, ready to support, protect, and defend what they feel is right and just. It means having a group of strong women that I can talk to about instances of sexism and day-to-day things that irk us about inequalities. It makes me feel okay that I might not want to get married, like I might be enough just by myself. It makes me feel okay that my career is important, and maybe I don’t need to rush into a “Leave It to Beaver” housewife situation. It also humbles me, because I know so much about intersectionality, which is where one oppression (ie. gender) intersects for someone with another oppression (ie. race, or sexuality).

Feminism means that I don’t have to agree with every other feminist. We don’t have to align on every issue, and our values might be very different, but I know that at the core, she believes that women and men should stand together, instead of women sitting with their feet crossed at the ankles.

So, to the boy-at-a-party, to that high school senior, and to every other person who calls me a man-hater, a bra burner, or whatever else, this is what my feminism looks like. You can call it what you want, feminism makes me, ME. 

I'm a Film and Television major in the college of Communications with a minor in Women's Studies at Boston University. I'm from Louisville, Kentucky. Find me on Instagram: @taylormedford_19
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