This column was corrected on April 10, 2022.
A couple of weeks ago I was riding the Friday night Oxford Shuttlewhen a pack of dudes approached me. I don’t remember what started the conversation, but they were drunk and suggested without the slightest hint of subtlety that I had “the potential to be a solid seven” if I “grew some boobs.” I’m not entirely sure what this says about my upbringing, but my gut reaction to those kinds of comments is generally to respond by singing the “Spider Pig” song, except the version where I replace all the words with crude suggestions of where to go.
As I later recounted this story to a friend, primarily with the intent of brainstorming better future comebacks, he casually mentioned that he was glad that I don’t “act like a feminist” in situations like that. I found this off-handed comment unexpectedly troubling and confusing. First of all, what exactly does “acting like a feminist” entail? Demanding the sacrifice of first-born sons to Wiccan goddesses via a chain of furious comments on Jezebel? I mean, obviously. That’s all implied.
But I began to wonder about what draws the line between a successful, powerful woman and a feminist in the eyes of society or whether they are the same. I also wondered whether that idea went the other way. Does one automatically get inducted into the close circle of feminist role models once they’ve achieved some combination of being both pro-gender equality and successful, or is it necessary to explicitly state that you’re a feminist? Technically speaking, I know the answer. I know the history of the feminist movement, the book definitions of “feminism,” and I know where society’s portrayal often gets it wrong (Hint: “Feminazis”, everything I just mentioned above). However, I still have a lot of questions about what popular opinion has decreed as falling within the spectrum of current feminism and, frankly, whether or not my peers and I should even care.
The second reason my friend’s comment caught me off guard was that it was true. I’ve never considered being a feminist as one of my defining characteristics and I still don’t. Professionally, I am a woman getting a degree in a male-dominated field. My intent in pursuing success isn’t the outright promotion of feminism as a self-contained entity. My intent is to be unequivocally good at what I do. Socially, many of my friends and I are equally comfortable taking part in activities that could be considered “typically masculine” as we are in traditionally feminine settings. And while my views on social justice issues fall almost exactly in line with what you would expect from someone touching on the importance of gender equality, I don’t think I’ve ever really contemplated whether I want to be thought of primarily as a feminist or not. I don’t think any of my actions thus far in life would place me in the societal-perceived spectrum of what a feminist is. Unless you count that one time I got my skinny, pale, “almost a solid seven” ass kicked out of a Victoria’s Secret for prancing around making faces like the Kraken while yelling “I am the newest Angel!” — though I’m not sure that really counts as scathing social commentary.
I think what I was unnerved about was the answer to what, if anything, our generation considers to be inherently feminist. Is it the Lena Dunham’s of the world, boldly declaring on cable television that women who don’t have meant-for-cable-television bodies can be — and are — romantically pursued by men with demigod-like bodies and degrees in medicine? Is it the gay, straight and transgender activists who devote their lives to pursuing equality through politics? Is it me and my fellow women in engineering who switch between steel-toed boots and high heels, between poetry and off-color jokes, without giving the slightest thought to gender roles or if we should be taken seriously? We already know the answer and don’t particularly care what other people think in that regard. We believe strongly in social equality but shy away from being labeled “feminist.” Some people might call that empowerment; some might call it ignorance; I want to know if anyone calls it feminism.
Julia Milton is an Engineering junior.