A month ago I wrote my first draft of this entry. I knew when I finished it that I didn’t like what I had written very much and that I wanted to redo it. The honest revision suggestions from some of my female students convinced me to start anew. And, in this way, I start my day today.
This year my students debated for a while over which word to give me this year. There were a number of students who wanted me to write about men and their issues. On the other hand, there were various students who wanted me to write about women and their role in the world. At last, I suggested, with trepidation, the word “gender.” Not everyone was content with this compromise, but the students conceded just the same.
Gender is about power. It is physical power. It is the power of laws or the lack of laws. It is the power to manipulate, to persuade, or to subordinate. Gender is believing that one needs to apologize for the work they do or the decisions they make. Gender often dictates the money one earns. Gender is feeling the need to explain oneself when acting in a role that societal norms typically assign to the other sex. Gender is hearing, “you do such and such like a (member of the opposite sex)” and knowing this is meant to be an insult.
Gender is listening to some female students begin sentences with, “’I don’t know if this is…’ or ‘It is possible that this is wrong, but…’ or ‘Maybe the author is trying to say…’.” When I finished my Master’s in International Affairs with a focus on Latin American history and literature, I received honors. A female professor commented something like this, “The only reason you earned honors is because you are cute and nice and not because of your intellect. The male professors on the committee gave you honors only for these reasons.” These devastating words made a great impression on me and I went and confronted each of the male professors to learn the truth. Even after I was selected for a Fulbright scholarship, I had doubts about my academic career. These doubts still torment me.
Gender, and the norms associated with gender, is why some people have criticized me for having kept my last name when I married and, (Heavens no!), for having given my children my last name instead of that of their father and my husband. Gender means that I work in an environment where sexism and misogyny exist and are accepted as the norm. Last year, after a difficult meeting which left me very upset, a man said to me, “Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out better for you, and I hope that you don’t cry the entire way home.” I doubt that he shared these same remarks with the man who had also been present at that meeting. At least, it is difficult to imagine that he did.
Gender means that there are certain social expectations that dictate how one dresses, how one ought to have their hair, and how one ought to present himself or herself to the world. For me, it means admiring the girls and women who never wear make-up because I grew up in an environment where no wearing make-up after a certain age was the equivalent of appearing naked in public and was criticized by both parents. Additionally, when I began to wear my hair short, many, especially men, made negative comments about my appearance saying that women with long hair are always more beautiful.
Gender means working together, men and women and all of those who identify as a mix on the gender spectrum, to create a world where there is greater equality for all. A world in which people have the right to love whom they want, to work, to be educated, to receive the proper medical attention, to earn a good living in a safe job, and to live well. Gender is to declare that one is a feminist with pride regardless of whether or not you are a man or a woman. There are too many people who fear the word “feminist” today and I don’t understand why.
When Malala Yousafzia won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, my family celebrated. We admire this brave young woman who fights for the education of girls around the world. We realize, though, that she would not have received this honor without the support of her father and her family who have also sacrificed so much for her. When Emma Watson addressed the United Nations, she spoke about the importance of seeing men and women unite to work toward a better world. It is true. We need to unite to change the problems still associated with gender issues.
Gender is about power.