While major brands and corporations tout themselves as feminist champions for women, many women in that sphere still manage to exclude other women — particularly the ones who don’t fit the perfect image of a feminist professional.
I first started feeling this sentiment when I was in college. I was in a STEM field, and up until the time I graduated, many of my classes were majority male. However, I didn’t start to feel ostracized, particularly by my female classmates, until I came closer to graduating. This sense of being an outsider was made more prevalent as I entered my first “big girl” job and was a full-time professional.
Just as a clarifying note: I don’t consider myself a modern feminist. I want there to be equality of opportunity and equal rights between men and women — and I think we have that in the States. What I don’t subscribe to is the idea that women should try to do everything men can do, but better, or that women should be seen as “better than” men. Even if feminism claims to be “the advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes,” the mainstream simply doesn’t advocate for that.
Feminism at University
Just before starting college, I and other female peers were given statistics that would motivate us to rally together and declare ourselves feminists, sisters against the patriarchy. They were given to us in small groups by female orientation leaders — the most memorable one said that women in college aged 18-24 are 3 times as likely to experience sexual violence. At the time it wasn’t clear to everyone (frankly, it isn’t really a story that had a clear follow-up) that the “victim” in the legend of “mattress girl” could have been a scorned woman. So with that lack of clarity, the story remained, serving as a haunting tale for young women to hold on to.
We were given sexual violence statistics meant to motivate us to rally together and declare ourselves feminists.
I bought into that, at first. How could I not? I was a teenager and the messaging was intense and constant. But then I got deeper into a university routine, where my focus was on my work and not so much on dating or romantic relationships. Ironically, it was easier for me to forget about dating when most of my peers were men. I also thought dorms were gross (I eventually moved out of mine, to go live with extended family) and college parties just weren’t my thing.
For me, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to hate on men. I saw who a lot of them were as people, and frankly, I never felt disrespected by them, even with the popular misconception that men look down on women in STEM because “patriarchy.” The few girl friends I had described similar experiences, with some negative experiences, but more than anything that just seems like something you get just from living life. Not every experience can be good or happy. None of us had sexual violence committed against us, and I think in large part it’s because we avoided contexts in which said violence can easily take place.
I never felt disrespected by men, even with the popular idea that men look down on women in STEM.
I made the mistake of sharing these sentiments with other friends or acquaintances and a few times online via a (now defunct) tumblr page. It didn’t go over well. I was accused of having internalized misogyny or being a pick-me girl.
I can see why it’s easy for young women to see men as an enemy, if you’re inundated with messaging and you never really have a chance to be close friends with men (nothing like struggling with projects for hours to build camaraderie), and moreover have a negative experience because of some jerk who’s too drunk at a party. And if you’re a victim, along with all your female friends, it’s easy to continue buying everything feminism is selling.
Feminism in the Professional World
The day came, finally, when I graduated. And at my first job after college, there was an online group for women — specifically those who wanted to discuss their experiences as women in a male-dominated STEM field. I was added to it by default (assumed feminist just for being a woman, I suppose).
Every now and then, the group would come together for a lunch or something, and the more tenured employees would chat with and give advice to the freshmen like me. During these meetings, I got to chatting more with one of the women who occasionally helped the team I was on, and she asked me about my life and relationships. I told her about my long-term partner, and almost immediately she told me to not rush into getting married and to not have kids.
Isn’t the idea of feminism to empower women to live the life they choose?
That was weird to me. It seemed like the inverse of what happened in decades past — a woman wants to study to become specialized in some field she’s passionate about, and an advisor or mentor figure reminds her to not wait too long, and remember to focus on forming a family. I know my coworker more than likely meant well, but the idea of feminism is to empower women to live the life they choose — not for a man, or for the “patriarchy” — but for herself. Furthermore, I hadn’t told my coworker about what I wanted in the way of marriage or a family.
As I grew my relationships with the other women, they had similar advice to give to me. It wasn’t so much in the vein of “make sure you’re with the right guy” or “be sure you’re in a good place financially before starting a family” or anything like that. It was largely dismissing the idea of having those things at all. Maybe it’s because I was so young, but either way, what of it, if I wanted those things?
In the professional world, feminism is trying to outclass men, so you can’t afford to have a family to focus on.
I started to get the sense that in the professional world, feminism had a different form. While it wasn’t necessarily (at least, not directly) pitting women against men, it was certainly more within the vein of trying to outclass men, and if that’s the case, you can’t afford to have a family to focus on, because heaven forbid that take up more time than your work, or working on your professional skills.
If you’re a woman embarking on a professional journey and going to school for that, you may feel excluded if you don’t feel like you subscribe 100% to mainstream feminism. What’s important is to realize that if you feel like this, you're not the first and you’re not alone.
But even more important than that: Live by your principles, and don’t conform to others’ ideas just because you think you should for social acceptance. You don’t even need to say anything against feminism (I like to separate politics from work, I think it’s a good rule to live by), just seek out company that doesn’t make you feel ostracized (we’re out here!). It’s worthwhile, I promise. And when you’re feeling brave, it’s important to speak up. I know it’s not always easy, but it’s important that we don’t just sit back and do nothing when we see hatred for groups of people, or exclusion of others from a group, just because of a difference of opinion.
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