On Wednesday, February 9, I went to the photo studio at the bottom of the Hop to get my picture taken. I was surprised to find that the hallway was bustling with activity—men and women, undergrads of all class years, and Dartmouth staff and faculty. All were wearing identical shirts—a black T-shirt emblazoned on the front with the word “FEMINIST.” Some 200 or more individuals on campus had their pictures taken that afternoon—even President Jim Kim and Dean Sylvia Spears joined in the celebration of gender equality.
Intrigued by the events taking place, I found myself wanting to learn more and decided to ask a few questions of some of the people who participated in the “I am a Feminist Project.” First I wanted to know, why is “feminism” such a dirty word? From everything I’ve read about feminism and from all the self-identified feminists whom I’ve spoken to, feminism is, at its core, about gender equality—something that most people would say that they are in favor of. Yet so often I hear men and women who are in support of gender equality and practice it in their everyday lives say, “I’m not a feminist, but …” Their reluctance to identify as feminists seems to stem from the fact that many are afraid of the negative stereotypes associated with feminists, such as “man-hating” or “feminazis,” according to Sapna Chemplavil ’11. Although false, these images of feminists as being opposed to any form of masculinity, and as being prone to over-moralizing, often pervade popular culture and the Dartmouth campus.
Aside from these negative stereotypes, there are other common misunderstandings about what those who support feminism and gender equality stand for. Nikki Brown ’11 says, “I think many people on campus are reluctant to view themselves as feminists because they associate the word with ‘female issues,’” from which many men attempt to distance themselves. Men who do this probably don’t realize most feminists believe that feminism addresses both women’s and men’s issues. Although Brown now proudly proclaims herself a feminist, in the past she was less eager to identify as such because she held some of her own misconceptions about what it meant to be a feminist. “I never wanted to think of myself as a feminist growing up because I associated the word with a culture of victimization,” she says. “Recognizing that there are issues in our culture does not mean that in recognizing the issues you are weak, but rather that you are strong and committed to working to change the status quo.”
Sometimes the cause of feminism goes unheralded because many Dartmouth students think that there isn’t a need for feminism anymore. When asked if things were better for women at Dartmouth, Mayuka Kowaguchi ’11, founder of the Orchid Project, says, “Technically, yes. But in reality, no.” Her sentiments are due in part to the fact that women at Dartmouth have made significant strides since the college went co-ed, while there are still uniquely gendered problems on campus—sexual assault and male-dominated Greek spaces, to name just a couple. In spite of these pressing issues many students believe that gender parity has been reached and subsequently that initiatives like the “Portraits of a Feminist Photo Project” are unnecessary. “There are a lot of people who can’t see the need for a feminist element on campus—and therefore don’t understand why they need to exist,” says Meg McCue ’11, another Dartmouth feminist.
The Portraits of Feminists Photo Project seeks to debunk many of these conceptions by questioning our assumptions of who feminists really are. Flipping through the photo gallery, it’s immediately obvious that Dartmouth feminists are an incredibly diverse group, one that includes people of all races, ages, and genders. The organizers of the project see a lot of promise in the project’s ability to debunk stereotypes and correct misunderstandings. “I hope the project will elicit a discussion about what feminism means to people and hopefully show people that anyone can be feminist. It’s not a scary word,” Brown says. Her efforts are paying off judging by the number of people who showed up to the event. Nearly 200 signed up for the first day alone, and there wasn’t enough time to accommodate everyone who wanted their picture taken. Chemplavil says, “I really hope people realize that a much larger number of people on campus consider themselves to be feminists than they originally thought.”
Ultimately, Kowaguchi hopes that when people embrace the term “feminist,” they’ll pave the way for others to understand the meaning and power behind efforts for gender equality. Like Brown, Kowaguchi was also initially reluctant to call herself a feminist, afraid of the negative stereotypes it carried. It was only after a conversation with a close friend that she realized, “If you call yourself a feminist then people who know who you are will know you’re for gender equity. You are the explanation. You are the definition.” Her realization that only by accepting the label “feminist” could she help to rebut the stereotypes often associated with it.
And seeing the nearly 200 portraits of men and women who are proud to call themselves a feminist, I can’t help but agree that this photo project is really ground-breaking in terms of debunking myths and stereotypes about feminism.
So, if you get a chance, check out the Portraits of Feminists Photo Project on February 28th at Collis. Participate in V-Week. And above all, if you like gender equality and everything that it entails, then don’t be afraid to call yourself a feminist. After all, you’re not alone.