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What Feminism Means to Emerging Women Leaders at Penn Law: A New Series

August 27, 2018

Students explore feminism and shared experiences through conversations with each other.

A new series where students explore feminism and shared experiences through conversations with each other. 


Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist? And can you define what feminism means to you?

Teresa: Absolutely. I realize that the term has garnered more attention and become more divisive in recent years, but I will always advocate for women’s rights and I believe that feminist simply means someone who believes in the equality of the sexes in all spheres - the political, social, and economic.

Leah: It’s disappointing and misguided when people in our generation, especially fellow women, feel like they have to disavow the term or use a less “aggressive” label to describe themselves. Isn’t everyone a feminist?

Q: Why do you think women want to distance themselves from the feminist movement?

Leah: I’m honestly not sure, because if like you said, a feminist is someone who believes in the equality of the sexes in all spheres - the political, social, and economic– and I’d add just someone who believes human beings just be whoever they want to be regardless of gender or sexuality or other external identifying marks (race, class, ethnicity etc)… why are they distancing themselves. I think there are the people who distance themselves from feminism because it’s not intersectional and inclusive enough. Those people are fair to state that the mainstream form of feminism doesn’t always speak for them or care for them, maybe even hurt them. But I also think a lot of people aren’t on board with “feminism” because they’re still thinking about second wave feminism, where a lot of it is driven by anger and aggression because it was women really acting out and speaking out for the first time. And people just get stuck on bra burning, unshaven armpit versions of feminists, and forget or maybe purposely ignore what the activists are advocating for– whether or not the means are exactly what people agree or appreciate.

Teresa: I think people distance themselves from the word feminism because groups within society have attached certain connotations to the word itself or attempted to redefine it in some way. Some people seem to believe it means “man-hater” or contains a belief that women are superior for instance. In reality, feminist means none of those things. If a person identifies as a feminist, it simply means that they believe in equality. I think it’s really important for this generation of feminists to fight back against that divisive framing and reclaim the term. I think one of the problems is that if an individual is part of the group in power, equality IS a relative lessening of power - one that can feel like oppression if there isn’t self-awareness regarding inherent privilege. That awareness is so important.

Q: What is intersectional feminism and how do you feel that it affects you?

Teresa: The term “intersectionality” was coined by  Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, though of course it existed as a concept much earlier. It is a term that is meant to capture the different ways that race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, age and other factors can intersect to create power dynamics or oppressive experiences that are materially distinct from one another. Without addressing the intersectionality of experiences, certain issues that are unique to particular points of intersection get ignored or deprioritized.

Intersectional feminism certainly affects me because I am a South Asian woman and thus identify with two groups that are traditionally disfavored  by white patriarchal society. This identity is made more complicated because I am Catholic, and thus part of a minority of South Asians, but linked to a Christian majority within the United States. Though I used to be frustrated by these tenets of my identity and the complications that they present, I now see my personal intersectionality as quite valuable because I identify with groups that don’t really have significant overlap. In short, I can serve to bridge the gap that I grew up straddling.

Leah: On a personal level, intersectional feminism makes me feel like everything I’m constantly trying to convey, represent, and push for is wrapped up in one concept rather than many disparate concepts. I get to feel like my identity as a whole isn’t just a bunch of pieces in different movements, but all of it, all of me and my lived experiences matters in a unique way serving the larger purpose. And the beautiful thing is that every single person’s story matters, that’s the importance of intersectional feminism. It isn’t telling people to shut up, but just that EVERYONE needs to listen more.  Intersectional feminism was also created largely to represent the struggles of black women, to give them the agency to lead a movement that had wildly not only forgotten but purposely diminished their power. So intersectional feminism is also important to me because it reminds me to sit back and be an ally instead of the activist sometimes, that everyone needs to be equally included, every voice heard, every unique identity represented for a powerful, sustainable, just movement.

Q: What were your goals going into the process (of leadership) (Leah)/ (Keedy) (Teresa)? Were they at all tied to a desire to influence how female empowerment is conceptualized

Teresa: My goal going into Keedy was to deliver the best oral advocacy that I could. My goals related to Keedy were not consciously tied to influencing how female empowerment is conceptualized. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think the best way to advance authentic versions of female empowerment is to present true individuality. I don’t think we as women need to (over)think how we are presenting ourselves. Simply by being ourselves, we are presenting an authentic version of empowerment. For me, that meant I wore heels because I feel more powerful with added height. It meant I wore my hair down because, frankly, I wanted to limit my peripheral vision.

Leah: There are a lot of spaces that continue to need female leadership. But I don’t want to fall into the “liberal feminist” category of only supporting gender equality or women through legal reforms and aspirations of leadership. Gender oppression is complex and not everyone can just “lean in.” Sometimes, I feel like when I’ve taken on leadership positions, because of my passions or interest, it’s seen as some statement and it’s really just survival. When I was deciding what to get involved in at school it wasn’t so much that I needed to make a statement about female empowerment and more than I wanted to serve my school or country one day as a female, make decisions that I think would include my experiences, my needs, the communities I care about. With student organizations such as the American Constitution Society and International Human Rights Advocates, I felt that I’d be able to be engaged in as broad of a swath of issues as possible that affected a lot of communities and their rights. I’m extremely passionate about gender equality, but wanted to focus on an intersection of progressive causes. On the other hand, when I decided to participate in the Elected Leadership Incubator or the Global Women’s Leadership Fellowship in law school, it was to actively promote women’s voices, agency, and decision-making power in America and around the world.

Q: Do you feel like your role as a woman affected or informed your experience as a Keedy participant?

Teresa: That’s a difficult question to answer - primarily because I think my role as a woman affects everything that I do - both personally and professionally. I was aware that I was the only female participant this year. It was something that came up more frequently than I expected in conversations with friends, family, and fellow law students. 

Q: Do you feel like your role as a woman of Indian heritage affected or informed your experience as a Keedy participant?

Teresa: My response to this is similar to my response the previous question - I think my identity, and the intersectionality of my identity affects everything that I do. I think it informed my participation primarily because I felt like I was representing the groups that shared in my identity in some way. That was something that became much more real for me when women or members of the south asian community at Penn reached out with words of encouragement either in person or over social media.

Q:What kind of support did you receive from your friends and family?

Teresa: I am really lucky to have such a strong support system. Within the Penn Law community, my fellow law students readily offered support both substantive and personal. Many offered to moot me, others were a much needed outlet for nerves and anxiety, especially in the weeks leading up to oral argument. One friend  framed a “though she be but little, she is fierce” print (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) which I found both touching and inspiring.

Q: How does your role as a woman affect how you lead in your various positions within the Penn Law community?

Leah: I think we’re lucky to be in higher academia, where for the most part I don’t feel like my peers are actively or unconsciously trying to undermine my leadership as a woman. But something I’m acutely aware of is to make sure that I don’t try to “lead like a man”, and just be the most possible me in any role I’m in. Especially if I intend to continue leading in various roles in my career, my taking up space will be increasingly unconventional, because despite women graduating from higher academia more we still aren’t filling the ranks of leadership as we deserve to be. So I’m really grateful for opportunities in school life to solidify my leadership style around empathy, building genuine relationships, a very nuanced thoughtful balance between diplomacy and active resistance. The important thing is not to lose or temper my different lived experiences, but always bring them to the table because it is what makes me unique as a leader. Whether that’s as a woman, person of color, first generation college student, I think it’s just important to lead with the full expression of my experiences, including the shared ones of the communities I represent.

Q: Do you feel like your role a woman of Asian heritage affects how you lead?

Leah: I came from a predominantly immigrant suburb of Los Angeles, California, and going to a large public university where most students were still first generation, immigrants, or children of immigrants. I also grew up in China until the age of 5 and went back every summer and winter to live with my father until I was 14. So my heritage is every part of my identity and life as I can possibly express it. It adds another layer of responsibility in my activism and advocacy. I spent a good part of my year as the public interest chair of Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) trying to find ways for AAPI students to conceptualize and hopefully pursue diverse careers in public interest and service. This honestly not only sometimes challenges the expectations and openness of society to more AAPI leadership in activism and advocacy, but also the expectations of our own families. Asian Americans continue to be written into a model minority narrative, and leaving us seemingly apathetic at best and antagonistic at worst to the collective struggles for racial equality in America. But as we’ve discussed, intersectional feminism is the only way we can truly challenge and eviscerate the forces that cause injustice and inequality for as many people as possible, and I guess being a woman of color leaves me with the privilege of understanding why and the responsibility to ensure it so.

Q: You have traveled and done work as a law student in a variety of different countries since you began your time at Penn Law. Were you more or less conscious of your identity in other countries? Did you feel like you were treated differently? In what way(s)?  

Leah: I was more conscious of my identity traveling in Pakistan for my internship and India for the IHRA field visits. I try not to be as conscious in case I’m operating on assumptions about places. But ultimately, I strove to be both respectful and responsible in the countries I was in. I remember the first day of my internship, I was getting ready to walk down the block to a local pharmacy. My co-workers, who were young women as well, were completely mortified I was going alone. I thought they were just overly worried about the American, but it was because most women just never walked on the streets alone, even in broad daylight. Also when traveling, whether it’s South Asia or Europe, it’s been interesting navigating the world as not only a women of color, but one who is American as well.