What Feminism Means to Emerging Women Leaders at Penn Law: Shane Fischman L’19 & Allyson Reynolds L’19
A new series where students explore feminism and shared experiences through conversations with each other
Q: What does feminism mean to you?
Shane: Today, though there are movements, marches, and waves being made in gender equality and sexuality, the word feminism has become somewhat taboo, and the movement has become splintered. When I was an undergraduate student at Barnard College, a student group made T-shirts that read “dare to use the F-word”. This was important because, until #MeToo this year, women who aren’t pursuing careers as social advocates, or in government or policy have distanced themselves from feminism. At the most rudimentary level, feminism means equality between the sexes– an idea that most people, in theory, agree with. Social media in some ways has brought feminism to everyone, allowing women in every field and from most backgrounds and geographic locations to sign the same petitions and post with the same hashtags; and there are many women writing about and arguing for equal pay and reproductive rights, or joining Emma Watson’s HeforShe cause, but these women who are engaged with the movement are not necessarily associating with the word feminism. Though this is unfortunate, feminism to me is a movement that encompasses the constant, ubiquitous fight for basic equality; for recognition that women, like men, are people entitled to the same rights; for the understanding that civil liberty means women don’t have all the same needs as men, but that women’s reproductive needs and child-care needs are warranted; that women, like men, are empowered to be their truest selves, regardless of how they choose to represent themselves. Many women–and men– today are fighting for these rights, not always under the label of a feminist struggle, but are dedicating their time and their creativity to advancing a cause. Feminism has evolved, encompassing political rights, sexual rights, and different forms of expression but feminism to me is about embracing everyone– it is about not allowing yourself to be blindsided by differences, by those who are fighting but don’t use the F-word. Language can be a divisive force, driving wedges in a movement steered for achieving change, but feminism is a sisterhood and change only happens when we are united.
Allyson: “Feminism” has been a bit of a dirty word in my experience as well. For me though, feminism has always been fairly straightforward as the belief in the full equality (politically, socially, and economically) of the sexes. Feminism isn’t just for women either—it’s for anybody and everybody who believes in liberation and equality.
Shane: Exactly. That’s why feminism to me has always been about being open-minded. We need to trust each other and be careful not to alienate people who can be allies. It is a movement that women and men, whether they formally subscribe to “feminism” or not, are a part of.
Q: What does intersectional feminism mean to you?
Allyson: Intersectional feminism, to me, is about inclusion and representation. Intersectionality was originally conceived of as a response to the exclusion of black women’s voices in the mainstream feminist movement, which failed to recognize that many women are unable to separate their racial identities (and corresponding experiences of oppression) from their gender identities. If we are the sum of our experiences, it is impossible for us to prioritize which parts of our identities are most worthy of acceptance. Intersectionality recognizes the struggles of women who have not only been oppressed on the basis of gender, but also on the basis of some combination of race, sexuality, class, physical ability, language, nationality, age, and appearance. It’s the idea that there is no “one” feminism. To acknowledge that women carry varying degrees of societal privilege is to understand that the women’s rights movement cannot follow a unidimensional “one size fits all” approach. If systems of oppression are intertwined, intersectional feminism suggests that systems of liberation must be connected as well. For me, intersectionality seeks to achieve gender equality for all women by amplifying the voices of the most marginalized, encouraging women to listen to one another, and pursuing a maximally inclusive framework.
Shane: Intersectionality is a term that has existed for centuries, though it was only applied to the feminist movement in 1989 by Kimberle Crenshaw. The word is meant to encompass the interplay of gender, race, and class. It underscores the critical point that gender, race, class, sexuality, and age are all factors that mesh together and construct an existence where different women live in vastly different realities
The world is complex, and so is the emerging generation of female thinkers, young professionals, and change agents. Intersectionality has allowed the world to recognize that feminism is not a homogenous theory or movement, that differences abound and that women in different communities have different needs. It is not a novel realization that women of color have it harder than other groups, but today’s political climate has exacerbated this reality, and the tension and struggles feel different and more personal. I’m not a woman of color and I, therefore, hesitate to speak candidly and unwittingly about this administration’s policies and its effect on minority women. I often find myself struggling to demonstrate support and solidarity in what is an obvious plight, especially with the realization that today’s climate is not a new reality. There was an apparent lack of police force at the Women’s March in 2017, but if you juxtaposed the number of policemen at the Women’s March with the surplus at the Black Lives Matter march a universal truth becomes obvious: as Jess Zimmerman articulated, “If I don’t look like someone a cop wants to arrest, that’s not a testament to my law-abiding goodness, or the cop’s. It’s a testament to how sexism in this country fuels racism and vice versa. It’s a testament to exactly what we need to resist.” Black women, and, in a broader sense, minority women, stand at the intersection of these injustices. As I profess my own opinions on feminism and fight for the needs and rights that I identify with, I remind myself that my needs are not synonymous with the needs of women everywhere, and intersectionality is that constant reminder that other women cannot be left to stupe in the shadows of my personal narrative.
Q: What does it mean to be a feminist in the twenty-first century?
Allyson: Feminists today stand on the shoulders of giants. To look forward, we must look back. Just one hundred years ago, feminists in the United States fought to secure women’s right to vote and combatted the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Nineteenth-century feminists were virtually absent from all institutions of higher education. In the eighteenth-century, women could not own their own property and sought entry into the labor wage market. And so forth.
To be a feminist in this era is to benefit from the hard-fought progress secured by our predecessors while simultaneously assuming the responsibility to address contemporary gender issues, both long-standing (i.e. equal pay and gender-based violence) and those relatively new to the feminist agenda (i.e. representation and portrayal in popular media). Most notably, a twenty-first-century feminist has the distinct advantage of digital mobilization. New activist groups can be formed at lightning speed, facilitated by social media platforms and online forums. This, of course, comes with its own set of challenges.
Shane: Social media has had a profound effect on feminism. Historically, leadership in a social movement was limited to those who were socially poised to take the mantle, or who were trained and educated in the field. But things are different now; social media has democratized feminism, allowing everyone to have a voice and to amplify their own voices. It minimized the barriers that have separated communities, and lowered the bar of entry to leadership: today, anyone with an opinion has the power and potential to reach millions. Feminism, therefore, has become about protesting, but also raising awareness. The audience is broader, the community larger, and preventing a bill from passage, protesting a sexist policy, or advocating for change is now not only feasible but all within the click of a button. Hashtags bring together like-minded ideas, and Facebook facilitates dialogue.
However, it would be dangerous for women today to rest on the laurels of social media, to be complacent about the need for change: because social media expanded the size and scope of the feminist community, many women don’t feel a need to raise their own voices, assuming instead that the responsibility has been embraced by others. The twenty-first century has endowed us with the tools to make a profound impact on politics, society, media and the corporate world. Movements like #metoo, protests like the Women’s March that have garnered national attention make us think that issues like sexuality and women’s rights are being “taken care of”. Social media could be our fatal flaw, but it can also be a tool for a real windfall.
Q: What is the biggest risk to feminism today?
Shane: We forget that the feminist movement is not only #metoo– the feminist movement is the cumulative efforts of our individual stories. It is our personal fight and our personal victories. Women, therefore, need to be their own savior; women need to speak up and advocate for themselves. We cannot wait for other people to fight the wage gap, or for other people to make grander waves in fighting sexism. Every victory in the feminist movement was won because of women who showed up and demanded their rights but we’ve forgotten that it wasn’t only Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft who won women the right to vote. It was the women who argued with their husbands. The women who signed their names to lists. These women paved the way to victory. We need to maintain the audacity of previous generations and we need to not be timid. Movements are what get legislation passed and policies changed, but our own individual audacity, our own drive to fight for what we deserve, that’s what gets us the pay-raise we deserve, the promotion we deserve, the seat at the table. And these victories, together, form the narrative of the feminist movement. Forgetting our individual worth is the greatest risk to the feminist movement.
Allyson: I think the biggest danger to feminism is making the mistake of thinking that our differences necessarily divide us. Some argue that an examination of our differences will weaken the movement from within. This goes back a bit to my thoughts on intersectional feminism, but I believe real progress for all women can’t be achieved unless we challenge our own biases and seek to understand different perspectives. Pretending that they do not exist is not an option. How else are we supposed to dismantle these oppressive ideologies if we do not view our spectrum of experiences as valuable forces for change?
Q: What have you done to advance gender equality?
Shane: In the public space I’ve been involved in interesting work– I interned at EMILY’s List on the research team where I helped pro-choice female candidates advance their campaigns for office on both the national level and the local level. Female candidates often have a harder time fundraising, and EMILY’s List helps them increase their finances, but also helps fill in the gaps in their campaign staff by doing opposition research and policy research for the candidates that EMILY’s List endorses. I also externed at the Department of Commerce where I helped launch a new project that tackles trade barriers women entrepreneurs face. Increasing your access to markets is a critical part of expanding a business, and women have a harder time reaching international markets for myriad reasons. As an extern at Commerce’s International Trade Administration I analyzed the specific barriers women face in breaking into the export community and evaluated the most effective measures for mitigating these barriers. Both of these professional experiences encompassed the efforts of leveling the playing field between men and women, helping them stand on the same platform, and ensuring both men and women have the same opportunities.
Allyson: I have never run for public office or worked for a women’s rights organization, but as a seventh-grade math teacher, I made a concerted effort to emphasize that STEM careers were not just “for boys.” Through different assignments and readings, I tried my best to shine a light on the absence of women in the STEM field and foster open class discussions on gender inequity. I hoped to sow seeds of empathy and understanding in the minds of all of my students, while encouraging my female students not to give up on their goals, no matter how male-dominated a space might be.
What is the one message you think women must embrace to advance the feminist movement today?
Shane: Abby Wambach, the former captain of team U.S.A.’s women’s soccer team, emphasized how important it is to claim the success of one woman as a success for all women. Women must support each other and champion each other. The notion of scarcity has been cultivated inside us, forcing us to compete for the one seat at the table: but this isn’t law of the jungle. Instead of competing for that single seat, what we should have been doing–and what we need to do moving forward–is change the game. If we support each other and work together, if we amplify each other’s voices instead of competing to be heard, we can ensure there are not one or two seats at the table, but that every seat is available to a woman who deserves to be there. By supporting each other we can change the rules of the game. The success of one woman is the collective success of all women. Our strength lies in our unity and if we embrace this message, feminism will become undefeatable.
Allyson: I completely agree. When we operate under the assumption that there are limited seats at the table, we undermine our end goal. In order for us to challenge and break the status quo, we must seek solidarity.