The Why Chromosome

Despite going to a woman-centered college, I’ve been disappointed to find that the hashtag version of feminism has become the norm.

By Sofia Rivera, Simmons College


Young people spend a lot of time trying on other people’s identities and wearing them as their own, only to discover their parent’s politics are a pair of too-tight pants and their grandparents’ religion itches like a wool sweater.

Shopping for identities that fit and shedding ones that don’t is how young adults create their own set of beliefs, which also means that they’re susceptible to suggestions and influence. At least, I know I am.

I have my own opinions on a variety of subjects and am largely confident making my own decisions, but in many ways, I’m still figuring out what I believe, which involves a lot of peeling off of labels that have been stuck on me and putting on my own.

So when I started attending a woman-centered college—that is, a college where anyone can apply as long as they are not a cis man (someone whose sex is male that identifies as the male gender)— I quickly wrote down “feminism” and stuck it to myself. At a woman-centered college, where estrogen levels are high and everyone’s hoping desperately for equal pay so their expensive degrees can be worth as much as their brothers’ and boyfriends’, calling myself a feminist was the easiest thing I could do.

The Feminine Mistake: When You Shouldn’t Call Yourself a Feminist

I thought I was genuine. I could pick Susan B. Anthony out of a lineup and I knew to thank Gloria Steinem for Ms. Magazine, but a couple trivia facts does not a feminist make.

When I came home one weekend, my dad and I were in the car when he asked me what feminism was. I knew that he knew the definition, so the question felt like some kind of test. Frazzled, I tried to recall the quote from Beyonce’s “Flawless” (taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech), but couldn’t recite it verbatim. I ended up mumbling something about equal rights, which felt like a stupidly simplistic answer.

Why didn’t I have a better response? One reason was the rising popularity of feminism. From being considered synonymous with “radical” and “man-hater” to becoming a popular hashtag, the sheer trendiness and commercialism of feminism has diluted the movement to little more than a T-shirt logo. But feminism shouldn’t be the extracurricular activity you claim to participate in on your college application but never actually attend the meetings of, because in the real world if no one shows up to the rally, nothing changes. Well-intentioned actions, like Emma Watson’s address to the UN introducing the HeForShe campaign that helped cater feminism toward men, made the movement’s actual definition more elusive, making it even easier to jump on the buzzword bandwagon.

Going to school surrounded by women, you might think I’d see beyond this vague semblance of feminism, but I didn’t, because of the other reason. While there are tons of very educated, eloquent, awesome women at my school, the overwhelming feminism is very vanilla. That is, not at all intersectional.

It is a small, liberal arts college, where a lot of the student body has lived in the same area for most of their lives and an even larger percentage is Caucasian. So one type of feminism is passionately, sometimes even aggressively promoted all throughout campus, but feminism isn’t one size fits all. When a student enters the college, they don’t leave behind every other identity they have besides their gender, and assuming that African American women, trans women and white, straight, cis women all experience the world in the same way won’t progress anything.

Declaring myself a feminist was really easy to do, since hardly anything changed—which is the problem. Actual feminism isn’t easy or cutely achieved by dressing up as Rosie the Riveter for Halloween or even by burning a bra. Being a feminist can mean, as it has in the past, being okay with people demonizing and demeaning you for your beliefs, protesting 20 times just to be heard once, and being heard 20 times just to effect some change. It’s a lot of hard work, without which women today wouldn’t be able to vote, have access to contraception, apply for a credit card, compete in the Boston Marathon or aspire to a laundry list of other rights.

And even today, nearly everyone has heard the statistic: women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar.

But that’s an average, and when the figure is broken down by different factors, such as race, the numbers are even more unsettling. Latina woman earn an average of 54 percent for the same work by their male coworkers, African American women earn 63 percent and white women still earn only 78 percent, according to a 2014 survey. Sure, figures may have changed in the past two years, but it seems unlikely because the same study says that at the current rate, women won’t achieve equal pay for another 100 years.

So, yeah, we still need feminism. But if I’m being honest, we don’t need all feminism.

Some strains of pro-women ideology actually do more damage than they do progress, and when I first zealously declared myself a feminist I think I was one of those unhelpful feminists. My “This is what a feminist looks like” shirt would probably have looked more like a Donald Trump shirt, because I didn’t really know what I was doing or talking about, and I was hoping no one would call me out on it.

Now, I feel more comfortable and genuine calling myself a feminist, because I’ve taken time to understand what it means to me. I inform myself by reading about feminism; I talk about it with other women of different backgrounds; I ask men what they think about it; I write down questions I’m still unable to answer. I still cross my legs at the ankles on the metro rather than “manspreading,” and I was a black cat instead of Rosie the Riveter last Halloween, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my feminism.