Voices Fighting to be Heard: Feminism and my First Professional Conference

It’s interesting to watch people’s reactions when you say the word “feminism.” Some people show support, some make a face, some look skeptical. There is love for it and sometimes from some corners, a great deal of loathing. As a teenager until I was about 21, I feared calling myself a feminist, because the representation of them by society, by the media, by other women, even, was incredibly negative: they were man-hating, bra-burning maniacs. Despite the fact that I grew up in a house where I was never told I was less because I was a woman, was raised to believe I could do anything, no matter my gender, I still feared the word. Both my parents encouraged me to succeed, and never put any barriers of gender in my way. So I grew up believing gender didn’t matter, that I could accomplish anything.

Society though, taught me that it still did. To some people it was strange that I loved to play with both dolls and swords, that in my dress up trunks were the costumes for both the princess and prince for every Disney movie imaginable. “Why can’t the girl be the hero? Why can’t she fight?” I remember asking as a child. Luckily I was offered a few badass female characters. Mulan, anyone? Belle? Esmeralda? They were some of my favorites. As a competitive swimmer I recall some of the boys getting angry if I beat them during practice. There were “girls toys” and “boys toys.” Once I entered high school and the school dances became an issue, I was told by my peers that doing the asking was the guy’s job unless it was a Sadie Hawkins dance, so no matter how much I liked a guy, I couldn’t ask him out. When I sometimes go looking through the men’s clothing section for a sweater that is perhaps actually made of something warm for winter, or a flannel shirt that is actually FLANNEL as opposed to just see through plaid, or search for a waistcoat that actually fits over my chest (how does it make sense that there wasn’t a one in the women’s section, but a medium men’s did wonderfully?) I get strange looks. (Sidenote: why do women always have to carry purses? Because good luck fitting anything in the pockets of women’s jeans. Nothing more than my phone goes in there.). I could go on.

For a long time I would only say I believed in fighting for women’s rights, but I wouldn’t use the word “feminism” because it seemed such a dirty word to so many, and back in the 90s Rush Limbaugh even coined the term “femi-nazi” a word I’ve heard used in jokes countless times, a word I used in the past because I didn’t know what feminism actually WAS, as it was usually painted in such a bad light. I regret that word ever passing my lips, because why is it okay to compare women fighting for equality to the followers of Adolf Hitler? The answer is that it’s NOT okay. As I went through the last two years of college and moved up to DC for graduate school, as I grew into myself, I read, I researched, and I started loving the word “feminist.” Do all feminists agree on every issue? No, but at the base of it all, we are fighting for a society in which a woman is judged for her merit rather than her looks, a world where women receive equal pay to men as opposed to 77% percent, a place where women don’t get harassed on public transit and where they aren’t blamed when they get raped because “well, she shouldn’t have been wearing that.” A society where there is more representation of women in films and television and books as something other than a man’s love interest. In fact, here’s a great info-graphic made by the New York Film Academy on Gender Inequality in film:

Gender Inequality in Film

In her latest album, Beyonce quoted Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who defines feminism as the following:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller
We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much
You should aim to be successful, but not too successful
Otherwise, you will threaten the man”
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that marriage is most important
Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
Feminist: a person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

For more on this fantastic woman, watch her incredible TED Talk below:

This subject is usually on my mind, but it came even more to the forefront this week when I attended my first professional conference, hosted by the Transportation Research Board. It’s a massive conference, and thousands of people from around the world attend. As a librarian at the DC Department of Transportation, I got to attend, and along with my fellow librarian and our intern, went to the meeting of the transportation librarian committee. I walked in, noting that it was about a 50/50 female to male ratio, which was interesting to note, because although there is a solid amount of male librarians, the majority of professionals in the field are, in fact, women. I listened to the committee discuss business, and started paying particular attention when the head librarian of the USDOT got up to speak; their offices are only a few blocks down from ours, and I’d recently listened to a fantastic webinar by this very same woman. She was a fairly young African-American woman, probably in her late thirties or early forties; an impressive age, certainly, to be head librarian of a major federal agency. She was a compelling speaker, but you see the problem was that I couldn’t keep up with what she was saying. Why?

Because she kept getting interrupted.

One man in particular interrupted her at least five times, talking over her, asking questions in a hostile tone and treating her as if she didn’t know about her own program. Then another followed that man’s lead and interrupted her again, then the head of the committee interrupted her and told her “they needed to move on.” I looked at my co-workers, both who had noticed it as well, then looked across at another of the male librarians who is very well known in the field, and he looked pretty scandalized. So I wasn’t the only one who saw it. She did an excellent job, still only looking a bit flustered and actually apologizing for taking too long even though she was consistently interrupted, but even as she tried to wrap it up she was interrupted twice more at least, and in the end, I still am not sure exactly what the topic was because she wasn’t allowed to speak properly. Maybe this crowd, despite the professionalism of this conference, is just plain rude, I told myself silently. Then I watched two more speakers go up, both men, and you know what?

Neither of them was interrupted. Not ONCE.

During the second man’s presentation a younger librarian somewhere in her twenties politely raised her hand to ask a question only to begin with an apology for asking. She was a few lines into her point when she too, was interrupted and talked over, which happened twice more before the debate was over. I felt the anger and frustration build inside me as as I walked out of the session and back over to the other hotel to help watch my agency’s booth. Somehow even in one of the few fields where women have the potential for an actual voice, a powerful presence, I watched that voice silenced right in front of me. The committee is actually required to have a certain number of women on it, a certain of youths, a certain number of minorities, and that’s great, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much they have to fight to be listened to. It reminded me of all the times I’d been condescended to in the work place because of my gender and my youth, of the time when I was taking the bus home in broad daylight a couple of years ago and an old man grinned lecherously at me and patted the seat next to him, I remembered silently forming strategies in my head about what I would do if he followed me. Would I kick him? Would I run? Did I call the police immediately? I remembered all the times I’d been asked if I had PMS simply because I was sad or angry. I remembered all the times I’ve gotten honked at and cat-called on the street whether I was dressed up or wearing sweatpants. I remembered carrying my keys between my fingers and looking behind me while walking home alone at night for fear of attack, and knowing so many other female friends who do the same. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was furious. How could these people not show a career professional who is the head librarian of a national agency the respect she deserves?

So am I feminist?

You’re damn right I am. Because despite the progress we’ve made in the arena of women’s rights over the centuries, equality has not been achieved, not yet, and the battle can’t be over until it is, cannot be over until men and women are looked at as equals, until the day when a woman’s value is not judged by whether or not she has a husband or a boyfriend, when women are looked to more than their looks, when women are not fat-shamed and photo-shopped to anorexic levels on magazine covers.

Feminism is for ALL women, no matter their race, sexuality, nationality, socioeconomic class, religion, whether or not they wear skirts and high heels or feel more at home in jeans and tennis shoes, make-up or no, short hair or long, bra or not. It’s for women of every shape, size, and personality. And as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, feminism is for men too, because one of the best feminists she knows is her brother. Feminism is about working for a more equal world, where women are treated as full, complex, capable human beings. Men and women are different in some ways, certainly, but difference is no excuse for inequality. There has been great progress, that much is true, and we should celebrate that, but sexism still exists, inequality still exists, and we must fight as hard as we can to eradicate it, together, hand in hand as a society that wants to create a better world for everyone.

“All oppression creates a state of war; this is no exception.”

— Simone de Beauvoir 

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3 comments

  1. I still have all of Jessica Valenti’s books – they’re waiting for you!!!!! I’m more than happy to discuss any and all of them with you! Mom’s read at least one of them too! I need to find those…

  2. THIS Is so good. Thanks so much for posting this.

    I think I have been a feminist for about six years now (somewhere in the middle of my women’s studies class in college), and I have loved every moment of it. It certainly has its struggles, but so many more victories. Welcome to the club!

    Also, your librarian-conference story was especially intriguing. I guess the saddest part about it is that no one spoke up. It’s one of those things you probably realized in hindsight, but how incredibly cool would it have been if you had stood up or raised your hand and said, “hey, can we let the women finish their thoughts without being interrupted?!” Imagine the impact that would have made! But, hey, no worries, you’ll get ’em next time! This post definitely inspired me to absolutely speak up next time I find myself in a similar situation.

    I will be sharing this piece and following your blog. Looking forward to reading your future work!

  3. […] For more on sexism at TRB, check out Katie’s fantastic post here: “Feminism and My First Professional Conference.” […]

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