Echoing national trends, gender equality at Tufts continues to evolve
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 05:04
Is feminism dead? Many people seem to think so. Male and female students go to college in roughly equal numbers in the United States, women have breached fields long dominated by men and the mainstream American public is starting to embrace a wide spectrum of gender identities.
Although women may have gained rights they did not have half a century ago, they are still subject to discrimination and judgments in male−dominated society. Whether it manifests as a fear of walking alone across campus at night or anxiety about the repercussions of Arizona’s mandatory 24−hour abortion waiting period or smoldering anger at the knowledge that American women earn around 77 cents to each man’s dollar, women frequently face discrimination, though it is more subtle than it has been in the past.
Even on the Tufts campus, women tangibly have less of a voice: There are nine fraternities but only three sororities, and about two thirds of the Tufts Community Union (TCU) senate is male. Still, campus politics generally echo national politics, and efforts have long been underway to bridge gaps between the genders and sexes.
Founded in 1972, the Tufts Women’s Center grew out of the second−wave feminist movement. Along with other women’s centers across the country, it developed with the goal of promoting gender equality and providing a safe space for all genders to gather, learn and examine their identities at a time when women were greatly underrepresented on college campuses.
“Definitely, the Women’s Center pays attention to issues that have historically impacted women, but we also pay attention more broadly to how issues related to gender play out,” Director of the Women’s Center Steph Gauchel said. “For example, sexual assault, sexual harassment and discrimination have always been serious issues faced by women, but it’s not an issue exclusively faced by women, and it is not just women’s responsibility to address these issues.”
Gauchel said she has been pleased with the center’s popularity and influence on campus since she became its director four years ago.
“I personally have experienced and had the opportunity in my professional roles to see the impact that understanding the ways that our identities can inform our lives,” she said. “There’s a lot of empowerment in understanding the ways that we can set and figure out for ourselves who we want to be.”
The center stresses the importance of gender acceptance, but it also focuses strongly on identifying and examining the intersections of gender, class and race in a person’s identity. Gauchel believes that food is a good illustration of this: While food can be associated with traditional gender roles for women, it also is tied to questions of body image and eating disorders and can help illuminate inequality in the lives of food industry workers.
Even in her short time at Tufts, Gauchel has witnessed a number of positive steps for gender equality. The campus has crafted a broader sexual assault policy, for example, and has gained a new director in the office of equal opportunity and a new Title IX director. She is also excited by Students Acting for Gender Equality’s (SAGE) recent victory in implementing a gender−neutral housing program on campus.
Sophomore Zoe Munoz, the outreach and marketing intern at the Women’s Center and a member of TCU’s Culture, Ethnicity and Community Affairs (CECA) Committee, believes that the Center is primarily a safe place to learn about gender issues that is open to all members of the community.
“We’re a space in which gender is not binary — which it shouldn’t be — and that’s what we very much strive to encapsulate,” she said.
Munoz cautions that although the Center does emphasize feminist ideals, one should avoid indiscriminately lumping the Center and feminism together. In her opinion, despite common misconceptions, there are many different types of feminism and discussing them in a valuable, intelligent way requires some education.
“If you haven’t taken a class about feminism, then you really don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. You don’t know what it is,” she said. “Before we can get into a discussion about feminism, both sides need to have at least an introduction to basic theory and practice.”
Education, she believes, is also an important step toward ending gender inequality in the long run.
“A class like Sex and Gender in Society is crucial in opening up your eyes to the ways in which different genders are treated very differently and how that treatment has different consequences in day−to−day life,” she said.
VOX: Voices for Choice is one of the organizations that use the space provided by the Women’s Center. Its goals include increasing campus dialogue about sex, de−stigmatizing female sexuality and spreading information about reproductive health. Though VOX receives funding from the TCU Senate, it is first and foremost one of the campus branches of Planned Parenthood. VOX has likely gained nationwide success because of its widespread appeal.
“What’s interesting about VOX is that people are coming to it from such different places,” junior Lexi Sasanow, a member of VOX, said. “Just because people care about gender justice in general doesn’t mean that feminism is a monolith.”
Current VOX president Liza Gordon, a sophomore, became interested in feminism while in college and was quickly struck by the perspective it added to her upbringing.
“I grew up in a very conservative neighborhood,” she said. “I went to ballroom dancing, etiquette school and a very strict private school. Never, ever, ever in my hometown does a boy not open a door for a girl.”
Learning about feminism has helped her understand the impact of the gender roles she grew up with, though it often leaves her feeling conflicted. In particular, it has caused her to question the gender relations at her parents’ shared jewelry business. Though most of the salespeople in the store are female, the managers are all men, and customers often assume that her mother does not own a share in the company.