On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Boston University’s digital daily BU Today ran a story titled “BU Alum Assails Feminism as ‘Dead End Road’,” and unintentionally incited a firestorm.
The story itself was an interview with Suzanne Venker, SED ’90, the co-author “The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know and Men Can’t Say.” Venker co-wrote the book with maternal aunt and infamous anti feminist Phyllis Shlafly. Interviewed about the views outlined in the book, Venker explains how Shlafly provided her with another look at modern feminism.
“When I originally went to Phyllis to ask her if she’d be interested in doing this project, she had one stipulation—that the book completely condemn feminism. If it were to be any other way, she
wasn’t interested,” Venker said to BU Today.
Venker continues, illustrating the specific condemnations of feminism with regards to sex scandals and bad behavior (“It’s the social acceptance of these that I attribute to the feminist movement”), sexism (“The people who are the most successful are the people who make lemonade out of lemons”), American feminists’ lack of concern for what goes on beyond America’s borders (“The horrible things that go on, you don’t hear feminists out front and center focusing on these atrocities”), the easing of stigma toward women who decide not to get married and have children (“Why would you have a whole movement to make women feel better about not choosing to have children?”), and the harm in equal pay (“whatever strides were made in the workforce have had tremendous ramifications for businesses, so they came at a great cost to businesses and government”).
Venker wasn’t tight-lipped in her interview—but neither were the 126 people (as of the time this story went to print) who responded in the comments section below the story.
In the span of less than 12 hours, students, alumni and others posted their views. To BU Women’s Studies Program Director Shahla Haeri, this response is exactly what should have occurred. “I was very impressed with the students that wrote in response, as well as with the interviewer. I think the students were on-target with recognizing the differences of her argument, along with the interviewer in identifying the gaps in her reasoning,” Haeri said. “I think it’s a reminder that these issues are still prevalent in the world,” said Alessandra Goodfriend, activism coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center and College of Arts and Sciences freshman, in an email.
PLANNED PARENTHOOD PROHIBITION?
The BU Today International Women’s Day fiasco comes on the heels of another blow to women’s rights, but this time as a result of U.S. public policy.
On Feb. 18, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 217, the ‘Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act.’ The act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and the House’s subsequent vote sought to bar federal funds to any entity that performs an abortion. Planned Parenthood is one such entity.
“We should be looking to improve access to affordable, quality sexual health care – not restrict it, which is exactly what will happen if the effort to defund Planned Parenthood succeeds,” said Dianne Luby, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, in an email.
“I feel like the loss of Planned Parenthood would just be detrimental to people who may not feel comfortable going somewhere else to get those other kind of questions answered,” said Women’s Resource Center volunteer and CAS freshman Leigh Burnett.
“Defunding Planned Parenthood would have a major impact on our college students and those who can’t afford to pay,” Luby said. “Losing our federal funds would severely compromise our ability to serve everyone in need of our quality health care services, including annual exams, lifesaving cancer screenings, contraception and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.”
Goodfriend said the success of H.R. 217 is concerning.
“I think it’s really scary that the right for a woman to choose what is will happen with her body is still up for discussion in the 21st century. The fact that the bill got passed in the House proves that it’s still something that needs to be talked about and discussed and heard.”
WOMEN’S RESOURCE CENTER TO THE RESCUE
For Burnett, this conversation can be struck up at the WRC. “I think the Women’s Center brings to light some of these issues that BU may not deal with,” she said. “Even though the school is 60/40 and women are the majority here, I really feel like without the Women’s Center here, a lot of this issues would never be discussed.”
Women, gender and sexuality professor Diane Balser said, “I love that BU does the Vagina Monologues, because it’s an acknowledgement of the issues that pertain to women.”
Goodfriend recalled a recent training at the Women’s Center that illustrated its role in BU students’ lives.
“We had an event training this weekend and there were a dozen girls there,” Goodfriend said. “They were asked what their journey was to the Women’s Center. So many people talked about how important the Center was to them, how it’s helped them and how they wouldn’t be in college or at BU if it weren’t for the Center. It’s a place that really attracts people who want to accept them if they do go against the grain or don’t fit in or defy the standard social norms.”
Despite the acceptance within the Women’s Resource Center, Burnett notes a stigma that may be attached to the group.
“When I first started volunteering for the Women’s Center and telling people all the positive things we do here, surprisingly, I actually got a lot of really negative comments. Within a sentence of talking about volunteering for the Women’s Center, someone just blatantly asked me if I was a lesbian and that’s why I was volunteering for the Women’s Center. They immediately assumed that. I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
Balser said she thinks this reaction could have something to do with social pressures.
“I think in many universities, I think there’s a lot of social pressure to conform, and I think sometimes, people will give knee-jerk responses and I don’t know how much they actually believe these responses,” she said.
Many, including both Balser and Goodfriend, define feminism as equality between men and women, as opposed to the oft thought-of bra burning.
“I think that feminism, in its broader sense, is the standing up for women against inequality and any place that the society oppresses women,” Balser said.
Burnett acknowledged that often, this misconception isn’t just held by men.
“I feel like a lot of people, not even men, women do this too, take feminism as being like a burn-your-bra, going crazy in the streets sort of thing.
“I think men in particular are also threatened by the feminism argument because a lot of people on my floor, when defending themselves for discounting feminism altogether, a lot of them would say ‘I just feel like feminism attacks the male attitude,’ and they feel like feminism attacks men in general, and I think that’s why they’re really uncomfortable with it.”
Balser said this sentiment has been around since the 1970s and 1980s, too.
“When I first started teaching here, there were terms like ‘feminazi’ and other very derogatory labels,” she said. Yet those who don’t feel comfortable dropping the f-bomb on themselves have alternatives. I think it’s possible to be a feminist without calling yourself one. Actions speak louder than words, labels are labels,” said Goodfriend.
“It doesn’t matter what you define yourself, it matters what you say and what you do, and making sure those actions speak. Calling yourself a feminist is one way of doing that action and supporting women’s rights as well.”
Despite Venker’s label of feminism as a dead-end road, others said they see this as a time to stand up for women’s rights. With over 1,000 people on the WRC mailing list, it seems that many BU students are willing to do just that.
“It might seem like at BU there aren’t as many activist people, and I know when I first got here I certainly thought that, however once you do look for it, there are a lot of student groups,” Goodfriend said. “Even if it’s 10 percent of the population, which is a small percentage, it’s still thousands of kids.”
“This is the time to stand up. This is by far the time to stand up,” Balser said. “This isn’t only a women’s issue.”