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The Facts and Fiction of Feminism: FMLA dispels common myths

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories

As Brandeis students and staff strolled through campus this past week, they may have been surprised to encounter a display of burnt bras near Shapiro Campus Center. This exhibit was one of the many ways in which Brandeis’ Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) initiated feminist dialogue in a week-long campaign to refute major stereotypes about the feminist movement. Called “Feminist Coming out Week,” the campaign included a variety of events that each helped redefine public perception of what it means to be a feminist.

The string of bras symbolized an overriding stereotype about the nature of feminism. Feminists are often misrepresented as women who deny all aspects of their femininity and promote solely female power. In reality, this stereotype is fictitious, resulting from an isolated incident that occurred more than four decades ago. In the 1960s, a group of feminists had been demonstrating against the Miss America Pageant, claiming that it promoted anti-feminist ideals. One particular demonstrator tossed her bra into a garbage can in an act of protest. A journalist satirically likened the incident to Vietnam War protesters who were burning their draft cards, even though no bras had been burnt. Decades later, this “bra-burning” myth regarding feminism still exists.

FMLA members hoped the burnt-bras exhibit would help students question this stereotype. As expected, the display also sparked controversy and debate.

“There’s been a lot of backlash on campus. A lot of people really support our exhibit and a lot of people don’t, which is fine. We want that. We want that controversy because it promotes feminist dialogue, which is really all we’re looking for,” FMLA E-Board member Hailey Magee ’15 said.

“Feminist Coming out Week,” began on March 7 with on “Undoing FGM” and a Depression, Suicide and Self Care Event. The following evening included a Faces of Feminist Panel, in which panelists discussed their experiences regarding feminism throughout the past few decades. Certain panelists also spoke about the history of the Women and Gender Studies department at Brandeis and the difficulties surrounding its acceptance as a legitimate discipline.

On Saturday, Brandeis’ Women of Color Alliance (WOCA) and FMLA co-sponsored a High Tea event in an effort to refute a second persisting myth surrounding feminism. Feminism is occasionally critiqued for only encompassing the experiences of white, upper-class women. FMLA endeavored, however, to dispel this common critique.

“A problem within the feminist movement at the beginning was that it was mostly made up of white, middle-age women … but feminism today has a lot of diverse groups which are all fighting for gender quality within the context of other stereotypes and discrimination that they face,” FMLA E-board member Kat Flaherty ’15 said.

By bringing together women of different races, ethnicities and background, FMLA and WOCA tried to emphasize that feminism is in itself an intersectional movement.

“People consider feminism outside of the realm of what it means to be a person of color or what it means to be a queer person, when in reality we have to confront these topics within the reality of every person being a highly diversified body,” FMLA E-board member Alex Weick ’15 explained.

The week-long campaign also included a film showing of “!Women Art Revolution,” a feminist documentary about female artists. The film helped illustrate how women are also under-represented in the art community.

On March 14, the campaign culminated with a “Feminist Coming Out Day,” celebration in Shapiro Campus Center. Interested students were invited to have their picture taken with a sign that read, “This is what a feminist looks like.” Students were also encouraged to create their own feminist signs. FMLA also set up an informational booth, offering students the chance to announce their support of feminism with t-shirts, pins and stickers. A passerby could also pick up a “Feminist Coming Out Day 2012” informational pamphlet or simply ask questions about feminism in general.

Some students may have been inclined to ask about the event’s title. When the Feminist Majority Foundation first created the nationwide event, they had also titled the event “Feminist Coming Out Day.” Although the foundation recently decided to change the event’s name to “Feminist Pride Day,” Brandeis’ FMLA decided to keep the original title despite its controversial nature.

“The title of the event is controversial because people think it has to do with coming out of the closet as a gay or lesbian individual,” Magee said. “We just think that the metaphor of ‘coming out’ is important because as feminists we’re sheltered in a space where we’re misunderstood and people try to misrepresent what feminism means. By coming out of that metaphorical closet, we’re basically saying we’re proud to be feminists and we embrace our identities. You could equate it to a gay or lesbian individual coming out and saying, ‘Embrace who I am. Embrace my identity.’”

There still exists one prevailing misconception regarding feminism that FMLA hopes also to dispel. Most people tend to view feminism as a movement that only benefits women.

“When we try to promote feminism, we’re really promoting gender equality,” Weick explained. “In that respect, it would positively affect anyone who was male, female or of any gender queer identification because all people are locked into gender roles. So when we try to destabilize and confront the roles that oppress men and women … it’s beneficial for all parties involved.”

Flaherty explained that anyone who feels stuck in a prescriptive gender role can embrace feminism’s drive to grant everyone the freedom to act outside of the gender binary. Feminism proclaims that a man should be able to choose to become a stay-at-home father without ridicule. Likewise, a woman can also be a feminist and simultaneously choose to become a stay-at-home mother, because part of feminism is acknowledging one’s ability to make that choice.

Through “Feminist Coming Out Week,” FMLA wanted to express to the Brandeis community its message of feminism as a request for equality.