Lady business: Academic feminism

Sometimes, I have to remind myself that feminism is not just a theory. It is not just a framework that I can apply to the world to make it easier to understand why things happen the way they do.

For me, it’s easier to do that because I’ve been isolated in a hazy world of sociological statistics and literary theory for the last four years. I’m in a small, safe ecosystem filled with jargon and analysis and long, tediously written studies that I’ve only skimmed. I’m not saying that what we’re doing in college isn’t important or isn’t real, but I might be saying that maybe we’ve all been trapped inside our syllabuses and our paradigms for so long that we can no longer absorb actual reality if we can’t paraphrase it with academic buzzwords.

I need my feminism to be about actual reality. While academia has its place within that reality, it’s easy for it to overwhelm the issues and suddenly become everything. Within feminism as a living, breathing movement, academia has a tendency to push its way to the front of the crowd and obstinately stand with its arms raised so everyone behind it can’t see the stage.

It’s easy to let this happen. People who make academia their lives know all the right things to say and all the right moves to make to be taken seriously in a world that prioritizes the perception of high-class status. Regardless of what everyone in the back of the crowd has to say, the fact that some people have louder voices means that those behind them going to get drowned out.

Feminist theory is important, but it’s only as important as the occurrences that it explains. These could include issues like sexual assault, the wage gap, reproductive rights and disordered eating, literally anything that the wide-branching arms of academic studies can seek to define.

When we only give our attention to what is being said in those studies, though, we effectively ignore the people who are being studied. We erase their role in their own experiences, and we willingly allow ourselves to take in information that we often know is biased like it’s gospel.

This is why the academic side of feminism often lags behind what feminism actually needs to be. It covers all the issues, but it fails to cover all the people who are dealing with those issues. Essentially, feminism within academics is set aside for those who are already privileged, to a point. I know well enough the woes of scholarship students, and I remember clearly the rage that grew inside me when another student once casually commented during a group discussion that “obviously, we’re all at least middle class because we’re in college right now.”

I also know, though, that there’s a difference between me coming from a family who has straddled the poverty line and another woman my age coming from a family that literally can’t afford to keep food on the table. There’s a difference between me being able to work a part time job and go to college and another woman my age who has to work a full time job to survive. When we limit feminism through means like access to material and inaccessible language, not to even mention the issue of respect, to the people who are privileged enough to be able to afford college, lucky enough to get scholarships or just in the right situation to be able to take on loans, we’re acting as cultural gatekeepers to a movement that seeks to equalize. If that’s not counterintuitive, then I’m not sure what is.

Let academic feminism continue to exist and thrive as long as it’s aware that when it reduces working class women and other marginalized groups of women to statistics in a study without giving them their own place on the stage, it’s being harmful to the movement and to women as a whole.

Let’s keep studying feminism, but let’s do it in a way that opens up our minds to the experiences and the words and the lives of women who might not be able or might not even want to be in academia. After all, there’s only so long you can sit in a room and talk about patriarchy before you start to realize that you’re not doing much other than talking.

Do not let your sense of the world be entirely ruled by the way you have come to think the last four years. College is important, but it’s not everything.

Academia is important, but it’s just a small portion of what feminism should be.

Remember that just because you’re speaking louder doesn’t mean you deserve to be heard more.

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