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Women in Leadership: A Personal Anecdote

7 Nov

Women in Leadership: A Personal Anecdote
Jennifer Nudo
GALS, Vice-President
Managing Editor, Galatea

As we begin discussing feminism and gender equality, I want to share a personal experience that greatly shapes how I try to communicate my opinions and views with others.

During high school, I was a part of the speech team and had practice with a science teacher named Ms. Smith (an exceptionally unimaginative name change by me).  One afternoon during my senior year, I went to practice in a jeans skirt, tights, and long sleeve shirt.  When I walked in, my coach immediately warned me that I should be written up for that outfit.

This is not a rant against dress codes.  I feel reasonable dress codes can be very beneficial in high schools as long as they are enforced fairly.  However, Ms. Smith was not strict about enforcing my school’s dress code.  In fact, I had seen girls with shorter skirts than mine walk into her classroom without hearing a word.

So it struck me as bizarre that she would single me out—especially during an after school activity.

She didn’t write me up but I was subjected to a lecture about that I wear is a message to the world. Ms. Smith demanded that I should reconsider how I present myself.  She seemed utterly baffled at how any self-respecting young woman could have chosen an outfit.

I was furious after this encounter.  First off, I looked ridiculous that day—I needed to do my laundry and was short on options.  I was wearing these tacky zebra print boots I really liked back then for some reason with grey tights, a jean mini skirt, and an orange top.   I don’t think I was actually breaking the dress code considering I had on thick tights.  Regardless, this outfit was not a cry for male attention but an unfortunate combination of my poor taste and lack of clean pants.

The most troubling part of this encounter was that she seemed disappointed in me, which is what drove her to single me out.  I think she felt that I was a “smart girl” who was better than that and was falling victim to the social pressures to be sexy or to be what boys want.  She wanted to free me of these pressures and empower me to dress and behave in a more conservative manner.

Empowering young women to make their own choices is very important. This dictum of feminism sadly is not addressed enough in high schools. I understand that Ms. Smith had good intentions.  However, what she did was not empowering. I had made my own decision when I got dressed that morning. She reduced that decision to a reaction to social pressure and in turn decided for me what was an appropriate manner to present myself. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt judged and belittled.

She operated under the assumption that a smart young woman like myself couldn’t possibly want to dress like that. I must have been under the influence of some external force.  She felt she knew what I was thinking and what was what best for me and needed to correct me.  There was no discussion of why I chose that outfit.  She simply told me the right way to dress and to behave.

Looking back at this encounter now, I think this is why feminism is painted in a negative light. Often, feminists are perceived as busy bodies telling other people how to live their lives. People don’t want to be told how to behave or why they make certain decisions by people who don’t know them and therefore they reject feminism.  While this is not what feminism is in general, there are people like Ms. Smith who do act like that and sadly I feel many people view all feminists in that way.

I strongly believe that the fight for gender equality must be focused on giving men and women more options without mandating “the best option”. I know this is difficult to do, as we often have strong opinions on what others should do, but we must keep this tendency to dictate behavior in mind.  In my opinion, the goal of gender equality is not to not instruct people what to do, but to promote equal rights, to give people the freedom to make their own decisions, to empower individuals to make the right decisions for them, and to spread acceptance and understanding.

Jennifer is the Vice-President for GALS and Managing Editor for Galatea. She is in Paris for the Fall Quarter and will return for the Winter and Spring Quarters.  

 

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Women in Leadership: Substratum

22 Oct

Women in Leadership: Substratum
Niharika Singh
GALS Board


Substratum
                              

India is a nation on the threshold of miraculous change, charged with optimism and a new energy, characteristic of a confident and enterprising people. Behind the exuberance, however, areas of rot of social stigma and patriarchal dominance shield half the population from experiencing any of this glorious dynamism.

I worked with women in North India. The argument for female empowerment there does not require the invocation of any lofty ideals or the complex analysis of subtle inequities. It is a basic and undeniable report on the sub-human status of the region’s women. As a child born into a cosmopolitan, urban environment of Mumbai and raised by doting parents, I was unaware of the extent of the horrific constraints imposed upon women in my country. The government sponsored educational films that aired on national television seemed ridiculous and unrealistic. The films shied away from stating the true nature of the problem, and the plots were cryptic and uninformative.

My exposure to the injustices suffered by North Indian women came from my mother. She tried to buffer me from the whole of the incredibly hurtful truth by engaging in a series of gentle discussions. Unfortunately, these facts could have no gentle introduction. There was no easy way to learn that your brother’s birth was a cause for celebration in your grandparents’ village, while your birth was an occasion meriting unspoken condolences to the unlucky grandparents. Your grandmother was sorely disappointed by your birth because you were an undesirable product. My mother, enlightened, fearless, could not claim her inheritance because such a claim would be met with incredulousness and accusations of ungratefulness from her parents and brothers.

Within three months of the first discussion, I was in the field, campaigning for female empowerment.

What I encountered in Rajasthan and Haryana was what I had heard about, and much worse. Even today, when it comes to the status of women in the region, North India is living in the dark ages. To encapsulate the status of women is easy: they are commodities. A daughter is a liability that has to be married off as soon as possible, a dowry arranged, and a wife is a laborer bound within the four walls of the home.

Women are raised on tales of female sacrifice for their spouses, and brainwashed into believing they have no identity distinct from their husbands. Daughters are overworked at home, tending to their brothers who must go to school. Boys will become men, run homes, and feed families. Girls will only become women, and the best a woman can do in life is get married to a man of her parents’ choice. Women eat last at the table, do not expose their faces outside the home, and play no role in any decisions impacting the family.

The plight of widows has been chronicled recently in a series of period films. Truth is little has changed since the times depicted in these movies. The shaven heads, drab white sarees and ill-omen status are no relics of the past; they are a reality of today. If a woman’s father, brother or husband dies, she cannot attend the religious ceremonies before cremation for she brings bad luck with her presence.

The list is endless, there is no end to the indignities women are subjected to, but the worst by far is the impression that they are responsible for their own plight. The greatest obstacles to my campaigns spreading awareness about the equal rights of women are the women themselves. Statements describing the equality of men and women are met with stunned silence. They seem so outlandish, so preposterous to these battered women, who have engrained in their ethos the idea that they are so base, so vilely inferior to the men.

It is painful, encountering such puzzled looks. It is heart-wrenching, seeing the empty looks in their eyes. It was inspiring, catching a slight glimmer of hope at the end of our successful sessions.

We must tell them the truth. They must fight, if not for themselves, then for their daughters. It is this advice that I apply myself when I feel myself running out of stamina. It is a strange feeling, having been a disappointment before learning how to crawl or speak. How can I be so wrong without committing any misdeed, any sin? My existence is an act of hubris. Therefore, I must fight, for the women I meet, for the children growing up in my country today and for myself.

Niharika Singh is a member of the GALS Board and a third-year in the College. A proud Indian, Nikki is in charge of fundraising, programming, and making us laugh during meetings. 

Letter from the President

18 Oct

Dear readers,

Welcome to Galatea, the new blog of Gender Activism, Learning, and Service (GALS). GALS is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) at the University of Chicago. As President of GALS, I’d like to thank you for stopping by our blog. This is a great place to learn more about what we do, and I invite you to join us at our Monday meetings — 7 PM in Harper 151 — to learn more.

The objective of GALS is to bring a discussion to campus on a variety of women’s and gender issues. We do this in several ways:

  • First, we hold weekly workshops on topics surrounding women’s issues. This quarter, all of our meetings will focus on “Women in Leadership.”
  • Second, we participate in gender-focused community service projects.
  • Third, we bring guest speakers to campus to hear about their experiences.
  • Finally, we create publications such as this one to share the work we are doing.

I hope you enjoy the material on this blog, and that you feel inspired to learn more about GALS!

Best,

Emmaline Campbell
President of GALS: Gender, Activism, and Service