Dalton Discusses the Current Feminism Movement and its Historical Context

On Thursday, Kathleen Dalton, Co-Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies and Instructor in Histor, sat down for an interview with The Phillipian staff.

What is your background in gender studies or gender on campus?

When I came here in 1980, I thought that there was more of a need for women’s studies, and I thought it was odd that there were no women on committees, no women department chairs, the student body was 60 percent male, 40 percent female and the faculty was 75 percent male. So I thought a lot of work needed to be done. My Ph.D. is in U.S. History, so I did gender studies more on my own than at Hopkins, but I pursued gender as one of my own interests.

What is the feminist movement, as you understand it, that is ocurring right now?

My understanding is that the feminist movement takes several forms on campus. The Girls’ Leadership Project (GLP) has been going on for four years with adults encouraging students to mentor younger students to try out for leadership positions, including elected positions. Feminism is Equality started as a website put together by some of the GLP people to start a discussion about what is feminism. They believe feminism is just the equality of men and women and equal respect and they have had an online dialogue.

The current status of feminism on campus it that there is an informal men’s faculty group that sponsored the t-shirts. There is a faculty gender coalition, led by Diane Moore, that discusses ways to talk about gender programs and ideas. Of course, we have Women’s Forum (WoFo) that I helped found years ago, which brings men and women, boys and girls together to talk about gender issues. And then there is the Brace center, which was founded to be a forum for research, scholarship, and discussion, and also a safe place for kids to come and talk about gender issues from all viewpoints.

What does the word “feminist” mean in a historical context? How have different movements used the word and how has Andover used the word?

Historically, feminists were people who wanted to promote women’s attempts to gain basic rights, such as the right to vote, the right to speak in public, the right to own property after they married, the right to have custody over their children, the right to go to law school, and do very basic things that we all take for granted now. The early feminists at Seneca Falls were asking for what we consider very basic things. People in the 19th century did not agree with them, so they had a very long hard fight. When you look at Elizabeth Katie Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass and other people at Seneca Falls, who spent their lives struggling with these issues, them getting the vote in 1920 was only a small part of it.

Feminism in the 20th century, what we call the second wave, came in the 1960’s, when women of my generation asked not only for the right to go to schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but also the right to go to law school and medical school. They also asked for equal pay for equal work, the kind of national organization of women basic requests for equal rights and equal treatment.

Radical feminists asked some really profound and important questions about whether gender is a relationship of dominance and submission where women are subservient class and men are the privileged class. There is a recent article about Shulamith Firestone, which is very sad, but she also wrote books at this time period that said the conversation about gender shouldn’t be just about “Can I go to law school?” It should be about “Why are women doing all of the housework but also the emotional work? Why is gender organized so that men are supposed to have these qualities and women are supposed to have other qualities? Why are you putting us in these boxes because our full humanity isn’t defined by these very limiting gender roles?” Some women really want to be in the army. Some women really want to be plumbers. For some women, they wanted who they are to be defined, at least in the 60’s, as having a male-only job.

So those two, both the liberal feminists and the radical feminists made huge gains. Title IX is one of them, which is when the federal government said it is time to spend equally on women’s athletics. When I was in high school I was told in a public funded high school that we could not have a girls’ tennis team because even though we had beaten some of the members of the boys team in informal games, girls did not compete.

If you look at 1965–when I was discouraged from being a lawyer and people said to me women cannot be lawyers–to 1970, when I graduated from college, the conversation changed radically so a lot of women could do a lot more things.

For me, feminism has been the opening up of questioning of a subservient position of women that so many people take for granted. Feminism is Equality is not just about equal rights. It is also about equal respect and full personhood.

I do think that you can see in Girls Leadership Program and Feminism is Equality that people want to read about it, study it, think about it, and have conversations about it. I think that there is that very active intellectual questioning that I, as a teacher, I really like to see.

But I also think that it is perfectly understandable that some kids are not ready to talk about it.

For years I have been trying to get students to think about the gender atmosphere of the colleges that they are desperate to go to and whether they could select colleges on the basis of female friendly or female empowering environments. I find students resistant to even having that conversation. Where we are on campus is that I think some people are talking about it, and other people don’t want to talk about it yet.

Do you think that movement that is happening right has helped to dispel some of the stigmas attached to talking about? Do you think more people are willing to talk about it?

I think they have been very successful at having a lot of good discussions about it. One of the reasons for the male faculty teacher gesture, which I believe many faculty who are part of the gender coalition supported but did not initiate, was a gesture of support for the feminism is equality students who got some backlash and nastiness on the website. The idea was to communicate that those students are not alone and that it is ok for a feminist, you have free speech rights here, and you have a right to discuss this and we will support your right. Not to say that dogmatically I am your teacher I am a feminist you have to be, but to say lets talk and it is safe to be a feminist here.

Why would students on campus oppose or have reservations to the movement on campus?

One of the arguments made by a former student on the website, is that this is a place of privilege and you all have tremendous options that most people don’t have and you shouldn’t be talking about this.

I guess that attempt to silence the young women bothers me a lot, in the sense that an academic institution needs to be open to a lot of different conversations. I think that a lot of kids believe the media portrayals of feminists and they may have parents that have prejudices against feminism. Or they may think that being a feminist automatically means all feminists support X, Y, and Z, or that they are all Pro-Choice, or are all liberal democrats, or are all for Hilary Clinton, which is not true.

I was in the senate gallery watching the day that the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in the Senate and watched as a liberal democrat walked across the floor and shook hands with Margaret Chase Smith, it was a bipartisan effort. There are lots of republican women who are feminists and I think that people believe things about feminism and they are afraid of it. They are afraid of having conversations that they won’t understand.

What do you think the concerns are for the faculty when they make a public statement like this (the shirts)?

The faculty are saying that this is an environment where there are a lot of men who are not afraid to be called feminists and there are a lot of women who are not afraid to be called feminists. The faculty are helping those students who are interested in calling themselves feminists to stand up to the stigma. It is really an attempt to show support for young women, who want to speak out on these issues. Wearing the shirts is not to say what they should say, they should say whatever they want, but it is to say we are behind you when you want to talk about these issues. I think some of them really did feel supported.

Do you think the t-shirts are alienating people as students say?

I understand that in a community with a lot of different people, with a lot of different opinions faculty and students are going to see this symbolic gesture as off-putting. This is a very apolitical campus. I have worked at other places where political expression is more tolerated and encouraged and I think that this was a very tame, calm, peaceful political expression.

How have you or other faculty have been talking about this issue in class?

Feminism is part of the history we study and people talk about it from a lot of different viewpoints. I always believe that you shouldn’t tell people how they should feel. If people legitimately felt uncomfortable when their teacher wore a t-shirt, I am not telling them that they shouldn’t have felt that way.

I am just telling them it is very hard to believe that the teachers whom I know were wearing the t-shirts would be intolerant of diversity of opinion. People often get uncomfortable when you talk about sex in class, or sexual orientation or even the politics of families. Those are all pretty complicated topics that a lot of kids are uncomfortable with. I guess our job as teachers is to have an open dialogue.

Is this feminist movement necessary at Andover?

I think there has always been a need for a feminism movement on campus. It is a climate in which students say they are more comfortable with male presidents. We have had young women harassed by phone and letters when they ran for president over the years so I would say whether it is a feminist movement or other types of discussions, we have something unusual.

The school statement of mission says that we support healthy coeducation where we want the best for both boys and girls and we don’t look at them as different leaders. We don’t ask girls to take a back seat. We want to really promote and launch bright talented kids and we want this education to be a foundation for them.

I don’t know the answer to this because we have been talking about this for a long time. I think that things are much better now for females on campus, but we continue to have some lingering problems.

Female faculty and male faculty have lost affordable day care, we have lost flexible schedules. There are almost no women department chairs. We were doing better at this in the 80’s. So those are faculty concerns.

I am hoping that the new Co-Presidents will listen to the fact that part of their constituents are very concerned about a prejudice or limiting view of leadership that is going around the student voter community. I think the student vote issue is a problem for students to solve.

I think feminism is very important because women make up 51 percent of the population, so why should they be held back to less pay or less recognition? Even the prizes at Commencement have very old-fashioned gender names on them.