Just wanted to say that Anna, Annie, and Ashley have posted an excellent series of questions and ruminations about gender at W&L and about what the fall-out is or can be for openly questioning the quality of gender dynamics on campus. Territory, power, affiliation, and appearance are key issues that GAG should address specifically before each new big event on campus. As we tackle the big events, we’ll be moving towards a better day-to-day dynamic on campus. Thanks very much to the three A’s for getting us rolling!
We thought that it would be appropriate to begin the series of blog posts with some words from us, because we have each been thinking about a lot of things in the past month and would value and appreciate any feedback or insight that you might have.
Anna: First, I would like to thank you again for thinking of me when gathering – I am honored to discuss these issues with such an incredible group of people!
I was in Lexington over Spring Term and wanted to reiterate that Derby Days went well – with no reported injuries or similar events – and again, several changes have been made and we look forward to more changes in the future.
That being said, Annie and I spent a dinner together discussing how difficult it can be to even bring the idea of change to the table; it sometimes feels like staring down a wall of ignorance or apathy. People can be quick to invalidate you, your thoughts or your actions when any of the above violate the status quo – not only are you a young woman attempting to effect change, but you’re talking about “feminine” things like beauty or sororities. It feels as though you are expected to sit quietly, obeying the expectations of others, or lose credibility entirely:
How can I engage meaningfully in our social scene (i.e. alter the power “balance”) when the only power I can credibly wield is that of my body?
How can I successfully reach out to Greek community, working to educate my peers about respect/equality/diversity/inclusion, when my words as a sorority woman go unheard on anything but “boys and booze?”
How can I speak powerfully to our community about sex safety and sexual assault when people would believe my “liberal bias” is to blame for my opinions, rather than information and facts?
I hate to see my peers ignore a problem, and I hate to hear that my passion for these issues is dismissed as something so trivial as PMS. I feel like I’m being forced to “whisper” about these ideas, sneak them into casual conversation or talk about talking about them, because the “louder” I am, the more I’m tuned-out – I am only as credible as I am “useful,” by which I mean “pretty, quiet, and willing to get drunk and put out.” If anyone has any ideas about ways to get our community actively engaged in thinking about this, let’s talk.
PS Project Horizon (our local shelter/resource center for victims of domestic or sexual violence) is hosting Kids Health and Safety Day on June 7th! I’m an intern over there and am looking to recruit volunteers, if anyone is interested – please feel free to shoot me an email. 🙂
Annie: We (Ashley and I) had an amazing time in England, and we had several discussions about what we would like to say and discuss on this blog. Our concern we discussed at length is the frustration that we have both been feeling about instigating change on campus, specifically in terms of making people aware of the problems that we see with Greek life (Derby days, formal and informal recruitment, etc.). While deactivating was a personal decision for both of us, it is dismaying to see how much validity our opinions have lost in the eyes of many people who are still Greek. Many members of Greek life don’t seem to realize that there could be or is anything wrong with the system itself, and this pervasive, deep-rooted sense of apathy is alarming to us. We both feel that, as independent women, our voices are now invalidated regarding issues related to Greek life (which we see as the root of many of the issues that this group wants to address), despite our former enthusiastic participation in Greek life. The school itself tends to overlook independent women as well (we almost didn’t get yearbook photos taken). We would love any advice or thoughts that you would have about this position we are in, because to us it feels as though we are stuck in a position of having done what we felt was best for ourselves but now not having a say in any of the issues that we left behind, which are still just as important to us as a part of the W&L community. We don’t want to generalize people involved in Greek life, nor do we think that we can change the mindset of an entire culture in one year. We just want to figure out the best way to make our voices heard. Writing a letter to the Ring Tum Phi? Visiting sorority houses? We just aren’t sure.
Ashley: One of the things Annie and I spoke extensively about while abroad was society’s, as well as Washington and Lee’s, fixation on female beauty. We, as a society, expect women to be beautiful. They can be beautiful and intelligent, beautiful and funny, beautiful and athletic, but first and foremost they must be beautiful. Or they must at least try to be beautiful. We criticize one another about our clothes, hair, and makeup choices. We do this to celebrities and to our peers. We wonder why some women don’t dress more flattering for their ‘body type.’ We wonder why they don’t wear more or less or different makeup. We wonder why they don’t do something with their hair.
We also think about ourselves; whether or not our makeup still looks good, if we need to brush our hair, if our skirt needs to be pulled down or our shirt needs to be adjusted, etc. All of this brainpower that we spend daily on these concerns could be put towards something much more useful, or not, but it at least does not need to be put towards potentially detrimental thoughts about ourselves and others. When we think about women this way (others and ourselves), we conceptualize them as objects of beauty before almost anything else. Not only objects of beauty, but objects of beauty which are there to serve, primarily, male interests. Now of course women can, and do, also dress themselves nicely for themselves, but especially when they go out at night they primarily are dressing to be seen as attractive by potential partners. These traces of misogyny that can be seen in our daily lives of objectifying other women and ourselves come to the forefront in our nightlife.
While in London, we experienced the blatant sexism of clubs charging only men for admittance. This only served to create a sense of men paying for the services of women (much like the arrangement of a strip club) which I think can also be seen in Washington and Lee party culture. The fraternity men throw the parties and provide the alcohol, thus setting us up for a transactional experience. I have had more than one fraternity man at our school tell me that he expects pledges to clean their house because they owe the upperclassmen something for all of the money they spent on alcohol and parties to convince them to join their fraternity. If this is the attitude one takes towards a brother then what is to stop someone from feeling this way about women who attend these parties? And I think this does something to women’s psyches as well, perhaps subconsciously, wherein they feel a strange sense of obligation to the men throwing these parties. It partly removes their agency. While putting women up on a pedestal to embody beauty and sensuality, primarily for a male audience, we also do not not expect them to have many of the other qualities which women, and humans, can embody (i.e. intelligence, malice, wit, ugliness, etc). They are also not expected to have or are not respected when they utilize their agency. Many men at W&L parties intrude upon women dancing together in order to sexualize and accost them. And many times women’s rejections are not respected and they are propositioned (to put it kindly) numerous times after their initial refusals. This contributes not only to the objectification and disrespect of women on our campus and in our society, but also to our sexual assault rates. We all have more thoughts on this issue specifically which we would like to expand upon at a later date (ie. why are standard fraternity house beds bigger than sorority house beds?).
We realize that this post is long, and any thoughts that you could contribute during the course of the summer would be great. As young women who are about to graduate, we are all concerned with how to enact change in our daily lives and in whatever arena of the world that we join.
We hope you are all doing well, and we look forward to your feedback! We’re all here for the summer in Lexington (though Annie will be gone for a short time) and would love to meet up if anyone is able!
-Annie, Ashley, and Anna