Why we should sweat the small stuff: lessons from my gender class

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This fall will be my 10th year of teaching sociology of gender at our small college campus, and you’d think after ten years I’d know everything there was to know.  But my students continue to teach me and sometimes to remind me in new ways of the things I already know.

Yesterday in class, we had our feminism conversation.  This is the conversation in which we lay out what they believe about feminists, and then we compare that to what seems, based on the reading they’ve done, to actually be true about feminists.  Did they ever burn bras?  Maybe in the privacy of their own homes, but not, in fact at the famous demonstration outside of the 1968 Miss America pageant, where they mostly just threw bras and other oppressive items of clothing into a big garbage barrel.  You might call feminists bra-tossers, but probably not bra-burners.

In this particular class, none of my students identified themselves as feminist, and their list of what they believed about feminism explains why.  Feminists are man-haters, angry, easily offended, lesbians, and they make too much out of little things.  The students didn’t say it this way, but what they mean is that feminists sweat the small stuff.

I’m going to read some subtext into the whole “make too much out of little things” here, based on my 10 years of teaching this class and being at Hanover.  The students feel like feminists want to take away their fun.  Feminists don’t want the fraternities to have parties like, “Surrender the Booty,” a pirate theme in theory, but with t-shirts featuring scantily-clad women, no one’s really being fooled.  That the feminists on campus raised this conversation did not make them popular, as most of the men and women felt like fraternities should be able to put whatever they want on their t-shirts.  So I would add to the students’ list another belief they have–feminists are party-poopers.

I walk a fine line in my gender class trying not to scare students away, and so we put up our two lists–what they believe about feminists and what feminists actually believe (things like, that there should be gender equality, that women should get paid the same as men)–and then we move on.  Yesterday we moved on to a video that demonstrates the discrimination women face when they go to buy cars.  On average, women are quoted prices $400 higher than men when they shop for cars.  In this particular video, the man is able to take the car for a test drive by himself, while the women is told she can’t even drive the car off the lot by herself, and certainly not without the car salesman going along.  Perhaps worst of all is what the car salesman tells the woman about new versus used cars.  He explains to her that a used car would cost exactly the same as a slightly used car, because the slightly used car has been “broken in.”

We talk about why the car salesman acted this way, what his assumptions about women as car buyers are, and how that contributes to a larger system of patriarchy.  Part of the point is that you don’t have to be grossly sexist in order to contribute to a patriarchy.  All you have to do is follow the norms that are already set up for you in a patriarchal society.

In the course of thinking about other ways in which some of our everyday behaviors contribute to patriarchy as a system, one of the students had one of those moments.  The moment when the little light bulb goes on.  “It makes me think,” she said, “of what we said earlier about feminism and the small things.  The small things do matter.”   Yes, they do.

Often when we have conversations on campus about specific issues, like whether or not a fraternity should be allowed to wear sexist t-shirts or have parties like “Surrender the Booty,” we forget about this bigger picture.  One word for this is micro-inequities.  They look very small.  So what, a woman has to pay more for a car?  So what, she’s objectified on t-shirts?  What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that small things add up, and they add up more quickly than you think.  Marilyn Frye probably explained it best when she compared oppression to being inside a cage.  If you just look at one bar of the cage, it certainly doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  You can easily walk around it.  It’s only when you can see all the bars together that you come to realize how your freedom has been compromised.  If you endlessly debate the specific context of a sexist party isolated from any larger context, you’re probably going to lose.

Here’s to a good start to a semester of learning to see the bars that surround all of us.

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