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Women’s College. Feminist College?

Emily LaVelle and Lauren LaVelle | Wednesday, November 16, 2005

This is the first in a three part series examining the perception of feminism within the Saint Mary’s College community.

While the identity of Saint Mary’s as an all-women’s institution is widely celebrated and well publicized, one definition remains less clear – whether or not the College can describe itself as a feminist environment.

Forty years after the sexual revolution, feminism remains a polarizing issue on campus. Students’ perceptions of feminists vary drastically – from activists lobbying for equal pay in the workplace to women burning bras on the steps of the Capitol Building.

Saint Mary’s student body president Kelly Mitros recalled one instance in which she fully realized the division regarding feminism at Saint Mary’s.

“In one of my art history classes, my professor asked who in the class was a feminist,” Mitros said. “I was the only one who raised her hand. I couldn’t even believe it. I looked around the room at these other women and thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I got a dirty look from every single one of them.”

Mitros said the women in her class expressed their belief that being a feminist meant having hairy legs and burning bras. Mitros said she views feminism in a different light.

“To me, feminism is being able to make your own choices concerning your life … without feeling that you have to fit someone’s preconceived definition about what a woman should be,” Mitros said.

While she may have been the only woman in class to defend feminism, Mitros is not alone within the Saint Mary’s community in identifying herself as feminist. Many students share the idea that feminism allows women to push for social and domestic equality.

Like Mitros, junior Kirsten Kensinger is a self-described feminist who believes in supporting women’s equality. She does, however, notice the negative connotations about feminism at Saint Mary’s.

“Some people think that if you are a feminist then you are a man hater. I think a lot of people are afraid of feminists,” Kensinger said. “But again, I think feminism in its most basic nature means equality, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to believe in that.”

Kensinger said her ideas about feminism did not influence her choice to attend Saint Mary’s, but she finds the atmosphere at the College does foster such ideas.

“I have really come to appreciate the fact that Saint Mary’s promotes higher education for women and has had a great history of doing so when no one else in the country was,” Kensinger said.

Senior Meghan Daley, who considers herself a feminist but does not embrace many of the ideals of ‘radical’ feminism, shares Kensinger’s attitude.

“I believe that feminism is often misunderstood, especially by social and political conservatives, who frequently assume that the feminist movement has been irreversibly tainted by the sexual revolution,” Daley said. “On the contrary, authentic feminism will always have as its goal the ultimate well-being and dignity of women.”

In addition to proclaiming themselves members of the feminist movement, both Kensinger and Daley said they think Saint Mary’s does a sufficient job of promoting feminism. Kensinger said many events on campus such as guest speakers and forums sponsored by Feminists United – a feminist club on campus – have raised her awareness.

Kensinger said she has also experienced feminism inside the classroom.

“I have had several professors who have been amazing with it, especially in my Humanistic Studies major,” Kensinger said. “We look at the evolution of women’s status in society. I think it gives me a better perspective of how far we’ve come but at the same time, how much more improvement we need.”

Like Kensinger, Daley has also encountered feminism at Saint Mary’s.

“I would consider Saint Mary’s a feminist school because it seeks to provide an environment conducive to the intellectual and spiritual growth of women,” she said.

Not exclusively feminist

Other Saint Mary’s students, however, are more reluctant to use the word ‘feminist’ to describe themselves or the College.

Junior Erin Kotelnicki is one Saint Mary’s woman who refuses to identify herself as a feminist. For Kotelnicki, ‘feminist’ is synonymous with extremist.

“I feel that feminism is a very extreme term,” Kotelnicki said. “It is one thing to be a very powerful woman but being a feminist is a totally different thing. A feminist is almost an extremist in women’s rights.”

While she largely generally supports women’s rights, Kotelnicki said she cannot classify herself as a feminist because her views about women’s rights are somewhat conservative.

“I would consider my views not to be submissive but instead more traditional,” Kotelnicki said. “I believe that women should have just as many rights as men but I am more traditional in the way that I believe a man should take care of his wife and his children. I feel that this idea clashes with feminism.”

Kotelnicki does not see Saint Mary’s as an institution that encourages or promotes feminism.

“I would say absolutely not,” Kotelinicki said. “Saint Mary’s is not a feminist school. I don’t think that the college pushes us in either direction. I think that because the majority of the people here are conservative there is naturally going to be less of a drive towards promoting feminism. I just feel like it’s really not that big of an issue.”

Freshman Andrea Beres is also reluctant to call herself a feminist. Beres said her image of a feminist is an extremist – someone who does not shave or believe in the institution of marriage. While an advocate for women’s rights, she does not want to be associated with extremism.

“I cringe when I think about calling myself a feminist,” she said. “I think it is very hard to come up with a general definition of feminism that pleases both extremists. So I do have reserved thoughts and I don’t think I could ever define myself as a feminist.”

“Different kinds of feminism”

Some members of the Saint Mary’s community said they believe the differing views on the issue are rooted in the connotation of the word, not the movement itself.

Elaine Meyer-Lee, Director of the Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership, said the concept of feminism is largely misinterpreted.

“I think that there are a lot of different kinds of feminisms, not just one perspective,” Meyer-Lee said. “Just like there are lots of women, there are lots of views about what it means for a woman to matter and to be fully human. Its like any word, it can take on negative associations … and you can choose to dump the word and pick a new one or you can reclaim it.”

Katie Kelly, the student director of the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Resource Center, believes the confusion lies in the understanding of the word.

“Feminism is a way of being in the world,” Kelly said. “It’s about seeing yourself as an empowered woman and advocate for change in gender inequality concerning social, political and economic issues. Too often in our world, feminism is that dirty ‘F’ word connoting man-hating femi-nazis and bra-burning wenches.”

Vincent Berdeyes, a professor in the department of communication and performance studies, said it is impossible to attend Saint Mary’s and not be a feminist.

“I think the thing about a women’s college is that those values of feminism are woven into the institution, just educating women is a primary value,” Berdeyes said. “To me it would seem an inherent contradiction between being a woman in college and being anti-feminist. There has to be some limitation or misconception about what feminism is to be able to hold that position.”

Molly McGuire, a junior women’s studies minor, said as a women’s institution Saint Mary’s embodies “fundamental components of feminism.”

“By attending an all women’s college, students are obviously for the academic advancement of women and feel comfortable in a community that isn’t run by men,” McGuire said.

Feminism supporters at Saint Mary’s have, in recent years, attempted to reclaim feminism as a positive movement despite resistance. Several clubs and organizations have been set in place to foster a better understanding.

Students like Mitros are more than ready to see an improvement in students’ attitude toward feminism.

“When you are at an all-women’s college and you have a class of 15 women who say that none of them would consider themselves feminists, you think ‘Wow, this really needs to be a greater focus,’ ” Mitros said. “We have so many resources on campus that we are not using to the full potential. We have amazing opportunities to really expand people’s horizons that need to be tapped.”