Listening, hearing and responding
Lisa Taylor | Sunday, September 8, 2013
This past Friday afternoon, I attended the panel discussion, “Can Notre Dame Women Have It All?” in South Dining Hall. As an out-of-the-closet feminist and a senior looking for a career next year, I entered with high expectations, hoping that the interesting combination of panelists – head women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, political science professor Susan Rosato and dedicated mother Dr. Mary O’Callaghan – would spark an interesting conversation or debate about the role of women in today’s society and at Notre Dame. I left the event with a very satisfied stomach (a free dining hall meal is worth it’s weight in gold compared to cooking for yourself off-campus), but a vague sense of persistent dissatisfaction.
As my afternoon wore on, I couldn’t shake the ambiguous discontent I felt. Why was I so unsatisfied? What had the panel discussion lacked? The panelists presented three very different yet intriguing perspectives with a focus on balancing work and having a family. Dr. O’Callaghan defended the traditional role of women as stay-at-home mothers and nurturers. Coach McGraw called upon the young women of Notre Dame to set aside our perpetual judgment of one another and begin building each other up. And Professor Rosato, with her classic dose of humor, immediately deconstructed the original question of the panel (of course it’s impossible to have it “all”) and then focused on the more practical aspect of how to achieve a work/family balance. Her conclusion was that no, you can’t work a full-time job and bake organic, healthy prune-filled snacks for your kids. And that’s perfectly fine.
So what was wrong? I finally put my finger on it, but permit me a brief digression about what was, to me, the most intriguing moment of the panel discussion. The conversation was meandering and somewhat without focus when suddenly a woman stood up. With passion and palpable frustration in her voice, she demanded to know why the conversation was so heteronormative. What about women like her who weren’t married, didn’t have kids and were completely fine? Couldn’t she have it “all” despite not having a spouse or a family? The room fell briefly silent in a moment of awkwardness as we all looked at this woman ardently challenging the classic desire for happiness through a nuclear family. But then the conversation resumed as if she hadn’t even said anything. That momentary silence swallowed her perspective, marginalized her viewpoint and left her challenge uncontested.
This – the resumption of conversation and refusal to hear the woman’s voice – is what had disquieted me all day. The entire conversation had proceeded with two false assumptions: That every woman wants a spouse and children, and that women have some kind of special, mystical feminine nature that makes their desires and decisions fundamentally different than those of men. Further shockingly (or perhaps not so shockingly for Notre Dame), the word ‘feminism’ was only mentioned once offhand throughout the entire conversation. How can a discussion about some of women’s deepest desires – their pursuit of passions and whether or not these involve choosing a career and/or a family – not talk about the historic inequality and patriarchy that preclude these from being fully realized? How could we sit there and quietly tell each other that as women, we need to become more like men to succeed in the workplace (demand raises, stop engaging in catty, passive-aggressive judgment of other women and truly collaborate) and insinuate that a choice diverging from the traditional family structure is invalid?
For me, the word feminism entails a commitment: A commitment to reflect upon the current state of unequal power relations in all spheres of life and to work for the realization of the human dignity and rights of each and every person. Feminism is not about burning bras and hating men. Quite differently, it is about respect and equality in all domains. It is about listening to each and every perspective, acknowledging and valuing diversity and creating a more just, equitable world. It is about defying restrictive binaries and treasuring each and every person regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, physical capabilities etc.
You don’t have to have kids to be validated. You don’t have to get married or even be capable of maintaining a remotely stable relationship. You don’t have to have a professional job and make a ton of money, get good grades, wear make-up and stylish clothing, eat healthy, work out or attend intellectual talks. Regardless of all of these things, you’re human, you’re free and you have dignity. And that’s enough to merit being listened to and responded to.
Lisa Taylor is a senior studying
political science. She can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.