“Is this girl for real right now?”
On one of the last warm summer evenings of the season and one of the first evenings of her college career, Donna experienced something that is all too common for women. August 25th, around 7:30 p.m., Donna was just trying to get back to her dorm in Walz Hall when a group of male students started to whistle at her. The group of men were dressed in formal attire, wearing button ups with cargo shorts, looking as though they had just come from taking a team picture for whichever sport they most likely played. Donna’s fingers turned white as she gripped her pink bottle of pepper spray, which, coincidentally, she had just bought the day before. Her shoulders tensed, coming almost up to her ears. She kept her head down for fear that any reaction may set off the men to do something even worse. Donna’s solitude was deafening as she rushed along the last bit of concrete and up the short stairs to her dorm hall. Slumping down on her bed, Donna let her tears fall down her face, each tear an ocean of her burning anger and frustration towards the fact that she, and so many other women, have to go through this shared experience while they are just trying to enjoy their college careers. She had planned to go out again that night. She had planned to meet up with her friends. But she was too scared to venture out into the unknown darkness of what else those men were capable of doing. Catcalling is scary to most women, but the unshakeable possible danger that it insinuates is much more frightening.
“Is this girl for real right now?” Donna wondered. Wanting to warn other girls about the group of guys that catcalled her, Donna texted a message in the first-year girls GroupMe chat that they formed to help provide support for their transition to college. While many girls offered messages of condolence for what happened to Donna, as well as support and offers of help, a few girls had the opposite reaction. One girl, questioning the validity of Donna’s experience, suggested that maybe the guys weren’t catcalling her but instead whistled at her as a friendly way to say “hi” since it was the first week of school. “Like, who are you to question somebody else’s sexual harassment, um, claim. Like that’s just not cool. You would think that another girl would be more supportive. Coming from another girl just made it worse,” Donna explained to me with her hands folded in a tense knot as we sat in the lounge next to Java Joe’s on a rainy Monday afternoon in mid-October. Almost instantaneously, other girls in the group chat fired messages in support of Donna, shaming the other girl for questioning the validity of Donna’s obviously harmful and frightening experience. Some girls pointed out that if the girl who questioned Donna’s experience were to get harassed, the other girls in the chat would support her, but they can’t support her distrust in Donna’s painful experience. It became increasingly evident that “girls supporting girls” applies to girls who support other girls, not girls who aim to defend the male harassers.
While this whirlwind of fury pursued in the group chat, Donna, overcome with anxiety over the tumult that her sharing of her experience caused, was vomiting profusely. This wasn’t what she wanted. She held her phone close to her face, which was a portal both to the frenzy of the group chat and to the comfort of her family back home in New York, as her dad shared his wisdom with her: “You’re not gonna find people that are like you everywhere, you know. Not everyone is raised the same as you and not everyone has the same feelings who have towards certain things. But you can’t let those kinds of people dictate how you live your life.” In the following few weeks, Donna was increasingly conscious of her surroundings, clutching her pepper spray close to her chest as she walked around campus (especially at night) and even asking some of her male friends to walk her back to her room. While she was still wary of walking alone on campus, she felt less anxious about the girls who had questioned her in the group chat. Her father’s words were the armor that Donna dressed herself in everyday when she saw the girl who questioned the validity of her experience. These words were the sword that allowed her to cut through the thick brush of chaos into the light of accepting the support of other girls without feeling guilty for the ill sentiments that a few girls expressed. Because of how she was raised, Donna felt that she was well prepared to ignore the few girls who hadn’t sided with her and embrace the girls who surrounded her with support.
‘Girls supporting girls’ is a phrase that is sometimes used in online spaces surrounding the discussion of feminism and the need for female solidarity. But the true value in this unfaltering sisterhood comes into question after witnessing an experience like Donna’s. “There’s a tension on the one hand between women having a particular experience of gender bias/ gender discrimination and finding or creating solidarity around these experiences,” explained Casey Miller, an anthropologist at Muhlenberg. “On the other side, there’s the reality that women come from really different backgrounds, really different sets of experiences and perspectives, and they don’t necessarily share a similar, I don’t know, understanding of what it means to be a woman necessarily just by virtue of sharing this gender.” In other words, intersectionality, or the complex ways in which “the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups,” has a lot to do with how women view each other.
The fight for gender equality cannot happen without the fight for racial equality, and vice versa. This concept is explained by the concept of third world feminism. In their textbook on the psychology of women, Liss, Erchull, and Richmond write that this form of feminism, “should not focus on commonalities among women”; instead, it should address issues from multiple perspectives and not assume one unified position.” Kate Richmond, a psychologist and gender studies professor at Muhlenberg, asserts that female solidarity simply does not exist. She explains that the differences between the lived experiences of women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are too profound for women across all races and ethnic backgrounds to have a sort of blind support of one another. “I think the goal is to be able to, in particular moments, identify issues that all women could get behind,” says Richmond. “But if there’s anything that this election just showed us again, white women are more willing to align with white men than they are with women of color.” An early exit poll from the 2020 presidential election reported that 55% of white women voted for Donald Trump, a candidate who has had a long history of engaging in both racism and sexism.
These results may very well be indicative of how white women chose to side with white men in positions of power (Trump is already the president, as opposed to Biden who was just a presidential candidate) in order to elevate their positions in the patriarchy. “Anthropologists would say that you never have total free, sort of absolute, power to resist cultural norms and expectations and values,” explains Miller. “We’re always to some extent constrained and limited by our cultural beliefs and assumptions — the way we were raised, in other words. So it’s this constant dialectic tension between change and progress and resistance and also sort of limited or hamstrung by our own kind of cultural beliefs and assumptions and values.” These white women cannot possibly engage in a sisterhood with women of color if they are actively voting for a person who works against equality for women of color. This theme has appeared since the very beginning of the first wave of feminism, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked solely to gain suffrage for white women and outwardly advocated against suffrage for black women. A sisterhood between women is not a true sisterhood if it doesn’t include addressing the struggles that all women go through, not only for their gender identity, but also for their racial identity.
Donna grew up with and was raised by strong female role models and was taught about sexism from a young age, so she calls herself a feminist without hesitation. As Richmond articulates, women are more likely to call themselves feminists after they are made cognizant of women’s issues and sexism in our society, and women of color are more likely to be made cognizant of sexism in our society because their mothers are already talking to them about racism. Donna is white. The girls who questioned the validity of her experience are white. But many of the girls who supported and consoled Donna are women of color.
Rachelle Montillus, a first-year here at Muhlenberg, is one of these women who supported Donna in the group chat. Gently petting her little poodle mutt, Oreo, Rachelle explains that her mom never talked to her about feminism or addressed sexism in society with her because her mom grew up in an affluent family in the Philippines and was taught by both her mother and her nanny that women must work to become good wives and mothers. With a short pause and a sigh, Rachelle adds that her father, who grew up in Haiti, never talked to Rachelle about her blackness and what that means in the context of society because he was often busy working. Instead, Rachelle, like many people in Generation Z, was taught about racial and gender activism by the internet. She laughs while recounting how at age 13, she pretended to be 17 in Twitter communities of fans of shows such as The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl where older girls openly talked about the sexist undertones of these shows. These discussions are what introduced Rachelle to feminism. Heartfeltly, Rachelle adds that in a way, these women (who she still keeps in touch with) partially raised her.
Rachelle realized her need for intersectional feminism when she found that the basic feminism only addressed her identity as a woman, but ignored her identity as a woman of color. “As a woman of color,” Rachelle explains, “you have two umbrellas you put yourself under: you’re a woman and you’re a person of color. I don’t know which comes first, but there’s two. It’s like a double layered wall of armour. I have to protect myself because I’m a woman. I have to protect myself because I’m a person of color.” This duality between her gender and racial identities are in part what allowed her to empathize with what Donna experienced. “It’s a simple give and take,” Rachelle explained. “You understand things that could happen to you so you can support other women when these things actually happen to them.”
Bell Hooks, a Black feminist author and professor at Yale University, wrote about this issue in 1986 for the Feminist Review. “So far, feminist movement has not transformed woman to woman relationships,” writes Hooks, “especially between women who are strangers to one another or from different backgrounds, even though it as been the occasion for bonding between individuals and groups of women.” In an ideal world, women would simply work together to overcome hardships that they may face, but that cannot happen in our society as it is, as heavily embedded patriarchal themes in our society prevent women from doing so. “Lots of feminists scholars do believe that if women had time to develop their friendships with one another and could support one another and understand one another, instead of fighting for male attention, instead of crossing — ignoring — the divisions between women and honoring them, that those types of authentic relationships would overturn patriarchy,” explains Richmond. “That friendship — genuine friendship — could overturn patriarchy. But the amount of time and work and effort it takes to develop deep friendships among women do not work within a capitalistic, patriarchal society where women are doing most of the caregiving.”
But could online connections change this? Online spaces, including communities on social media, group forums, and group chats may provide a space for women to discuss issues of intersectional feminism and personal experiences that they may have struggled with. Donna used an online group chat in hopes of connecting with other women over a feminist issue, but because of her lived experiences and the way that she was raised, she assumed that everyone in this online community would share the same viewpoints as her. Although most of the women did, some women still didn’t, which is possibly why her reaction was so strong. The usage of an online space sanctioned for female peers demonstrated how Donna’s notion of women supporting women was not as universal as she believed. Although this was true in Donna’s case, online spaces have been useful in discussing sexism and the female experience for many other women. As Miller explains, women in China are using private online spaces to develop the #MeToo movement, despite strict online censorship laws. Rachelle is one of millions of other women who have used social media to discuss feminist issues with other women. Still, there is hesitation in judging how these online spaces can improve upon female relationships. “This is so super complicated. It’s about a particular time, with a particular group of women, in a particular type of way, rather than thinking of it as universal. Because there is no universal,” adds Richmond. “But I hope that in saying ‘there’s no universal’, that’s not saying that there is no hope for social change.”
Note from the author: In order to keep the identity of the student who was catcalled anonymous for her safety and comfort, her name was changed.
Photo courtesy of SweetLouise from Pixabay