A few days ago, I caught an Uber to the University of Sydney. Hopping into the car, the driver politely smiled and asked, “Where to?” Without thought, I gave him the address of the engineering building, a highly accessible area on campus. He looked into the front mirror and boldly stated, “You’re an engineer!” I paused before correcting him. This was a completely foreign feeling to me. No one was ever proud, excited, interested, in my real degree. Not that I needed to be interesting or impressive. But when I was asked the agonizingly painful question, “What do you study?” it opened more than a can of worms. People thought they were asking one of the more mundane questions of life.
But my answer is always something far from mundane. I am a women’s studies major. And for some reason, the very mention of the words "women" and "study" in the same sentence sends people into a frenzy. My major polarizes people so much, I can’t escape the question without explaining that there is indeed enough substance for women to have their own area of study. My personal favorite correspondence goes as so: Older male asks, “What do you study?” As he stands there grinning, waiting for me to squeak, “nursing” or “communications," I firmly answer, “Women’s studies!” And then without fail, this “universal male” will say with a wink, “Oh, I studied women in college, too.”
And those answers are why I study what I study. In every space, I would take the onslaught of lesbian and "feminazi" jokes, until I stopped correcting their sexist jabs. Eventually, I stopped using the word women’s studies, and switched to gender studies, hoping it would soften some sort of liberal blow. Until I ignored the question all together, unless I could see a NOW pin stuck to their denim jacket. Until I finally lied to that Uber driver, and told him I was indeed an engineering student.
He smiled at me with such joy. “That’s just so great! My nephew is also an engineer! I’m so proud of his stability.” Would he be proud if his nephew was a women’s studies student? Or would he see it as an academic waste? I reclined in the passenger seat and let my passivity take over. I was tired. Tired of explaining how gender is created by society. Why we need more intersectionality, or what that even is. And why every goddamn thing is patriarchal and heteronormative.
In the strangest sense, I had compassion fatigue. For so long I had been such an ardent feminist, proud that I was part of one of the few women’s studies programs in the States. Recently, analyzing and correcting the workings of our world had proved too much for me. I had forgotten the original drive, the anger, that had pushed me to live and study as a feminist. I was reminded why women’s studies is not only important, but necessary, during a film screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.
She’s Beautiful When She's Angry discusses the first formations of the women’s lib movement in 1966-1971. The women — who were the catalysts for change — reflect on their inspiration and impact. What shocked me the most was the reminder that I was now the age of most of the female activists at the time. Passionate, young twenty-year-olds filled the screen. They halted Congressional hearings, provided abortions, picketed on the steps of the White House, and wrote manifestos, all for the sake of women’s rights.
In one poignant scene, journalist Ruth Rosen reflects on the protest in which the women of U.C. Berkeley burned their degrees. She says, “We began to realize that we knew nothing about ourselves. I was in the history department at Berkeley and I knew zip, nada, zero about women’s history.” Seeing the diplomas crackle and curl with fire resonated with me so strongly, I was almost brought to tears. Unlike these women, I did have access to women’s history. My education was based on these women’s sacrifices and lives, and here I was, burning my diploma in another way. My relative comforts in the twenty-first century had lulled me into a dangerous indifference.
Just like Ruth Rosen, I was angry. It boiled up inside of me throughout the film. Today, in 2016, we were still fighting for ALL of the same issues. The world we live in today is insidiously sexist. Patriarchal domination courses through every aspect of my life, relatively untouched from the year of 1971. And I was doing nothing to change that. I had become a bad feminist, a despicable women’s rights activist.
I was a 21-year-old woman who lacked the energy and the gusto to tell a male stranger the truth. I was consistently beaten down by the subtle judgments within society. My liberal extended family, my boyfriends, and fellow students in more “serious” subjects didn’t understand the fervor with which I believed in this way of life. I had lived a life of domination, and there was nothing more important than changing that. As a Caucasian, heterosexual, middle class woman, with some college education, my experience differs from other women’s interaction with the world. But this is how I came to find myself an angry feminist.
The first time I can ever remember feeling truly upset with my gender was my best friend Riley’s sixth birthday. A hoard of boys and I ran out to the grassy field, and teamed up for flag football. As I ran, and an older boy stopped me and said, “You can’t play! You’re a girl!” My body became stiff as a board, as he ran away laughing. I remember my father stood up for me like the true ally he was, and will always be. I learned that day that the patriarchy was shit, but I could still love the men who supported me.
I became a full fledged angry feminist when I began to experience the world as an autonomous woman. Spring semester of my freshman year, I was frequenting the basements of GW’s fraternities. It’s amazing how, when I and every other woman, descended the steps of the townhouses, we quickly became cattle. Ass to grab. Necks to kiss, and strangle. I was just a chunk of raw fleshy meat.
One drunken night, I went back to my shoebox of a freshman dorm with a fraternity brother. He pushed my clothes off aggressively, asking for more. Demanding for more! He called me a stupid tease, and other things. I finally whimpered no, no! He stammered and fell away, yelling as he slammed the door behind him. Sitting naked on the bed, verbally and emotionally assaulted, I felt like I was six again. That there was something so unfair about this situation.
The next morning, I told my friends about the previous night. One of them said, “He’s such a dick. You know how those frat brothers are.” But others said, “Well, you did go back to your room with him. You have been leading him on for months.” What! At the time I didn’t know that I was being slut shamed. I nodded my head and sat there. It wasn’t until a women’s studies class that I realized my treatment wasn’t singular. We expected women to take chauvinism from all sides, and be content with it. If I wanted to wear crop tops, and illegally drink, I should expect to be assaulted by a man who couldn’t help himself.
A few disillusioned weeks passed, until my professor Bonnie Morris gave a lecture on power dynamics. Sitting there, I had an epiphany that this was my life. Unlike any other area of academia, my body and lived experiences were bound up directly with what I studied. How could there be anything more important than learning about the lives of women of who have been historically erased and, ensuring that the patriarchy would no longer do so? She’s Beautiful When She's Angry reawakened all of my anger. I was earning a degree that was unavailable only a few decades ago. I was receiving a college education that my great-grandmother could never have imagined. I would no longer waste what I was privileged enough to learn.
I had the power to change how I carried myself in my daily interactions. I didn’t have to take it when someone put down my degree. I wouldn’t stand by and let myself or others be slut shamed. And I would never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Though this doesn’t solve the horrendous violence that is enacted against women every single day, it is something. Something I had forgotten the importance of. I would no longer shy away from what I studied. The next time someone asks, “What will you do with your studies?” I will respond, “change the fucking world.” I am angry. I am a woman. I am a feminist.
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Mo Johnson is a twenty-one-year-old women’s studies major at The George Washington University. Her writings on sex, relationships, and what it means to be a millennial woman can be found on her blog. Follow her on Instagram.