Want to change the world? Start with gender equality

Women's studies is a valuable way for students to learn about social justice in a world where gender equality should be the first step to solving several issues.

Patriarchy. Intersectionality. Systematic oppression. Not one of these terms was in my vocabulary two years ago. Now I can not only define them, but identify examples of them in daily life.

I do not hesitate to condemn sexist jokes; jokes I may have once uncomfortably smiled at. I cannot turn my head at poorly appropriated gender or cultural representations in movies; movies I may have once loved. This is the reality of being a feminist in 2016. 

Thanks to various pop culture phenomena (nod to BeyonceEmma Watson, etc.), I would hope that by now the definition of feminism is clear: equality for all, not just women. I could get into debunking the myths of feminism, but that's a topic for a different discussion.

For now, I want to tell you why feminism, and all the frustrating and challenging issues that come with identifying as a feminist, is enriching and good for society as a whole. Even if your feminism only makes a difference in your small community, personal life or to the people around you—it matters.

First of all, learning about gender inequality — and all the other forms of inequality that are a complex mix of not only gender but race, class, sexual orientation or religion, as defined by intersectional feminism — is essential to correcting various problems in society. 

Alicia Woodbury, ASU Women and Gender Studies department professor currently teaching an online class on food justice called "Fast Food Nation," said that understanding differences between people due to their unique identities is important in many different industries and arenas of life. 

“We are living in an increasingly diverse society,” Woodbury said. “We know that just from the current political race, the presidential race, there’s endless commentary on who people are.”

In the workplace, a specific awareness of differences in background can be beneficial.

“It gives you the chance to think about: Why am I having these experiences? Why am I seeing these sorts of things with my clients? What’s going on?” Woodbury said. “You can think about it at the bigger level. It’s not just one client who’s experiencing that, it’s a pattern.”

In addition, feminist environments in general aim to be considerate of different identities and treat everyone with respect. Such places can enhance relationships between people and eliminate any discrimination or discomfort some may feel.

“The fact that all of us are coming from a different part of society, we value that,” Woodbury said. “Feminist ideas of the world and social justice and how we relate to one another can lead certain professors to bring that into the classroom in different ways.”

College students can start learning about inequality through women’s studies classes, which are easily accessible even if you are not pursuing a major or a minor in the subject.

“As ASU online becomes larger and larger, it’s easier to take one online class,” Woodbury said. “Take it during the summer, add it to the first or second half or your regular semester. So anyone who just has a passive interest in gender issues or sexuality issues, a lot of our core classes are online now, and oftentimes they’re taught by multiple different instructors so you get a lot of different kinds of perspectives on the readings and the topics.” 

ASU also offers other courses related to social justice through the School of Social Transformation, such as African American and Asian Pacific American studies.

Taking classes on these topics can be a great stepping stone to a better understanding of social inequality and beginning to create positive connotations of feminism.

“Helping people understand that feminism benefits people of all genders, and beyond gender, that it connects with all sorts of other identities and social statuses, is one way to help break down that negative stereotype of feminism,” Woodbury said.

College is the perfect time to start learning about feminism and social justice because you have the ability to pick your schedule, and easily add a single class.

Additionally, it may be the first time in their lives that students become aware of these issues because not many high schools offer women’s studies courses, Woodbury said. Thankfully, some educators are working to change this reality. According to the Women’s Media Center, there are a few dozen high schools across the country that now offer women’s studies courses, although the exact number is not known.

By introducing these courses to younger students, maybe more adolescents will recognize it is important for all people to educate themselves on these issues, not just women.

“Sometimes I think men fear that they’re gonna feel alienated in a women’s studies course,” Woodbury said. “So in terms of looking what electives they might pick up, they’re reluctant to perhaps take a women’s studies course. I’ve always found the men in my class to oftentimes be pleasantly surprised. It’s different than what they thought it was going to be.”

Students interested in feminism can take an even further step by supplementing their education with activism. There are plenty of student organizations centered on social justice and gender equality, such as Woman as Hero, and national organizations for women in specific communities, such as the Society of Women Engineers.

Getting involved with and educating yourself on feminism and other social issues may have its challenges and quirks. Anytime feminism is mentioned in class, my classmates often swivel their heads toward me, knowing that I will likely have something to say. Even in my personal life, I catch myself sarcastically beginning my sentences with “I just think it’s interesting that …” before pointing out a lack of diversity or a poor representation of women.

I would like to think my awareness of gender differences has made me more respectful of the identifies of others, helped me treat people of all genders more similarly and made me less likely to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. Learning about complex power structures helps me appreciate the privileges I have as a white woman in the Western world, and it makes me want to learn more about the conditions of other women who may not be as fortunate as I am.

No brand of feminism is perfect, and social justice is a continual struggle, not a destination. Making yourself aware of gender issues and various forms of inequality can be the first step to a more harmonious relationship with the global world and a better community.

I think that is something we should all strive for.

Reach the reporter at lallnatt@asu.edu or follow @LibbyAllnattASU

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