By Tess Flanagan || Contributing Writer
This past weekend, F&M sorority women attended a workshop on sisterhood. The presenter was in Greek life at college, got his PhD in education, and now conducts research on what makes a sorority or fraternity succeed. The presenter was well-educated, enthusiastic, and dedicated to the topic of sisterhood when presenting their research to F&M sororities. Seemingly everyone was ready to engage in this discussion. The feeling of the room changed, however, when the presenter started the workshop by saying, “Now tonight a man is going to tell you girls how to improve your sisterhood.” A few laughs were heard around the room, but I immediately felt that sense of an awkward familiarity—the familiarity of a man explaining a subject about women to women.
To preface, there is nothing wrong with a man engaging in women’s issues, as long as it is done in the right way, but there are certainly many ways it can go wrong. When it is not done well, nuances are lost, generalizations are made, and sexist comments are overlooked.
An overarching theme in his workshop was drinking. This is to be expected, as drinking is associated with college life, specifically Greek Life, and we have all had our fair share of college workshops focused on alcohol use. His main argument was simple: drinking and going out is a great way to bond with your sisters, but it should not be the only way. I can get behind this. His delivery, though, not so much. He started his argument with the “you don’t want to be the girl dancing on the frat tables with a 2.2 GPA.” Let’s unpack this, shall we?
First, he is using the sexist logic that in order to boost women up, you need to push others down. This is perpetual in society. We see it in everyday life, such as in “who wore it best” articles. The issue with this, of course, is that we are making women feel like they have to compare themselves to each other, that there is a wrong way to be a woman, and that there is a right way. This just creates more categories and stereotypes and goes on and on into an endless cycle. This critique is unnecessary and demeaning. He uses this strategy in other topics as well. He praised us when we told him we don’t have recruitment videos because he says “those girls are so superficial and annoying in the videos.” Critiquing women is an unnecessary strategy because all the information we are given is “don’t be like.” This leaves us with very little guidance—leaves us insecure and confused. Instead, he should have simply offered an alternative sisterhood event or praised another sorority for their creativity with sober events. He did praise one person though, his fraternity brother.
Secondly, this comment about the “girl dancing on the frat table” has some undermining generalizations. Specifically if you are drunk, a girl, and dancing on a table at a fraternity, you have a low GPA and, thus, are considered unintelligent. This generalization typically comes from the idea that for a woman to be “wild,” she must be lacking in more reputable characteristics. This makes women insecure, thinking they have to be “ladylike” and “proper” at all times, even at a sticky, sweaty, noisy fraternity party. But guess what, it’s okay to be a “wild” woman. The woman dancing on the table is as likely to have a high GPA as she is to have a low GPA. The only thing I can accurately assume about that woman is that she is having a good time.
His talk continued to focus heavily on drinking, critiquing women, and making generalizations. The only pictures he provided were only of white women that resembled “western standards of beauty.” There was no mention of diversity. This again generalizes women and sorority women. Women make up different races, sexualities, religions, and identities. Our experiences are different, our beliefs vary, our preferences contrast. We are similar in that we are women, but we should not be treated as all the same, and we should not assume that one type of woman represents the whole. I can guarantee his workshop would have been much more interesting, richer, and fuller if he included an intersectional narrative.
Should we also mention the fact that he referred to a room full of 18 and older women as “girls”? Yeah, that is surely the way to capture our respect. He also mentioned how sororities started as feminist but are not that way anymore. There were many comments—comments that were sexist microaggressions. Microaggressions are comments or actions that happen in day-to-day life that have a derogatory or demeaning reference to a marginalized group of people. Since they are so pervasive in our regular interactions, it is not always easy to notice. It is especially hard to notice when you are not in the marginalized group. Calling a woman a girl is a microaggression, for example.
These comments and generalizations about women can be said by anyone, but are most often said by men. This is simply because a man does not have the perspective of a woman. When you are a woman, you are more likely to recognize the sexist comments made against you because they are directly affecting to you. So when a man dedicates two hours to talking about women, to women, it is pretty likely that he is going to make a few errors.
If men want to be a productive part of a conversation about women’s issue, they should ask us questions. They should credit the women they work with. Most of all, they should listen to our perspectives and explanations, so that they can open the conversation to women of different narratives. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case this time. Hopefully next time we can do better.
Senior Tess Flanagan is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.