10 October 2008

Feminism & Social Conservatism

In social outings with my MA group at UCL (London) 2 years ago, we would often discuss, while at a bar or restaurant, the latest societal trends and try to put them in some sort of historical perspective. One time, I pointed out some young ladies who were drunk to the point of incapacitation, and jokingly suggested that this was the culmination of feminism, and wouldn't the bra-burners be proud.

One of my female co-students missed my sarcasm and agreed, insisting that drunkenness was no longer solely the purview of male students--that female adventures in excess were just the latest example that they were breaking through some glass ceiling (while passed out on the floor).

If the future of feminism is debauchery, I think the women of today might want to re-think their movement.

Consider this article, from the Wall Street Journal, by Ashley Samelson, on the odd mixing of feminism and sororities in university and American culture.
A few weeks ago, I helped my 18-year-old sister move into her freshman dorm at Hillsdale College in Michigan. I was anxious for her -- I worried that the female culture at her school would be similar to that at my own alma mater, Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

As a reserved evangelical from Colorado Springs, Colo., I was shocked by a lot of things at Tufts when I entered in the fall of 2003. What shocked me more than anything, however, was the way women treated other women. I regularly heard young women refer to each other using the most obscene and degrading insults. I observed females encouraging others to binge drink and then berating those who couldn't hold their liquor. At breakfast on the weekends, I often overheard young women discussing their shame after feeling pressured by their girlfriends to participate in a degrading activity, such as a lingerie-themed or "secretaries and bosses" party. One year, a sorority actually commanded its pledges to strip to their underwear and allow fraternity brothers to mark the physical flaws on their bodies with permanent ink.

Contrary to the feminist narrative about men being responsible for the oppression of women, nearly every instance of female misery I encountered at Tufts seemed to be instigated initially by another woman. My junior year, a controversial joke about rape was published in the student humor journal while a woman was editor in chief.

Such a hostile environment is not unique to Tufts. The Delta Zeta women at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., last year asked unattractive and unpopular sisters to leave the sorority. In her memoir, "Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood" (2005), Koren Zailckas, a recent graduate of Syracuse University and a recovering alcoholic, sets a scene of young women at that upstate school not only encouraging one another to drink to the point of illness or blackout as a way to forge friendships but also competing with one another to be the most sexually adventurous.

Ms. Zailckas's bitter experiences and those of countless others should dispel the notion that binge drinking on college campuses -- which inarguably leaves women more vulnerable to sexual assault -- is spurred on solely by frat boys. Step onto just about any college campus on a Saturday night and you will see that women are just as much the culprits.

Ask Ariel Levy, a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and the author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" (2005). She details the emergence of what she terms the "nouvelle raunch feminist," a woman who gleefully participates in group sex and attends hook-up parties. Such degradation, Ms. Levy argues, is something that young women are learning in school and are forcing on one another. She writes: "If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves."

Meanwhile, college men are watching and taking notes. A male friend who attended the University of Michigan wrote to me in an email last month: "I, perhaps unconsciously, observe women to try and determine how they want to be treated. When I see girls at a party who seemingly have no self-control, I'll admit that it's really tough to visualize them as 'ladies.' It's as if they, solely through their own actions, have lowered my expectations, lowered my standards of behavior."

Upon arriving with my sister at Hillsdale, a school known for attracting conservative and religious students, I noticed a contrast immediately. I began chatting with a rising senior, and she and I quickly discovered an acquaintance in common. Referring to this woman, the Hillsdale student said: "She is such an amazing woman. I just have so much respect for her." I was speechless. I was simply not used to hearing college women speak about their peers with such esteem.

A walk around the Hillsdale freshman girls' dorm confirmed my suspicion that young women at the Michigan college had more respect for one another and lived in a happier and healthier environment than what I had experienced at Tufts. The posters on the walls in my all-female freshman dorm at Tufts offered information about eating disorders, what to do if you think you have been sexually assaulted, and suicide and depression hotlines. The Hillsdale walls that I saw were covered with advertisements for quilting clubs, charity opportunities and a listing of local churches.

My female friends who have gone to schools similar to Hillsdale fondly recall their campus culture. A friend who attended Wheaton College, an evangelical school just outside of Chicago, wrote to me that "there were times when my girlfriends and I banded together at the expense of guys. We knew that our real support came from one another." She still gets together with those friends for a support group in which they pray for one another and sustain each other through struggles.

At Patrick Henry College, a Purcellville, Va., school where traditional marriage and family roles are emphasized, the culture is similar. A graduate told me: "My wing of girls made a 'gossip pact' to refrain from slandering others and to encourage others to do the same. We're working hard to create a culture of honor that stands above the fray of cattiness and competition." The institutions of higher education that endorse the vision of "modern" feminism as the key to women's happiness -- namely, the sexually aggressive female -- could learn a lesson from these more conservative schools.

There are some who will say "girls will be girls," regardless of a school's culture. Two years ago, I might have agreed, however sadly. But college girls and the high-school students who will soon join them should know that there are alternatives.

(emphasis added)

Say what you will about conservatism's fight with feminism: This seems to be a pretty good defense of social conservatism and the good it does for women who attend more socially conservative colleges and universities.

If you have tips, questions, comments or suggestions, email me at lybberty@gmail.com.