Forward! Exploring Contradictions

By Kris DeWelde

My phone buzzes with an alert as I drink my morning coffee: another sexual harassment scandal involving a prominent journalist; he denies the multiple allegations. On my way to work I hear a story about record numbers of progressive women running for political office in this year’s midterm elections; many are expected to win. A student drops by my office unexpectedly to tell me about her and her friend’s “scary” run-in with the police over the weekend (she is black, so is he). A student from years ago sends me an email to tell me that she successfully negotiated a considerable pay raise in her job; she thanks me for hosting salary negotiation workshops. I get a phone call from a colleague about a new study documenting the relentless and terrifying online bullying women academics are experiencing if they speak out on injustice; she is one of them.

We are living in a time of extraordinary contradictions. Women* are making progress, but the progress is unequal and uneven. And alongside this progress are considerable challenges.

In the field of Women’s and Gender Studies, where I am fortunate to have carved out a rewarding career, we grapple with these kinds of issues, in all of their glorious complexities.

While Women’s and Gender Studies academic programs and courses do not solely focus on women – men/masculinity, sexuality, and trans-focused courses are common – it is one space where you can be sure that women’s roles and experiences are central in the exploration of history, the economy, war, politics, health care, religion and many more areas.

These cross-disciplinary academic programs centralize the study of gender, which includes a multiplicity of categories, including women. They explore relationships between gender and race, sexuality, social class, religion, physical ability, nationality and so on.

Student-scholars of gender – in addition to developing skills in highest demand from employers – bring unique abilities to see things from multiple perspectives, complex understanding of problems, and positive impacts to their workplaces and communities. They cultivate an openness to learning, to embracing differences and to engaging as change agents for equity and justice.

And we need change. Many of our most serious challenges are caused by or are consequences of injustice – climate change, enduring poverty, rampant violence, racial injustice, immigration, housing discrimination, lack of universal access to quality education and health care. None of these will be eradicated without centering women and girls.

There is no national or transnational problem we can conjure that does not have deep (or deeper) implications for women and girls. Decades of research show that when gender equity is in clear view of any problem-solving initiative, other related challenges become more manageable. For example, when women experience economic independence, families, communities, often entire economies, benefit from their gain.

This work, this focus, this way of looking at the world is “feminist.” It is a feminism that is inclusive, a feminism that interrupts injustice and inequality, a feminism that benefits everyone. It is the kind of feminism that I practice as a Hispanic woman, first in my family to go to college, whose mother carved a career out of thin air (twice) and whose father died from the homophobia that raged during the 1990s AIDS crisis. It’s also the feminism I practice as a white-skinned, heterosexual, educated woman pushing 50 (my gray hair affords me some respect). Oh, those contradictions!

Whether the label “feminist” is claimed or not, I see feminism everywhere. I see feminism when women believe other women’s accounts of harassment or assault, without questions that place responsibility on her. I see feminism when men challenge other men who make homophobic comments. I see feminism when those of us who benefit from the exploitation of others because of race, physical ability, citizen status, etc. fight alongside them for justice and fairness and dignity.

As a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, I see feminism in how many students invest their time and where they seek employment.

One of our students helped pen the resolution approved by the city of Charleston this February, signing us on to the United Nations’ Cities for CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Girls.

A recent graduate of the Women’s and Gender Studies program was hired by our local People Against Rape to provide bilingual support and resources to our highly marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking communities.

And increasingly, young people are less reluctant to say, “Yes, I’m a feminist.”

In fact, at the College of Charleston we celebrate feminists and feminism every year with the annual (aptly titled) Yes! I’m a Feminist event. And you – yes you! – are invited to our party (see Skirt’s event calendar for details).

This year’s celebration kicks off the Year of Women at the College of Charleston (2018-2019), which commemorates 100 years since the admission of white women to the college in 1918. The college was founded in 1770. You are right to notice the sizable gap there. You might also want to know that black women and men were not admitted until 1967, another significant gap.

The Women’s and Gender Studies program at the college will explore these milestones, and other current topics, complete with their contradictions and complexities. Why are women still paid less for the same work as men even though we’ve closed the education and skills gap (and why are Latina and black women paid even less than white women)? While #MeToo has shaken multiple industries to their core with women reporting harassment and assault, why do only 20 percent of college-age victims of sexual violence report to the police? Why do we continue to criticize women political candidates on their fashion and family choices? What do we do when the celebrations of successes for “women” are primarily about celebrating white women?

We will celebrate (because feminists are not killjoys), but we will also discuss. I welcome you, Skirt readers, into this vibrant conversation that promises to both meet you where you are and challenge you to experience the delightful discomfort of personal growth.

I invite you to visit this column again in upcoming issues of the magazine. This will be a site where we will explore questions I’ve mentioned, and many more, from diverse perspectives within the study and lived experience of women and gender.

We’ll explore some of the contradictions inherent in today’s world and contemplate forward-thinking solutions – because forward is the only option. As my mother says to me nearly every day whether I stumble or succeed, “Forward, mi hija [my daughter]. Forward!”

(Women* = any and all feminine-identified people)

Kris De Welde, Ph.D., is the director of Women’s and Gender Studies and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology at the College of Charleston. She specializes in the study of intersectional inequalities and feminist leadership in higher education, reproductive justice and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. De Welde was awarded the 2016-2017 Sociologists for Women in Society Feminist Activism Award for her sustained commitments to social justice within and beyond the academy. As a recent transplant from Florida, she is happily making her way through the Charleston food scene. She also enjoys cycling, yoga, the beer her husband makes and her ridiculous cats.

De Welde’s views are her own and not necessarily representative of the College of Charleston or the WGS program.