This is what a feminist looks like

Steff is a rising Senior working at Legal Momentum with the National Judicial Education Program.

“She’s really strange. She’s really loud and opinionated, and messy, and I’m pretty sure she has some sort of weird lesbian infatuation with me! Hah I can’t explain it… It’s weird.” My friend was half laughing, half sketched out as she was telling the story of her roommate this past semester at school. We were in our usual hangout place, in her basement,  lounging on the cozy L shaped couch with a few others. Many a significant occurrence had happened on this couch, from first kisses to first alcohol-induced slumbers, from existential conversations to typical girls’ night bitchfests. Tonight was no exception, as it was the last weekend before I was to depart for my summer in the city and therefore one of the last times I’d be able to attend one of these ritualistic basement rendezvous. In typical fashion, we were having a great time doing really nothing at all.

After struggling with her words for a little bit while describing “weird” aforementioned roommate, another girl offered up what she at the time probably thought was the perfect categorization. “Oh… is she like…a feminist?”

The girls around me laughed, and the conversation continued smoothly.  I looked around in disbelief but said nothing, tuning the rest of them out as I took a second to ponder the weight of my friend’s words. Despite the fact that my silence had probably signaled approval to the rest of the girls, I was definitely confused. Why is labeling oneself as a feminist a bad thing, even amongst other females?

Actress Ellen Page said recently “you know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word ‘feminist’ has a weird connotation.” A connotation that we hate men, for example. Or a connotation that we demand certain privileges because of our gender. Around my the friends who I grew up with, and even some of those I go to school with now, feminists are seen as extremists, making things complicated for what they like to see as “the natural world order.”

For these reasons, I absolutely consider myself a feminist, but usually only refer to myself as such around like-minded individuals who understand that the term has nothing to do with hatred and everything to do with equality. Am I proud of this fact? Certainly not. But am I afraid of situations becoming hostile just because I promote basic human rights? Definitely. People would argue with me that I should be educating my peers instead of staying silent, but it’s more complicated than that. Ignorance is a choice. I can be disappointed with people because of the choices they make, but they themselves must possess the will to change—something I’m not sure I am able to instill in them.

Labels can be dangerous, especially for those not born at the top of the privilege totem pole. People are immediately stereotyped based on their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. Even after telling my friends about my internship for a women’s legal advocacy foundation this summer, I was met with plenty of questions regarding “my status as a feminist.” When asked point blank, I have no problem admitting it. But I hate the appropriation of the term “admitting” in this situation because I feel as though I’m likening being a feminist to having a dirty secret. But that’s just what I do—I admit my feminist status as opposed to take ownership of my feminist status.

As time goes on, however, I find myself talking the necessary steps towards becoming more involved in the feminist movement of my generation. I have a sticker on my laptop that says “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”—something I probably would have been hesitant to do as recently as a year ago. I enjoy telling people that I want to go into gender equity law because it shows of my ambition as a smart and capable young woman. I am proud to be a part of the Duke Engage Moxie project because my program peers are involved in all different types of things on campus—but we can unite together here with our shared interest in equal opportunities for all.

Through this program, I’m confident I’ll make the change from “admittedly feminist” to “proactively feminist”—because I possess that will to change.

New York

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crises.

I walk fairly fast. Not like speed walking, but brisk with long strides. You can tell I have someplace to be, a destination that is pulling at me. Except that destination is an illusion that I have made up in my mind. I don’t actually have to be anywhere at any time if I don’t want to be.

And yet, I continue to walk. Past the stores filled with golden hues and ruby tiles, past the cafes filled with laughter and sometimes cigarettes, past the big red sale sign, past the Washington Square Park with the two saxophonists, past the Washington Square Arch with the street dancers and music coming from what seems to be a virginal. I walk past all these things, wishing I had stopped a few steps too late. I’m already past the scene, and can’t bring myself to retrace my steps.

I’m so self-conscious. I’m so fuckin’ aware of how I feel.

There are two aspects of New York that make me feel uncomfortable. Firstly, I hate entering and exiting poor and rich neighborhoods one after another. I hate how you can almost smell how rich someone is here. You wonder if the sales person is judging how much you can afford as soon as you enter a store. I look into huge glass buildings and at the people running on treadmills and wonder what their lives must be like—to possess a gym membership worth a thousand dollars. They are mostly white with even whiter teeth.

And then there are the tourists with their fanny packs and overlapping rolls of fat, the tough guys who lean against store fronts and alleyways smoking a few, the cashier at the corner store who speaks with a Korean accent. And there’s me.

How mercilessly might others shove me in a box as I have everyone else? But I can’t help it. It’s glaring at me—these stock images of the American life and dream that I hate. Who am I? This person who lives on the upper east side of Manhatten, in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother?

There are nuances to everything I see, but it’s just too tempting to ignore all of them here. It’s borderline fascinating and sadistic.

The second issue has to do with my insane desire to be different from everyone else around me. It’s insane because I’m the type of person who marvels at how similar people actually are.

My point is, I hate feeling like an anonymous face in a crowd. I feel like New York defines the people who live there and not the other way around. Granted, it probably feels like that because I’m new here, and I’m trying to make this place feel like home. But the idea of New York keeps poking my ego.

Like when I go to the Museum of Natural History and the guard asks me where I’m from and tosses me a curious look when I say Manhattan. Did he mean to ask me what my ethnicity was?

Or when I say Manhattan and an acquaintance asks for more specifics. I give her the street and avenue as I hope to dear God that she doesn’t know the place. “Oh, there! My grandparents live near there. I love that area of town.” It’s unnerving when so many people know so much about your neighborhood.

I like the feeling of knowing something no one else knows, being somewhere no one else knows, doing things no one else knows. Maybe it’s an inferiority complex.

Summertime and the livin’s…Busy

Sarah is a rising sophomore interning at the Sadie Nash Leadership
Project in Brooklyn, NY. SNLP strives to empower young women to become active leaders and proponents of change in their communities.

Surely that’s what Gershwin would have written if he had placed Porgy and Bessie at the heart of Greenwich Village. At least, that’s what I think to myself as I hum the tune while standing in line at the Whole Foods on Union Square. It’s 10:30 PM on a Sunday, and it’s packed. So is Walgreens, and the Food Emporium around the corner. Each store is so fiercely illuminated the light spills out onto the sidewalks and seeps through the park, where it mingles with the bright glow of stores down Broadway and along 5th Ave. Squinting my eyes against the piercing glare of a Duane Read, I head back to my dorm and think: who needs street lamps when this around-the-clock frenzy of grocery shopping makes it practically daylight?

It seems this city truly is rarely asleep. This is demonstrated to me again as I hit the sidewalk 6:30 Monday morning, expecting to be one of the few miserable, sleepy souls on the prowl only to realize that every store is already open and has apparently been for quite some time (the smells of the bakery on 14th continue to follow me down the street). If I found this surprising, what was more so was the number of New Yorkers out jogging, walking their dogs, looking generally awake and alert and on their way to do something important. Which is basically how all New Yorkers look, all the time. Having grown up across the way in Connecticut, I, too, am in the habit of walking fast and looking slightly harried while doing so. We all have places to go. Lately, however, it feels like life might be at a faster pace than what I was ready for.

In the past 24 hours I have moved my life into an NYU dorm, gotten hopelessly lost in Manhattan for two hours on a walking tour gone awry, and found my way to Brooklyn (after taking the G train in the wrong direction, of course). I’ve met up with the incredible student cohort of the Moxie Project, which will be my sounding board and grounding force these next two months. And I’ve started my internship with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, an outstanding organization dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged young women from all over the city. (The office at SNLP has blue floors, in case you were wondering. Very trendy.) I’m excited for the next few weeks to unfold, to settle into a routine – this includes efficiently navigating the Subway – and to learn from and work with my supervisors. It can be a lot to adjust to and process at once. Life in the Big Apple is always moving. For now, I’m trying to soak in as much of my surroundings as possible: the buildings, the restaurants, the people. Moxie and SNLP provide a wealth of incredible resources right at my fingertips. The challenge of the next two months will be to take full advantage of what they, and this pulsating, vibrating city, have to offer.

All I Knew

Stephanie is a rising Senior and is interning in Brooklyn, New York at Ms. Foundation for Women, which delivers strategic grants, capacity building, and leadership development to 150 grassroots organizations around the country.

I knew that Ms. Foundation for Women is a leading social justice foundation and delivers strategic grants and leadership development to 150 grassroots and national advocacy organizations throughout the country. I knew that the dress code was “business casual”. I knew I would be joining the communications team. But that was all I knew.

I had no idea what to expect as I rode up the elevator to the top of the Metrotech Center. My ears popped. I was on the 26th floor. I smoothed out the wrinkles in my skirt, and tried to look as professional as possible. I was surprised when I approached the large, glass doors and my visions of a traditional corporate office vanished. I should’ve known, Ms. Foundation is hardly traditional in its programmatic area’s, why should the office follow traditional patterns either. Much of the building was glass, even office doors were clear, open, and inviting. The view was spectacular; the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Hudson River, all available in a panoramic sweep of the windows.

As I was introduced to each member of the staff, I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity within the office. Then, when I was assigned my first project, I began to realize just what I had gotten myself into. My task, both personally and professionally, is to realize the issues of Women and Economy, Women and Violence, and Women and Health while taking into account disparities and differences across race, class, immigration status, and region. It is both a daunting and exciting task.

My history and interest in Women’s issues is brief, and I am slowly realizing, limited and naive as well. My focus before was solely on women. Never before had I truly understood the implications of these other elements, and as I began my research and the statistics became thesis, I started to see just how sheltered and narrow my life in Durham is. I had always prided myself on being both adaptable and comfortable when greeted by diversity. My family had moved my Junior year in high school from rural, “white bubble”, middle of no where Maryland, to the multi-cultured melting pot of Durham and Duke University. But how much had I really taken advantage of my new surroundings? At school and home, I have built myself a network of likeminded individuals, who share similar experiences, passions, and problems. I am beginning to see how unaware I had been, and I realized I knew even less than I had previously thought.

Out of the Gates

And they’re off!

Having been through a rigorous application process, nine new “Moxies” met together with us three times during the spring semester. We discussed their internship options, talked about their hopes and fears for the summer, addressed their questions about living in New York City, and engaged in various activities to get to know each other.

Each student sent letters to two internship sites, and based on their own preferences and those of the internship directors, we assigned each one to one of the sites. They have since communicated with their supervisors, finding out more about their assignments, asking about work schedules, office culture, and dress codes.

In the final session of the semester, students practiced their oral interviewing skills on each other, recording their conversations about what they learned about gender–what it meant to be a boy or a girl–growing up. They reported loving the experience, and wanted to do more of it. They will each get the chance to interview at least one member of their host organization in depth this summer about their personal and work histories. And of course we hope that they will continue to talk with each other about these issues, even when the recorders aren’t running!

This week we all spent two entire days in the DukeEngage Academy, attending a variety of workshops on including cross-cultural communication, relating service learning to professional development, power and privilege, social entrepreneurship, and travelling as a woman. At breakfast and lunch each day we met and “checked in” about what they were learning and continued talking about our own expectations and goals for the summer. At our last meeting we took out a big map of New York city and found the airport, their NYU dorm, their internship sites, and our apartments. We all exchanged cell phone numbers, and made arrangements for meeting at the airport. Finally, they each wrote a letter to themself about their own hopes and expectations, goals and aspirations for the summer. We collected them, and will hand them back when they return to campus in the fall.

We said goodbye, and are looking forward to seeing them all in New York City!

–Rachel Seidman