Not as Equal As We'd Like to Believe
Editor's Note: This post was authored by the members of Yale Law Women's Board Fran Faircloth, Casey Hinkle, Ruth Anne French-Hodson, Josephine Lau, Mridula Raman, Alice Shih, Julie Qian Wang, and Carly Zubrzycki.
On October 13, 2010, the young initiates of Yale College’ s Delta Kappa Epsilon gathered on campus to chant such lines as “No means yes! Yes means anal!” as part of a pledge ritual. These actions, compounded by a delayed response from Yale University and a Yale Daily News editorial entitled “The Right Kind of Feminism,” sparked a campus controversy. Their impact, however, extends well beyond Yale University. The belief that it is harmless to use words that demean women affects us all in powerful ways. The recent events at Yale bring into sharp relief some of the issues, both subtle and overt, that still face women today.
Contrary to claims made on campus over the past few weeks, the struggle for gender parity has not been won. The prevalence of sexual violence—particularly on college campuses and, yes, particularly in fraternities—is an important example of the challenges that women continue to confront, both in universities and beyond. In light of this reality, the chants of the Yale College DKE brothers were not only crude and offensive, but also hurtful and downright dangerous. Yale University can and should continue to take constructive steps in response.
But this uproar is about more than just one fraternity and its accountability. A culture that, however tacitly, conflates masculinity with “ boisterous” displays of sexual aggressiveness and female objectification affects women in very real ways, regardless of whether those women are ever victims of assault. Behavior like this, whether motivated by fundamentally chauvinistic or benign intentions, undermines the ability of women to feel at ease in their own communities. Its aggregate effect is real and threatening. Perhaps we—the women on campus—feel forced to ask (male) friends to walk us home from evening events. We may feel compelled to avoid unwanted attention by averting our eyes, to edit our clothing choices, to worry about meeting behind closed doors with male professors and supervisors. To dismiss the DKE chants with a cavalier “ boys will be boys” attitude ignores the insidious effects of such behavior.
Moreover, such a response obscures the vital point that gender equality has not been achieved beyond the gates of Yale. Representative statistics abound. For example, even when controlling for variables such as race, marital status, age, job, and job seniority, the average woman earns about 80 cents for every dollar made by a man. Only 17% of Congressional representatives are women, even though females compose 51% of the population. Only 15 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. These disparities do not simply materialize, unbidden, once we enter the “real world.” They have roots in the attitudes and social dynamics that we as a society experience, learn, and actively cultivate. The college years are profoundly formative in this regard: They can either challenge or perpetuate these attitudes.
We would never profess to know the “ right kind of feminism.” Indeed, the Yale Law Women board and membership are composed of women who disagree on many issues raised by the events on campus. However, there are some things on which we can agree. Sexism need not take the form of conscious misogyny to be real or to cause true damage. Thoughtless conformism, active disrespect of our classmates and peers, and snide derision of those who try to react constructively have no place on this or any campus.
We have not come as far in terms of equality as we would like to believe. The recent events at Yale have provided all of us with an opportunity to reflect on the kind of community we want to build and the leaders we want to be. In the end, much of this comes down to a question of individual integrity: Is our behavior consistent with the kind of gender-equal world in which we want to live? When each of us can answer “ yes” to this question, perhaps then the struggle for gender parity will in fact have been won.