Guest Post: Jillian Klean Zwilling on Feminism

Jillian Marie Klean Zwilling was recently interviewed by a high school student on the topic of feminism. Her answers impressed me so much that I decided to share the full interview here:

Why do you think there is so much backlash with feminism compared to other civil rights movements?

The backlash really has been happening from the beginning of the movement, going back to suffrage, and the reasons given for the backlash have changed substantially over time. I think we have very short cultural memories and think that the backlash is a new phenomenon, but it really isn’t. Alice Paul and Lucy Stone were jailed for working for suffrage. Many people just don’t know that history. This has been true for every single civil rights movement in this country, there has always been a backlash to change. Post slavery, many freed slaves faced horrific conditions and the struggle for voting rights for black men was very fraught. We are more familiar with the history of some groups than others, and those groups often faced significant hardship to make that history more visible to the general public.

In terms of the very recent backlash, I think it is a confluence of many issues. I think Susan Faludi’s work on the backlash does a nice job of pointing out that many people had a vested interest in keeping women out of the upper echelons of the workforce and keeping them from attaining financial freedom in ways they hadn’t before. Women who wanted to achieve top positions and get top quality educations were assigned negative stereotypes and some media outlets were quick to pick those up and perpetuate them.   Any time there is a change in the cultural norm, it takes time for the general population to adjust. But I think most people would agree that getting the vote, and working for women to have more equality in society has had overall positive outcomes. The feminist movement in some ways is a victim of its own success- many younger women look around and feel like equality has been achieved so there is no reason to join the movement, but with the wage gap and other issues of inequality that plague our society there is still more work to be done. Also, there has been a very erroneous message on the part of some younger women who feel that if they claim they are feminists that means they hate men or are working for women to have special privileges, but that is not a tenet of the movement- instead its an argument used to downplay the importance of the movement. On it’s face, feminism is about equality for everyone and that helps both men and women.

Where do you think misconceptions of feminism originate from?

I think a lot of the misconceptions come from the fact that there is no one “type” of feminist- instead feminism is invoked in many different ways by different people, not always with a clear understand of the history of the movement or the theory. Feminism has been painted as a big scary thing by those groups opposed to it, and that message seems to get picked up more often then the messages of actual feminists. There have also been active attempts by some more conservative groups to paint anyone who wants equal rights for women or people of color as extremists who want “special privileges” or to take over society with special interests. I have had conversations about feminism with many, many people and the interesting thing is how many different ideas have about feminism and what is stands for. There is so much controversy about what feminism means, when really it is a very simple idea: equality for all people.

What can feminists do or are currently doing to battle misconceptions of feminism?

I think it is very important for women and men to think about how sexism impacts them personally, and why they might have different expectations for the behavior of men and women. It is important to think about why we are so quick to accept less than full change in this country, as opposed to pushing for full equality. Every year the ERA has been presented to congress since the 1970s and it still has yet to pass. We still have a wage gap in this country, and we are in the very bottom half of the industrialized world when it comes to maternal/fetal health care. The same groups who are espousing “family values” messages are the same groups who opposed paid maternity leave or universal pre-school, why is that? Why are women still evaluated on their attractiveness as opposed to their ideas or contributions to society? Why do women continue to be actively objectified in our mainstream culture? I am very encouraged to see many young women taking up the mantle of equality and women who are in positions of power critiquing the systems they live in. I think women like Beyonce and Taylor Swift are starting some great conversations in feminist circles, and in the general public about how they view themselves and their industry. I am encouraged that men are continuing to publically identify with equality as well. Mark Ruffalo playing the Hulk and also standing for equality is such a great thing!

It seems the word feminism has a bad reputation. Do you think feminists should consider a different name?

Personally, I don’t think changing the name of the movement does much more then further fracture people’s understanding of the movement. Historically, there have been different groups who have claimed different sub-feminist group names (radical feminist, liberal feminists, eco-feminists), but just like any other living movement, there are disagreements between how the movement should proceed and what the important issues are and how to make changes. I don’t think the label is as important as the work that feminists do to ensure equality for everyone, regardless of sex, gender, race, creed, religion, etc.

Where do you see sexism in your day to day life?

I primarily work with college students, and I have to say that many of them are very cognizant of gender and race discrimination, but I still see issues on campus related to race, gender and sexuality discrimination. I still see a lot of pressure on young women to dress and act in particular ways, and the issue of sexual assault is one that affects women disproportionately.   Men do experience sexual assault as well, but historically women who experience sexual assaults are blamed for their assaults in cases of acquaintance rape. This leads to message that women need to stay indoors after dark, that women who drink are responsible for their assaults because they had a drink, that dressing in particular ways is responsible for sexual assaults. Messages like this are not usually aimed at men. That said, men who do experience sexual assault also face significant problems and their masculinity is questioned if they report. In some countries, the way that the laws are written there is no recognition that a man could be sexually assaulted at all. So in the case of sexual assault, victims of either sex face significant stigma and that is very problematic. Anyone who has been assaulted should be able to come forward without facing these types of issues.

There are also studies that show that women who teach are treated differently by students and colleagues than men who teach. People of color who teach are treated differently then white professors. We have inherent biases in behavior that mean we have different expectations for how to treat people and what behavior we expect from them. Women professors are more likely to be thought of as “shrews” when they are assertive, but that same behavior is encouraged in men. Women are not encouraged to negotiate when they are offered jobs but we always expect men to negotiate for more money. Women who do negotiate are often perceived more negatively and it can influence their job opportunities. The expectation that women teachers in general are supposed to be nurturing and maternal effects how women are treated in the classroom both as the teacher and the student. Women also tend to drop out of higher education when they have children and are more likely to be in contingent faculty positions as opposed to tenure track positions because of the biological realities of child bearing. This is bad for both men and women as they work to combat those stereotypes, but it does disproportionally affect women in terms of career and economics.

What form of sexism do you see the most?

I think that most women have experienced micro-aggressions at some point in their lives. Micro-aggressions are when sexism is veiled, so instead of overt sexism, when women are made to feel less than by comments or treated poorly, and then told to “lighten up!” or “it’s a just a joke!”. Micro aggressions are the reason women politicians are discussed in terms of their hair or wardrobe by the media, as opposed to their ideas. It is when a group of people have a meeting and everyone assumes the women will make cookies or coffee without a thought about asking if the men should bring the cookies. Or the expectation that women are supposed to clean or maintain the office kitchen or other roles that aren’t really part of their job descriptions, but are just expected. This is true in terms of many areas of a woman’s life- and often women are made to feel that if they protest these types of things they are being overly sensitive, because it’s not overt sexism, but it does have an impact.

I would say that men face sexism as well. Our culture tells men to suppress their emotions and to act in particular ways that are harmful for men as well. Sexism doesn’t just impact women, it also impacts men in negative ways. We continue in this culture to have a very rigid gender binary and that is harmful to anyone who doesn’t conform to the binary.

Do you think feminists can succeed in gaining equality if people do not understand what feminists are trying to accomplish?

Any time a movement is working toward something, there is always a need for awareness and advocacy. I think as people learn about the movement and what feminism actually stands for, it is hard to argue for continuing inequality for anyone. Again, I don’t think it is so much the label, as the work for equality.

What motivated you to go into academia and address issues of gender?

In terms of motivation, I was working on my M.A. degree in communication studies, and I started to notice that there were many examples of gendered representations in the media that I was examining for my thesis and that those representation were very interesting! I wasn’t planning to research gender specific topics, but it ended up emerging because I couldn’t talk about my work without including these important representations. I research medicine and women’s health, and so gender has to be a part of how I talk about my research, and I also think it has to be a way that we think about the world that we live in. Intersectionality (thinking about issues of race, gender, class and privilege and how they overlap) is very important in both my work and my life.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I think it would be great if more people were exposed to the history of the women’s movement in this country, and if people would do the research to learn about the movement as opposed to listening to the negative hype. If you want to disagree with something, take the time to learn about it. Be an educated dissenter!

Jillian Klean Zwilling is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and an instructor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois. Her research is centered in the medical humanities and rhetorical theory. She examines women’s health issues through the medium of advertising.

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