Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Office Hoes of Princeton

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Women had the right to vote for fifty years before Princeton admitted them. It was just sixteen years ago that the eating clubs became fully coed. Men still comprise 75 percent of USG officers and the eating club leadership contains a disproportionate number of Y chromosomes. And then there are the “CEOs and Office Hoes” parties, which, well, I think you can imagine.

These are facts which my Princeton tour guide didn’t think to include. Just about a year ago, I was embarking on a journey to the Shenandoah Mountains with my Outdoor Action group. On the bus, I engaged in only slightly stilted conversation with my seatmate, filled with excitement for my new world.

The bus broke down in West Virginia, and the conversation ran thin. My seatmate began to comment upon the film which was playing above our heads.

That bitch,” my classmate said, distinguishing one “bitch” from the many, “never takes her shirt off. She’s supposed to work at Hooters! What is that?” He glanced over at me, apparently expecting a similar opinion on the cinematic masterpiece which is Big Daddy.

I was offended, but said nothing. I was afraid of being pegged as “militant” and “obnoxious”, words which have dogged feminists since the movement’s inception. But after spending several days in the woods with my group, I confronted him about it. He laughed at me. “Loosen up,” he said. “I didn’t know you were such a feminist.”

I suffered a shock which the women who lead the feminist movement experience on a daily basis. During my summer internship with the National Organization for Women, I received dozens of emails a day from concerned members of the movement, chronicling erosions in the right to abortion and birth control, fair pay and medically accurate sex education.

“I thought women knew better than to listen to these people,” one of the public policy experts said during a meeting, referring to the surprising power of the American Life League, an organization which promulgates the scientifically dubious theory that the birth control pill is, in fact, an abortion.

So did I.

But, to most women, feminism is dead. And even the most dedicated of young feminists are subject to the legacy of confusion and shame which accompanied the feminist backlash. Throughout my internship, I was alarmed to discover my desire to remain aloof from the traditional feminist movement. I met a woman at a conference who told me that third-wave feminists had split away from their older “sisters” (a phrase which, when applied to fellow feminists, made me cringe, and then wonder why).

My confusion and much of my shame boil down to the simple fact that many feminists have begun to fear that they are unfeminine, unattractive, castrating lesbians. I am a feminist, but for me, equality is not a question of throwing away my makeup. Some women possess this capability, but others struggle to decide whether they are trying to be attractive for their boyfriends or themselves, and find that the answer is tangled in shame from both sides.

As a feminist, I feel that I am a failure for conforming to a beauty industry which exploits my insecurities, and responding to male expectations which have for centuries kept women prisoner. But because the desire for attractiveness is natural, I also castigate myself for rejecting parts of my femininity. There is a difference between wanting to be Miss America, and wanting to wear a little eyeliner or shave your legs.

We all need to think harder about these issues, because regardless of what, as the former eBay CEO, (Princeton’s own) Meg Whitman means in terms of female progress, the fact remains that she was briefly up for consideration as the vice president for John McCain, a candidate whose reproductive policies were described by pro-life women as “unrealistic,” “out of touch” and “stuck in the past.”

It is hard for me to accept that a woman who has broken so many glass ceilings could be the willing confederate of a man who is staunchly opposed to laws which dictate equal pay, or that millions of women will vote for him, despite the fact that he wants to legislate away their reproductive freedom. But I am beginning to realize that the women’s movement is so strongly individualized that it will require more than an equal rights amendment to change the way that women think.

For now, I am trying to reconsider my anger, because I have realized that the battle is as much in my own mind as in Congress or a frat house. But that doesn’t mean that I will stop struggling to help women understand that dressing up as an “Office Hoe” is as blatantly conforming to patriarchal desires as if they were scrubbing their boyfriend’s floor.

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