I’m sitting in the hot tub under palm trees and sunshine, thoroughly enjoying a moment of silence and some much needed vitamin D. The silence is interrupted by a loud male voice, slurring from a few too many beers. Sitting across the hot tub this guy begins a conversation, clearly one that is unwanted. He is a medical student at UCLA and wants everyone within a 25 feet radius to know just how successful he is. He asks me what I study while staring at my boobs and I tell him Women’s Studies and Psychology. He laughs loudly and replies, “so like what… you’re going to be a psychologist for women or something?”
While all graduating seniors are faced with an endless array of questions about their future, students majoring in Women’s Studies seem to be faced with a particularly intense amount of scrutiny about the future of their careers and educational decisions. Many will ask, “well, what are you going to do with that?” a question loaded with judgment and doubt. In the hot tub that day, a complete stranger put my education into a box and tried to contain it, while patronizing and objectifying me at the same time.
When asked what I will do with my Women’s Studies degree, I feel that I have to prove my education worthy and important, something biology or economics students usually don’t have to do. The thing with a Women’s Studies degree is that it can be applied to so many different fields. Systems of oppression founded on race relations, gendered politics, and economic disparity are relevant to every field of work whether it be healthcare, wine making, or even dog walking. Feminism has the power to transform fields of work. For example, a feminist health care system would provide federal funding for abortion care. A feminist wine maker would fight for immigrant rights considering the prevalence of migrant workers employed at wine vineyards. When I think of living a feminist life, I picture connecting across lines of social difference, supporting those who are not supported by existing social systems, and critiquing, but never forgetting to create and imagine transformed futures. These practices can be done in many different fields of work.
This question of what you will do with your degree organizes the people participating in the conversation into separate and distinct roles. The Women’s Studies major must take on the explaining role, justifying the importance of their work and expected to have a detailed career plan. Rather than reading a book or doing some of their own research, the questioner continues to force those who study gender, race, and class to explain why their education is worthy and how it will result in a “successful” career. What’s ironic is that the conversation this question prompts actually demonstrates the power relationships at play that Women’s Studies works to deconstruct. In this conversation, we are also forced to convert our feminism into economic terms. In order to be worthy, our feminism must make us money. When people ask, “what are you going to do with that?” what they really mean is how will you make money? Economic pursuits do not drive my passion for Women’s Studies. So, translating my feminism into dollars isn’t a natural or easy task. That is not to say that you can’t be a feminist and make a lot of money. In fact, feminist economists have been fighting to transform the economy for years and feminist engineers continue to disrupt a male dominated field, bringing new and innovative ideas with them. Living a feminist life may mean restructuring your life, imagination, and values in ways that differ from mainstream culture. We shouldn’t have to justify our education in the first place, but why must we justify our educational decisions on other people’s terms rather than our own?
There is a visceral reaction in having to justify your educational decisions and interests. In the hot tub that day, I felt my face redden and a twinge of anxiety grow inside of me. I felt an overwhelming pressure to prove my knowledge worthy to a complete asshole. The questioner can often sense this anxiety; it proves their doubt and feeds their ego. How do we, women’s studies majors alike, disrupt the power operating when our educational decisions and passions are questioned, doubted, and delegitimized? It may be effective to first transfer the duty of explaining to the questioner. Instead of having to explain and prove our education and passions worthy, ask them why they think Women’s Studies is important and what career paths they think are applicable to this field of study. By answering them with a question, you have successfully troubled the power operating between the questioner and the explainer. By asking them for their thoughts on Women’s Studies you evoke a response that requires self-reflection and critical thinking. This will hopefully create a conversation that is more collaborative, one where both parties are made to imagine what it truly means to live a feminist life. It is my hope that a collaborative conversation will generate greater creativity and acceptance rather than judgment. Here, both people are made to actually communicate and think together. Within a more collaborative conversation, I would hope that my feminism is seen as a legitimate form of knowledge. I would hope that my interests in creating feminist art, pursuing a career in reproductive justice, and finding meaning and support through feminist friendships are seen and validated as ways in which I live out my feminism.
Crispin, Jessa. Why I am not a feminist: a feminist manifesto. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2017. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a feminist life. Durham: Duke U Press, 2017. Print.
S.K. “The thinking behind feminist economics.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 04 May 2017.