PART THREE: Redefining the F-word

by Christina Turner

Unlike Caroline, I don’t think I would have declared myself a feminist before experiencing the particular kind of “chilly climate” being described here. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in feminism or feminisms; I suppose I had simply not thought about it, or didn’t think that it was necessary for me, from an academic or social perspective. I have never taken a gender or women’s studies class, and I spent most of my undergraduate career reading and writing about dead white guys (and, admittedly, just wrote my Master’s thesis on a living one). I attended an all-girls high school whose slogan is literally “girls can do anything.” While I knew about issues confronting contemporary feminists on an intellectual level, they didn’t seem urgent, or personal, to me.

I suppose one thing happened to me before I came to live at this graduate college where feminism could have been a useful tool. The year after I finished my bachelor’s degree I waited tables at a restaurant in Halifax. My boss felt up my breasts, hips, and thighs at least once a week. He called me Sweetie and everyone thought he was hilarious. I never told anyone (everyone knew, anyway). Why? I was ashamed, felt like I was to blame, like it was the tight black skirt I wore serving that was at fault rather than my boss. I knew I could quit, or report him, but it all seemed like such a hassle, and I was saving up for a trip to Europe. Years later, knowing how rape culture both silences and blames the victims of sex crimes, how judiciary processes put the onus on the victim to come forward and provide proof, how narratives about hookup culture instruct women to watch themselves and implicitly let men off the hook, has allowed me to see my own experience in a wider context (and made me feel like I can wear that black skirt again). But three years ago, I had never read a feminist blog, and all my knowledge of Locke’s social contract didn’t help me figure out why I felt so gross and exhausted and irritated after my superior stroked my thighs behind the bar.

So, oddly enough, this unpleasant experience didn’t turn me into a feminist. I started my MA in English in September 2011, after the waitressing and the Eurotrip, without much thought for the label or the movement(s). I had decided to live at this particular graduate residence because it promoted itself as an interdisciplinary community modeled after the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; public talks were held daily, dinner was eaten in a Hogwarts-esque Great Hall, and noted public figures came to stay and hold forth at fireside chats in the Piano Lounge (literally). Initially, the residence was everything I wanted it to be. I made a group of fantastic friends, all women, all passionate and wicked and kind and fiercely intelligent, whom I suspect I will know and love for the rest of my life. I became acquainted with a much larger circle of diverse and interesting individuals among the residence’s population of 100; we went hiking on the weekends, put on plays, and learned to summarize our thesis topics in thirty seconds. The place was visually stunning, located on a cliff next to the beach, and intellectually stimulating. The public lectures covered all topics, from Canadian environmentalism to early modern music. I simply thought of feminism as another topic to be chosen and discussed among many.

Despite all its glowing advantages, the community I experienced over two years was also a microcosm for all the issues that feminism confronts today. I should add that this feminism as I envision it is a particular kind of feminism, inextricable from my own position as a white, heterosexual cisgender person, who also happens to be female. This kind of feminism arose directly out of my experiences there, many of which were negative, but many of which arose from the kind of intellectual clarity that fury sometimes breeds. For this, then, I am grateful.

The college has an aura of exceptionalism about it. The arts-and-crafts style house that serves as our central meeting place, the eminent figures who come to stay, the varied intellectual pursuits of its residents—the overall impression given by the college is that it is a place where exciting and important conversations are happening. At one talk in my second year about graduate colleges (the university has two), a woman stood up and said that today, these kinds of on-campus communities are bastions of deep thinking in an increasingly neoliberal, corporatized university. It seemed to her, and to many others, that communities like this need to be preserved because they promote and maintain a love of learning and conversation in a world where corporations fund scholarship and undergraduate students are treated as consumers. I, too, ascribed to the idea that this was an exceptional place; implicit with this idea, too, was that bad things didn’t happen there, or that if they did, that the perpetrators would be held responsible.

In truth, this community contained all the mundane and sordid aspects of everyday rape culture that you encounter everywhere else. The list provided by Alana in a previous post describes in detail the kinds of incidents that occurred throughout the two years I spent there. I have written and rewritten my own list several times. Every time, I look at it afterward and think: So What. That’s not really such a big deal. She was drunk. It was just a joke. And maybe so. But these microaggressions added up to the point that I felt both stifled and unable to discuss anything within the community for fear of judgment that I was, yet again, waving my ideology around for the sake of it. As my friends and I discussed these issues, we discovered a precedent. A group of women at the college who lived there in 2003-04 had written an article for Atlantis, a journal of women’s studies, in which they asserted their own definitions of feminism. In her introduction to the piece, titled “The f word(s): A five part conversation by Gen X Feminists,” Kristina Llewellyn describes the events that spurred the essays:

Several male peers were surprised by my identification [as a feminist] . . . [they] reacted by regularly confronting me and other women at the college, by mocking gender-inclusive language . . . and telling jokes about their sexual harassment exploits. The result was the ‘chilliest climate’ I, as an ablebodied white woman with solid middle-class credentials, had ever experienced. My description of this ‘chilly climate’ may not exactly fit the phenomenon originally coined by Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler in reference to the innocuous, everyday routines of sexism. Regular acts and words that trivialized and, ultimately, demeaned women were, however, ‘chillingly’ legitimated by male peers as ordinary and even respectable scholarly debate.

The climate experienced by myself and my peers from 2011-13, like the one experienced by the authors of the Atlantis piece nearly ten years earlier, seemed to be profoundly at odds with the kind of intellectual atmosphere the college seeks to promote. While some measures were taken by residents to address these issues, I feel that these were inadequate and failed to directly address the issues at hand. Sexual predators who are known to be such within the community deserved to be ostracized from the community. Oppressive language that is named as such should not be given a platform for legitimacy.

Ultimately, then, my experience at the college signified that intentional communities do not erase the potential for misogyny, rape culture, and sexual assault. My experience in this residence was equivalent to waking up one day and realizing you live in water when you thought you were on dry land, gazing from a distance at the medium everyone else was unluckily submerged in. These experiences were yet another side of the kind of lazy misogyny exhibited by David Gilmour and the UBC/SMU rape chants that dominated Canadian media headlines in autumn 2013. In the latest issue of Canadian Literature, UBC professor Laura Moss writes that

[t]he rape chants show that within contemporary culture there is a toxic strain of acceptance of authoritarian abuse, the abuse tends to be sexist and perpetuated by silence. The rape chants and the Gilmour interview are two sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the normalcy and the banality of power inequities.

Moss is heartened by the fact that these issues received such vociferous objections when brought to light, but I do think that the myth of exceptionalism about communities such as the one I was a part of can also do much to entrench instances of sexism. Looking back, I also now perceive my profound naiveté upon entering this community: the very fact that I conceived of feminism as one topic to be discussed among many speaks to my own ignorance of the kinds of oppression that make feminism necessary. Perhaps, then, the biggest problem is the disconnect between the intellectual pursuits of the college and the lived experiences of the persons there.

In her promotion of  “slow learning,” Hook & Eye blogger Erin Wunker writes that this practice “crosses genres and disciplines, is founded on inquiry and dialogue, and depends on learning in and with communities.” In many ways, this practice embodies what my graduate residence promotes itself as. My experience tells me, though, that these kinds of practices do not automatically lead to the creation of a specifically feminist space—and that those kinds of spaces need to be demarcated and maintained. ♦



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