By Zoe Redfield, Lillian Delano Brown Fellow for 2016
In my first week of college, I was so exhilarated to be surrounded by so many new people. New faces, new friends, new experiences. Sitting in the dining hall in an unfamiliar environment with different people, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all. “You know that there’s a high chance that you’re going to meet the person you marry here, my parents met in college!” My friend gushed to me, looking around the packed room full of eager first years, as if searching for a possible candidate. “You never know, you could have kids with someone here!” I understand her well-meaning enthusiasm, I really do, but it’s not exactly what I’m focused on right now. Though it is cool to think about the fact that I might be sitting in the same area as a potential future partner, it bothers me that it is what I am expected to be thinking about. Since my parents and grandparents have been in school, a lot has changed. In their day, it was common for women to go to university simply to find someone to marry and settle down with, not to receive a degree and start a career. Now, with more women than men enrolled in a place of higher-level education, one might assume that there would be a focus shift from “getting a ring by spring” to “going to college to get more knowledge”. But there is still an underlying pressure I have experienced for me to put importance on my expected future as a mother and wife. I have to emphasize to people that I am not in school to get my “M-R-S degree”.
I am incredibly lucky. I graduated from an academically rigorous high school, was accepted to a prestigious four-year university, and now attend that school. I recognize that many do not have the opportunities I have been given, and that I am fortunate to be able to take full advantage of them. However the patriarchy is very far reaching, and I am not completely above the oppressive system that controls our society.
Recently, I was at a family wedding, and the questions I kept being asked did not have anything to do with my accomplishments in school. “So, do you have any guys in your life right now?” “Met any nice boys at school?” “I bet you can’t wait until it’s your turn to walk down the aisle!” The well-meaning relatives did not realize that this made me feel that my achievements in school did not matter, what really mattered was if I had a boyfriend yet. Why should my priority be finding a partner right now? My greatest accomplishment in life should not be my ability to “catch a man” and settle down. Though there is nothing wrong with wanting to find a husband a start a family, it should not be standard with which every woman is judged.
Another comment I have heard on numerous occasions is “you’re so pretty, I’m sure all the boys are chasing you.” I appreciate compliments, and I know they are well-intentioned. However, I don’t appreciate the often unintended, underlying message; that my value and worth is based on my physical attributes. At a time in my life when I should be expected to place education and self-improvement above all else, I find it disappointing that the approval I am receiving is focusing on physical appearance, something I have very little control over. I appreciate the sentiment, but I value compliments like “you’re so smart/caring/important/creative” so much more. Disregarding a woman’s accomplishments like going to college, getting a job, having interesting ideas and making a positive impact on the world, further enforces the idea that a woman’s greatest achievement is being physically attractive in order to attract a male partner and settle down. These traditional values are not as up-front as they used to be, but they are still ever-present in our subconscious actions, words, and well-meaning sentiments.
Since the opening of the first opportunity for women to receive a degree in North Carolina, Greensboro College in 1838, the involvement of women in higher education has greatly improved. Even since my mother was in school, the number of women attending college has greatly increased, and the number of women getting degrees has surpassed the number of men. Higher education is becoming a standard for women, an accomplishment that we should all be proud of. But every system has its biases, especially ones that were designed to only accommodate men. Taking women seriously in their academic work should become the new standard, being careful to not reinforce patriarchal ideals that were really only relevant decades ago. I’m proud to be a part of a generation of women who lead in academic settings, so remember the think next time before asking a young woman about her life – what are you emphasizing and celebrating?