Columns, Opinions

Vilsan ’19: There is no ideal feminist

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

In 1992, Hillary Clinton infamously stated that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies” but decided instead to fulfill the profession she chose before her husband entered public life. The quote has haunted her ever since, and although Clinton spent weeks apologizing for the perceived insensitivity of her comments, some women have found it hard to move past. At Brown, I am surrounded every day by empowered, ambitious and intelligent women who plan to — and likely will — succeed as high-achieving professionals, mothers and wives all at once. But it is also important to respect the fact that some women at Brown may look forward to pursuing marital and familial goals instead of professional ones. Nearly 26 years later, the condescension expressed by Clinton still persists: The feminist woman is supposed to seek professional advancement in tandem with a strong personal life — anything else is deemed insufficient. But that ideal does not always describe the path that female students at Brown hope to pursue. It’s about time we start treating the feminist movement for what it is — a movement for female equality, not a hierarchy of female merit based on professional achievement.

I have frequently overheard female students talking down to their peers who don’t plan on pursuing lifelong careers, asserting that an Ivy League education would be a waste of money if not used in a professional capacity. For example, at a recent recruiting event, female attendees discussed the often-difficult choice women face between balancing the professional with the personal or choosing between the two. Upon listening to one of the guest speakers — a successful woman in the banking industry who  pushed back her marriage into her late 30s to focus on her professional goals — many students chimed in with their own opinions on the matter. And the overwhelming consensus was strikingly similar to Clinton’s statement in the early 1990s: True feminists pursue their professional goals unapologetically, and work to maintain healthy relationships and families in harmony with their careers. And while many female graduates from Brown do just that, there are also countless women who choose instead to focus on non-professional pursuits unapologetically.

Brown prides itself on being a liberal institution that promotes gender equality and encourages all students to follow their own paths. As such, women at Brown shatter glass ceilings upon graduation left and right. But embracing traditional roles does not mean that you have accepted to live under the glass ceiling that feminists before you have worked to destroy. It simply means that you value familial goals, like raising children, above professional ones. And while some women are able to harmonize their work and family lives, others make a choice. Pursuing an Ivy League education should not restrict or pressure women into professional roles that they do not wish to undertake. After all, there is such a thing as education for the sake of personal growth and academic interest.

Feminists, by definition, advocate for a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life — whether the path leads to clocking in 100-hour workweeks in a competitive industry or to becoming a full-time mother and wife. If we champion one and demean the other, we are not truly feminists. We are condescending to those women whose priorities do not align with our own. It is always spurring for me, as a Brown student, to continue to hear women putting each other down for making decisions that may not necessarily conform with the feminist ideal. Ultimately, we cannot claim to be feminists if we do not respect women’s choices, professional or otherwise.

One of Brown’s most notable alums, Janet Yellen ’67, is understandably an inspirational figure for many young women walking through the Van Wickle Gates. As one of the most powerful figures in the world today, she has distinguished herself as a scholar and successful chair of the Federal Reserve, all the while being an excellent wife and mother. But her life isn’t and shouldn’t be the only example of success for female students. There are countless female alums who have graduated from Brown and gone on to build strong families instead of pursuing careers, and it is perfectly valid to be inspired by their paths as well.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.