Coming from a small town, I knew I was more “progressive” than a lot of other people in my area, but I also knew that there was a lot I was missing out on and sheltered from because of where I come from. Before going away to university, I had never even heard of Women’s Studies, and all I knew about feminism was what was depicted in the media, which was pretty much that all feminists were "man-haters" and that their end goal was to eliminate the male species.
I knew that I had a lot to learn about the world after leaving high school, but I had no idea about the shape that that education was going to take. As I was browsing through my university’s course catalogue during the summer after high school, I came across so many interesting subjects that I didn’t know would be available to me, including introductory Women’s Studies courses. After reading over the course descriptions, I decided to try one out because I had been told that freshman year was about expanding your horizons and trying out a bunch of new things to see where you fit… and academic counseling wouldn’t allow me to take more than two English courses in a year, which is a whole other issue that I won’t get into here.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this Introduction to Sexuality Studies course and, while I was terrified about what I was getting myself into by stepping so far out of my comfort zone, I can honestly say that taking that class was the best decision I’ve ever made thus far in my university career.
I immediately fell in love with the course material and the professor and everything that we discussed each week. That course taught me so much about identity and humanity and just life in general that I will never be able to explain it all adequately. As first semester was coming to a close, I knew that I could not give up the education that I was receiving, which had very little to do with academics and everything to do with my own identity in this world. So, I signed up for another class in second semester and eventually added a minor onto my degree, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Not only did I learn that Women’s Studies and feminism are not, in fact, solely focused on women and destroying men, but I have become more comfortable with understanding the multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities that were never mentioned in any of my high school textbooks. I have come to understand the ways in which people are treated in society from the moment of their birth based on their skin colour or gender or class status or ability, as well as how each of these different factors shape every individual’s unique experiences. I've learned that human identity and gender are fluid and constantly changing, and so our knowledge of these things is always changing; it is okay to not know everything and to make mistakes, so long as we acknowledge those missteps and take actions to correct them. I have also learned that I am a feminist, which was a ground-breaking, life-altering revelation.
I am, and always have been, a feminist, even before I was given words for it.
I had always thought that "feminist" was synonymous with "man-hater," which made it nearly impossible to identify myself with this word. It wasn’t until I had all of these brilliant, strong female professors standing in front of me breaking it all down that I realized that I was a feminist. I was a feminist when I refused to wear makeup, like all my other friends were doing, simply because I didn’t want to. I was a feminist when I refused to be talked to by guys at my school the way many of my friends were. I was a feminist when I questioned why I was stuck in the house folding laundry and putting dishes away and vacuuming, while my brother was out in the yard chopping wood and taking the garbage out and mowing the lawn. I was a feminist when I refused to be the fragile little girl that all the men at my first after-school job wanted to categorize me as and, instead, performed all my roles as well as helped out with all of theirs. I have always felt and thought in a feminist manner, but I was never given the education that I needed in order to claim that part of my identity.
Now, this is not to say that every single university student is going to be changed as significantly as I was by taking a Women’s Studies course, but the reality of it is, they don’t need to be. I will forever be grateful for Women’s Studies because it added a piece to the puzzle of my identity that I had struggled with for so long, but that is not the most important thing that I gained.
Every university student should be required to take at least one Women’s Studies course in their post-secondary education because maybe then there would be a few less people in the world who believe feminism is about oppressing the male species and giving women all the power. University is supposed to be this place of immense knowledge, but I walk around this campus and witness so many instances of ignorance towards feminist issues, simply because people misunderstand, and refuse to acknowledge, what feminism truly is and means. If Women’s Studies was a part of every student’s course requirements, maybe then there would be more people who understood that feminism is about equality, in the most basic sense of the term. It is about giving a voice to those who are silenced, and recognizing that everyone else’s experiences are not the same as your own. It is about acknowledging the immense privilege and responsibility that we have been given as university students to become properly educated, and to then educate others. It is about enlightening the way in which one views the world around them from social institutions to global news stories to pop culture. The biggest barrier to equality is the ignorance that comes from accepting one person’s superficial definition of feminism when it is about so much more than simply women "hating" (read: fighting for equality with) men.
American philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler, uses a great example when she says (and I’m paraphrasing), "I will march under the banner of lesbian [during the women’s rights movement] so long as the definition of lesbian is never solidly defined." Feminism may be about standing together under the one umbrella of "woman" to present a unified front, but it is essential to recognize that there is never one universal definition of woman, or man. For every woman in this so-called group of "feminism," being a woman means something very different when race, class, sexual preference, and disability are taken into account.
So, I don’t think that every student should be required to take a Women’s Studies course because I think it will change their lives the way it did with me (though, a girl can always hope), but because I think it will change the world and the way that it is viewed. If I’ve learned anything from any of my Women’s Studies course it’s that there is never only one side to a story and, if students were to take nothing else away from a Women’s Studies course except the ability to recognize and sympathize with another person’s perspective, that would be enough. Women’s Studies has opened my mind and my heart to the possibility of so much more for myself and my world that I never would have learned otherwise, and I want everyone to experience that kind of epiphany, that sense of mind-blowing understanding and simultaneous belonging and un-belonging at least once in their lives.