Female Empowerment: More Bark than Bite?

By Zoe Singer ‘23, Editor-in-Chief

I feel very lucky to be living at a time where gender stereotypes and “rules” are now rigorously scrutinized, re-examined, and questioned. Yet with each step forward, a recent personal encounter reminded me that for all that talking, there’s still much work to be done.

Last month, a close friend (“Emily” for purposes of protecting her privacy) and Heschel alumna called me for a last-minute chat before heading to her meetings to “rush,” or apply to, the professional co-ed law fraternity at her college. For months, Emily had spoken excitedly about her plan to join the group and meet people who shared her legal interests, learn more about the profession to which she was planning to commit, and build her network with rising and practicing lawyers. She had been a star on her high school’s mock trial team, and I knew she was well prepared for the process. 

After Emily’s first round of interviews concluded, she called me, ecstatically recounting how she had delivered her arguments confidently and with the precision she had developed from years of mock trial experience. 

Days later, the email finally came, though it was not the one Emily expected. The fraternity board did not extend an invitation for her to join the club. One of Emily’s friends who served on the fraternity board called her and explained that while she had impressed the board with her skillful presentation, the board’s male members found her delivery “too aggressive.” Concerned about looking weak, the predominantly male board had concluded that adding Emily – whom the board referred to as “such a bulldog” – to its group was too risky. 

A good number of readers will probably brush off my account about Emily, assuming this kind of incident won’t likely happen to them. Yet the very reason people ignore these stories is because they’ve heard plenty of them already. Fatigue sets in. 

I have fatigue too. I can tell this same story with ten different names in ten different contexts, all with similar outcomes. Particularly in moments when women get the nation’s attention, our responsibility is to shake off our weariness and continue demanding equal treatment.

In 2008, when questioned at the Republican National Convention about her lack of experience as the party’s vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin quipped, “Do you know…the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.” She characterized herself as a dog just to be taken seriously in politics. Aware of the country’s cultural climate toward women at the time, Palin shrewdly leaned into that culture, but coupled her potentially threatening attributes with her less threatening, inherent femininity. 

Fourteen years later, for all of the current dialogue about gender equality, how far has the cultural climate really evolved if today, students on a progressive college campus reflexively still equate strong, bold women like Emily to a dog? To truly move forward, we must do away with degrading comparisons, untangle our biases and recognize that a strong, assertive woman is just that – and not a pit bull, a pit bull with lipstick, a bulldog, or any dog to be subdued and controlled. 

Unfortunately, this tension also exists in the Heschel community. I know that Heschel, as an institution, values vocal, assertive young women, but I also know that some members of the student body do not adhere to this value consistently. When a female student projects her voice and speaks with conviction in class, I always bet that at least one male student will mock her. 

During one of my recent English classes, we read and discussed an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. We spoke about “mansplaining” and its effect on  women. Naturally, the female students in the class (myself included) felt very strongly about the subject matter. When we noticed male students mansplaining in our class conversation about mansplaining, we began speaking more passionately. We maintained our composure but our voices were slightly louder than usual. In response to us trying to share our personal experiences with men patronizing us, a male classmate approached me later, saying how the female students wrongly attacked him and his male peers just because we didn’t like their opinion. 

In no way did the female students attack anyone during the class. Yet the misperception  persists. Too often, when women vocalize their beliefs, they are accused of being aggressive and impulsive – like animals.  Soon, the familiar cycle repeats itself: fatigue thwarts change, change cultivates uprising, and uprising leads to fatigue. 

Continuing to encourage female determination, motivation, and empowerment remains vital. Neither Emily nor any woman should ever be a victim of obsolete gender stereotypes that exist only to limit and confine us.

Leave a Comment