By Dr. Heather Harwood, Classics Department Head
The Future Is Female
The women’s movement in America informed much of my development from a girl to a woman and has defined my identity as more than any other social or cultural event. Growing up in the 1970’s I watched and listened with a child’s wondering eyes and ears as the role of women in society blossomed and evolved all around me. I was exposed to children’s programs like Free to Be You and Me, a musical entertainment project that promoted radical gender and racial equality. I also remember watching the television program Mary Tyler Moore with my parents, a show considered progressive at the time, that followed the life of a young single woman making her way in the traditionally male dominated world of television journalism. In high school, I chose topics for research papers on women’s issues, from the Susan B. Anthony and the Women’s Suffragist Movement to Roe Vs. Wade to the Equal Rights Amendment.
After high school I went to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s liberal arts school founded on the philosophical principles of gender equality. On the day I graduated in 1988, someone circulated a note around to all of us encouraging us to stand up at the very end of the ceremony and shout out together “Death to the Patriarchy!” It was a phrase with which I had become very familiar during my four years at Bryn Mawr as it had become a kind of watchword of our class. We had shouted it at our Divestment “Sit –In” the year before when we occupied the President’s office building, and the year before that when we held a protest rally asking for the school to institute a Diversity Requirement for all students so that graduates would be exposed to more non-Western, female and ethnically diverse literature art and history. We all stood up and said it together too, at the end of an all-college lecture by the feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem-a lecture she concluded with a challenge to us to “have a revolution everyday,” a sentiment that has stuck with me and guided much of my life ever since. The day I graduated from college and chanted the words “Death to the Patriarchy,” I remember feeling a sense of empowerment and solidarity with all women everywhere. This was our world, our time; the established hierarchical channels of patriarchal power were breaking down, the future was ours.
But this was not the world I entered after college.
As a graduate student at Yale University, an institution that had only accepted women as undergraduates in 1969, I experienced sexism on a regular basis. Studying the Classics, an academic discipline dominated by the scholarship of white men of privilege, I was often advised against using feminist scholarship in my papers. When it came time to look for jobs and I was in the early stages of my pregnancy, I was told I should try to conceal my belly with loose clothing so as not to be put on “the Mommy track” which would hurt my chances of being considered a serious scholar. My vocation as a teacher in two boarding schools that were founded as boys’ schools and also only very recently admitted girls has more than once brought me face to face with sexist colleagues and outdated, sexist policies. However, I have worked to confront gender biases and stereotypes where I see them. I feel privileged to have had the chance to serve on Diversity and Community and Equity committees with like-minded adults and students in these schools, and equally grateful for the amazing opportunities and support I have been afforded as an agent of change in educating students about gender equity.
As the faculty sponsor of the Southborough Society last year, I had the chance to hear Gloria Steinem speak again at the International Conference for Girls and Women in NYC sponsored by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. She spoke passionately and intelligently on the importance of continuing the cause of women’s rights, on the cultural and political intersections of sexism and racism, and on the global and environmental implications of sexual and reproductive rights. Even with the 2016 Presidential campaign in its early stages it was clear that there was a lot at stake for women, and the specter of a Trumpian future loomed in the background, giving her words an urgency and immediacy. This election it seemed possible that with Hillary Clinton as the first female president the time for women had finally arrived; that maybe after all of the striving and shouting and marching and standing up we could sit down and get to work making substantive and lasting change for girls and women both nationally and globally.
But as we all know, that didn’t happen.
And so on the day after Trump’s inauguration I found myself marching again. On Saturday January 21st, eleven St. Mark’s students and nine adults rode a bus to Boston to join our voices with other women and supporters of women around the world. While we were in the planning stages, a colleague who was born around the time I was standing up for women’s rights in college, asked if I was excited about the march. The question gave me pause. It wasn’t excitement I was feeling, I told her, but a kind of deep sadness and confusion mixed with a strength and determination born of frustration. “Why are we still here?” I kept asking myself, “Why are women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized groups still not considered human rights?”
“Haven’t they heard us yet?”
Questions like these were swarming in my head as I stood in Boston Public Garden,surrounded by almost 200,000 people. The mood was festive and spirits were high. The feeling of empowerment and good-will reminded me of my days in college, but I was aware that although the urgency of our message was still palpable, the tone had changed. We had discarded the language of us and them. Instead of “ Death to the Patriarchy” our chants were about love, inclusivity, strength and solidarity. “Black Lives Matter,” “Muslim Lives Matter,” “Love not Hate makes America Great.” One slogan in particular caught my eye- it stated very simply:
“The Future is Female”
In the days following the march I wondered about the truth of this statement. Is the future really female? And if it is, what does that mean? I did a little research and discovered that it is not a new slogan. Although it has been appropriated and made popular on Instagram by a T-shirt company called Otherwild, the original design of the Future is Female (1975) came from a design made for Labryis Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City. Then, in a moment of pure serendipity, as I was writing this article last week, Hillary Clinton chimed in, using it as the aspirational message of her first public announcement since the election. In my research I found many interpretations of the slogan, but the drummer and activist Kiran Ghandi explained its meaning in a way that resonated the most with me:
“It means to me that we look to the female archetype for alternative forms and styles of leadership. Right now, we are in a hyper-masculine style with Donald Trump setting the example. It’s a zero sum game – for one person to win, someone else has to lose. And the world doesn’t need to be this way. To me, future is female means that the world becomes more collaborative and more emotionally intelligent literally for our own survival.”
This is exactly what I felt at the Boston Women’s March for America in January. Generally I don’t like large crowds. I feel powerless and fearful that I will be swept along by a mob mentality into something dangerous or destructive. And there were moments that day, especially when we were attempting to get from the rally into march formation and the lines were moving at the rate of about 1 foot per minute, that things could have gotten ugly, or even hostile. But the hive mind is different from mob or herd mentality, and it is not an accident that hives are run by the female of the species. We all got comfortable with the uncomfortable, we asked questions, we shared information, we stayed together and helped each other through the difficult moment, we smiled, we laughed, we respected each other’s space and we made sure we got home safely.
This isn’t the world we are in at present. The patriarchy is still very much alive and it is pushing us in its usual strong-armed,competitive,single-minded fashion towards the brink of our destruction. I don’t know if the future is female, but I do feel certain that if we have a future as a species, we will only get there together- by loving and supporting and including and talking and listening and caring and sharing.
Are you coming?
Dr. Heather Harwood is the Classics Department Head. She received her B.A. in Classics from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. Dr. Harwood teaches Ashtanga Yoga and lives in the north end of campus.