The word "feminist" is commonly perceived as an almost offensive word in mainstream social interactions. If I call myself a feminist* when I'm talking to my close friends, especially my feminist, progressive friends, it's not a dirty word. But if I use it in less-safe contexts, it certainly feels like I've made some sort of mistake.
At work, my feminism is no secret, but I often feel as if many of my coworkers consider it some weird quirk about me, like, "Oh, there Steph goes again. She turned a normal conversation into a feminist-thing." Not that my coworkers aren't great people, people I like and get along with, just that I have to be extra-conscious of the way I talk about a lot of issues.
There are two specific areas of my life where bringing up feminism feels like a moderate risk. The first is when I'm trying to date. The second is right now, as I try to get into graduate programs. In both cases, I made the decision to make my feminism public. And in both cases, I don't have regrets.
I don't like or hate dating. It's fun, but there's a lot of stress and over-analyzing, and "What do I say or not say to get another date?" And when it comes to online dating, there's a lot of stress over the fact that an online dating profile is often a terrible indication of whether or not you would get along with someone in person. It's a great way to avoid wasting time with deal-breakers; I tend to avoid messaging guys** who smoke, who use misogynistic language or talk about chivalry, who don't have similar intellectual backgrounds,*** or who seem to be really keen on finding a partner who will join them in lots and lots of travel or physical activity. But it's not really a good way to tell if the conversation will be interesting, or even if you're going to be attracted to the other person physically.
So the goal of the profile is to deter obviously incompatible people from messaging you (and yet I still get messages from 40-year-olds sometimes), and to get possibly compatible people TO message you.
So do I put in my profile that I'm a feminist? Originally, I didn't. I got more dates when I didn't, but I only had a handful of second and third dates, and they weren't fun. So I decided to put it in. It was in my profile when I started dating my last boyfriend, and while that relationship obviously didn't last, putting it in worked. My boyfriend had been interested in my profile because I was socially progressive, and not afraid to say it.
I keep it in my profile now that I'm dating again. I'm okay with the fact that it cuts down on the number of messages and dates I get. Any guy I go out with is going to find out at some point that I'm a feminist. I might as well make sure I avoid wasting time going out with guys that would find that unattractive or a problem.
I'm a pretty decent applicant for biology PhD programs. I say "pretty decent" because I do not work in admissions, so I'm just guessing. My GRE scores are fabulous, I have excellent recommendations, I've got great research experience, and I do think that my personal statement is interesting and well-written. But I also have a super-mediocre GPA.
What's worse is that my GPA is pretty evenly divided between "biology classes" and "not biology classes." Any class I took for my biology major, I got a mediocre grade in. At best. Most classes I took for other requirements, for fun, or for Women's Studies,**** I did very well in. And I'm reasonably sure that, if you're dealing with a shitload of applicants, you're going to assume I'm not cut out for science and throw my application into the rejection pile.
I figured that with the rest of my application being really great, I would have a chance at some interviews, where I could explain that wild discrepancy. It's not that biology classes are just too hard for little ol' me. It's that biology classes at the school I went to SUCKED. I'm not saying that I couldn't have aced them if that's all I had time for. I'm saying they SUCKED. You are not going to learn how to do excellent science by sitting in a lecture hall at 9:30am with 300 other students. You are not going to learn how to do excellent science by struggling to do a basic lab experiment with a lab partner who's not interested in working. You are not going to learn how to do excellent science in a lab class where your grade depends on technicalities, or whether or not a really difficult experimental set-up works (especially if only two groups get it to work and the professor admits that it usually doesn't work).
You learn how to do excellent science by joining a lab and working on a project. I did some of that, mostly introductory labwork, and even though I was lost most of the time, it was the most helpful class I took to prepare me for working in science.
A lecture class with 3 tests, all of which require you to essentially read the textbook and memorize the details? Not useful professionally, and not a good way to measure ability or even learning.
So that's pretty much why my biology grades are solidly MEH. Because I don't learn by going to boring lectures interrupted by pre-meds, where the only way to ace the test is to read the book and remember everything. I learn by understanding something, and relaying my understanding back to a professor. Kind of like how Women's Studies works. We sat and talked about everything, from hardcore theory to examples of socialization and bias. We read engaging books. We were "tested" by writing papers, giving us a chance to demonstrate our understanding by making new arguments.
That's how I learn. Memorizing a biology textbook isn't useful. Being able to understand, say, privilege and explain it in a paper is useful.
But that's something to leave for interviews. I don't want to sound whiny in my personal statement. But I did need to use that personal statement as an opportunity to distinguish myself from other candidates. Like so many other applicants, I want to go into research because of a personal experience (in my case, my own illness), and I want to cure diseases. Not original! Not interesting!
Unlike a lot of applicants, though, my most important goal is to plug up the leaky pipeline***** and to increase women and people of color in the sciences in general. And so I said so in my statement. I said I was a feminist. And I made it clear that you're not going to just get another person who can do good research; you're going to get a very unique PhD student who's not hyper-competitive, who's thinking about social responsibility.
I have gotten four interviews so far (waiting to hear back from six more programs). I firmly believe that making my feminism clear in my personal statement not only helped to sort of diminish my weird GPA (and to make the Women's Studies classes look much less like filler, which they weren't! I loved those classes!), but also helped to distinguish me enough that admissions committees are taking interest.
I hope that by making it clear that being open about my feminism hasn't destroyed my personal life and career, more men and women will feel good about applying that "f-word" to themselves. No more, "I'm not a feminist, but!" How about, "I'm a feminist, and!"
* I've tried and failed to use "feminist" as an adjective and not a noun. I'll practice more, I promise.
** As far as I know, I am heterosexual, and therefore look for guys to date. I have no idea what it's like to be a guy trying to date women, or a man OR a woman trying to date someone of the same sex. Or to be a transperson trying to date. This is just a hetero-cis-woman trying to date men who like women.
*** I've been called out before for this preference, but at this point, I've stopped trying to force myself to date guys I'm not attracted to from the start. I like to date guys who graduated from a decent college, especially with STEM degrees (not necessarily exclusively, but all of my boyfriends were scientist guys, and I really like that ...). I don't refuse to go on dates with guys who don't fit that bill, but really, I can't help it :(
**** This is what the program was called at my school. I don't like that it's called that. I think it should be called "Sex and Gender Studies," or, "Sex, Gender, and Sexuality Studies." But it wasn't my decision.
***** The leaky pipeline specifically refers to the loss of women in the sciences higher up in the career ladder. That is, the higher you go (from PhD student to post-doc to assistant scientist, etc. etc.), the fewer women there are. And the fewer women you start with (i.e. a higher percent of biology PhDs go to women than do computer science PhDs), the fewer you end up with. The reasons for the leakiness include, but are not limited to, sexism in the workplace in general, the stereotype of STEM as a "male" field, and the lack of childcare options in the US.
I like asterisks.