When I think about feminism I often remember Sarah, a girl I played soccer with at Calvin. We were a tough team, known in the league (a friend from Albion once told me) for hard knocks. On picture days, girls who wore their hair down for a prettier photo were mocked. It’s soccer, we said. We’re here to win not look pretty. As if that was a self-evident dichotomy.
Sarah did both. Some days I would meet her on the pathway down to the lower practice fields. My ankles were taped up and I was banishing poetry class from my thoughts, trying to focus on drills and sweat and the upcoming game. Sarah found a dandelion and stuck it in her hair. She had wide blue eyes and her hair was always flying out of any ponytail she put it in. I’m not sure she ever pointed out the shapes of clouds to me as we walked together, but it feels true when I remember her.
Back in my first year at Calvin I was introduced to feminism by Simona Goi, my political science professor. I adored that class—the readings, the lectures—but the only moment from it I actually remember is the day Professor Goi gave us her policy on pronouns. No more “their” or generic “his;” use “his or hers” or switch between them.
We protested. It sounds awkward. “His” means the same thing; we know it stands for both. When Professor Goi, visibly disgusted and frustrated, asked the women in the class if we were being left out. I remember not caring, thinking she was blowing the importance of pronouns out of proportion. My shoulders shrugged with others’: exiled from the text, a small sacrifice for the sake of fluid prose.
I don’t remember who changed that for me. Maybe it was the Bechdel test. Maybe it was Joss Whedon. Maybe it was how ridiculous people sounded talking about Hilary Clinton’s hair instead of her politics. It might have been my self-defense instructor, her short, silver hair a curly halo as she led us in meditation one minute and then explained every way to gouge out an attacker’s eyes the next. It might also have been Pastor Mary, whose relatable and eloquent sermons reminded me—I don’t confess this lightly—of the disdain a younger me felt when I attended a wedding presided over by a female pastor.
In perhaps sophomore year Professor Vander Lei challenged my linguistics class to observe in our classes the number of times a female student spoke versus the number of times a male student spoke. Most viscerally I remember men, who were physically outnumbered in my theology class, volunteering information twice as much as the women in the class. Five years after that little experiment I’m still horrified by the ratios I see in my own classroom.
Somehow, years before, I’d put myself in a box. I could either be pretty or a bad-ass soccer player, not both, and it was obvious which the superior choice was. I began to recognize that my submission and silence for greater societal good—clean pronouns in prose, for instance; less contention in class—was harmful for myself (lacking in confidence) and others (lacking diversity). We are never one thing nor should we be. My teammate Sarah probably still comes to mind because I try to emulate the freedom she had. She was, like we all are, vulnerable, intelligent, whimsical, hard-working, clever—a million different things all at once.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).