I was a bright-eyed literature student when I first entered undergrad at an evangelical university. Sometime between my sophomore and junior year there, I became equally passionate about women’s equality and social injustice. I no longer quite fit in the English department, so I began looking for a second intellectual home.
At the time, faculty and administrators were debating the launch of a gender studies department. There were whispers among students that certain professors opposed the addition because they feared it might lead to “harder stuff.” I later had the honor of being one of the first students to complete a gender studies minor. Still, I never forgot that some of my professors apparently thought it was risky to learn about women’s experiences. It seemed that my femaleness had been judged a threat, an irritation, a source of dangerous knowledge.
It is clear to me now that male and female students were not attending the same university. Women were uniquely pressured to look and behave in certain ways. A male student once created and hung posters on campus instructing female students on how to wear leggings “appropriately” and without being “too revealing.” The student acted without university approval and the posters were removed, but it remains that he felt entitled to offer public, unsolicited feedback on what women should and should not wear.
The university itself also communicated support for gender roles. There was the Sadie Hawkins tradition, when female students invited male students to join them for a weekend of “date activities.” While beloved, the practice implied that women asking men out is contra to the norm, and that romantic assertiveness in women is acceptable one night a year. University and student-produced media alike upheld strict gender roles: ideal women were docile and supportive and ideal men were strong and assertive. Men initiated and women responded.
There were also the prominently-pinned advertisements for cooking classes depicting a 50s housewife. What kind of message did they send to female students? That the kitchen is where they belong? At minimum, they made it hard for female students to believe the university respected women. Such images also made female students question if our male peers and professors took us seriously. And what about male students? The posters certainly did not encourage respect for female classmates and future colleagues.
For my senior qualitative research project, I examined yet another pervasive expression of patriarchy (and racism) at my evangelical university. I called it the “single beauty narrative,” and it referred to what I perceived as a narrow, homogenous beauty standard. Female students in interviews and focus groups demonstrated a belief that their male peers monitored and evaluated everything from what they wore to how they behaved in class to determine if they were “wife material.”
Some women cried as they described struggling to conform to the crushing pressure to be thin, beautiful, and well-dressed. Women of color also stated that they did not fit the university’s narrow beauty standard. My study confirmed female students’ worst fears. Many male participants did equate attractiveness with thinness and whiteness. One student said: “when I close my eyes and think of a beautiful girl, it’s going to be a white girl.” Some male respondents stated that they preferred women who were pretty but not women who were “all that.”
Male students’ expectations for how women should look also mirrored their beliefs about how women should act in the classroom. Some male students expressed a belief that women could be know-it-alls in class, ask too many questions, or be too social. One female student summarized it this way: “women are told to be docile, to be enough, but not too much in strength, smarts, beauty. You want to look put-together, but not like you’re trying too hard. It’s this impossible balance. And, I think in beauty it shows up that way too.”
Female students at my evangelical university experienced both misogyny and racism. We were asked to conform to impossible beauty standards, not to mention the pressure we felt to underperform in the classroom. And we are not the only ones to struggle against injustice in the classroom. Women and girls all over the world face bias in school, and especially women of color.
From primary school to undergraduate to seminary, the system is not built for us. But, together, we can change that. Let’s challenge sexism (and racism) in the classroom. Let’s build a brave new world—where girls are empowered to learn and persistent, gutsy women are honored.