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"Non-existent sexism or: how I kinda understand what Chimamanda Adichie was saying" by Genevieve Agar
January 21, 2015
This past fall I joined an intergenerational (ranging from age 20-75) women’s book club in the Washington, D.C. area; everyone gave her personal opinion or experience with feminism after we had all read Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revolt. I was shocked when one of the older participants declared that my generation was ungrateful was for all of the hard work she and her peers had done and continued to proclaim:
“Sexism doesn’t exist today.”
Surprised to hear and unable to agree with her viewpoint, I then relayed my first palpable brush with gender discrimination: in 8th grade I signed up for an engineering class. The class was generally all boys, but there were no official rules prohibiting girls from taking the class—or so I thought. The day before classes started in August, the principal phoned my mother and asked her to please take me out of the engineering class and “wouldn’t she be happier in Cake Decorating?”
My mother said no.
My book-club companions—particularly the older ones—were shocked to hear what happened only years ago. They did not believe this kind of discrimination still possible. While I’m glad they now consider sexism in a new manner, I worry about the prevalence of unspoken, conflicting narratives such as mine and the older woman’s.
We like relying on ourselves as credible sources of knowledge—I think therefore I am—but one story does not speak for an entire generation: one person cannot stand for an entire population, and when we believe this, we are lesser able to relate to those with stories different from our own.
To allow our individual experiences to dictate truth is not only wrong, but dangerous. My engagement with sexism is different than my friends’ and incredibly different from that of a woman living across the world. Yet these differences, whatever their magnitude, do not invalidate the significance of either experience.
My experience with gender inequality has also been vastly different than the older woman in my book club: as a female engineer in the 1960s, she and her peers were actively combatting abuse of employment discrimination laws and working with the EEOC to defend their rights. I have never had to so actively fight for my rights and may never understand what it’s like to do so. This difference in experience affects my outlook on gender inequality, but I hope not completely eclipse my view or understanding of her story.
I was happy to discover my book club’s willingness to discuss these issues, but its difficult to find a way in which to regularly communicate with and listen to those whose stories are unlike our own. While technology helps to connect us further every day, it’s also easy to filter what we receive from the Internet: we can pick which news sites we read, and its easier to close an article that we don’t agree with than it is to walk out on someone who’s opinion we disagree with. While online connections may be many, personal interactions are few.
Somewhat ironically, next month we’re reading Americanah, an amazing book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who advises against the “danger of a single story” in one of her TED talks. I’m interested in what that discussion will hold.