Opening all doors

The importance of learning how society shapes us

Carol Burr

Carol Burr

Photo by Tom Angel

Carol Burr directs the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies at Chico State University.

I am always excited about this edition of the Chico News & Review on women’s issues, but I wonder if people look at it as an unnecessary reminder of the differences between men and women and a feminist complaint about the uneven distribution of power.

Focusing on those who seek a place at the table seems to become paired in people’s minds with being less “American” because it points out relationships to power based on race, class, or gender.

As director of the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, I am often asked if I foresee a time when there will be no need for women’s studies because social and legal equity will have been achieved. My answer is sometimes to ask a question in return: Do you foresee a time when particular men or men in general will not be considered a necessary academic or social focus? Is this focus on men invisible because pervasive?

The dilemma and the difficulty of resolving it are the result of seeing women’s studies and its corresponding social movements as solely or primarily a corrective to male privilege. Both certainly have achieved visibility during civil-rights movements, but the world requires increasingly complex understanding of how societies construct race, class and gender.

This understanding starts with access to knowledge and opportunity based on ability. There is still much to learn about ourselves and where we are situated within and across cultures. Feminist scholarship is an ongoing effort to understand how we are shaped into the social beings we are and to offer new ways to look at the structures we call family, community, country.

There is still much ignorance that affects us in ways we do not even realize—how we communicate (or fail to) across the dinner table, with our neighbors, with our co-workers; how we blame groups, when it is the unexamined privilege of our group that is at the root of the problem. It is the hope and the goal of feminism that those with privilege will take responsibility for those with less.

As we face a new century already damaged by ignorance and its corresponding violence, can we survive without knowing our place in the world and how much we are shaped by forces that can destroy us?

We are surrounded by women making a difference in our community—women involved in public service, small businesses, political office, education, health care, family. The list is endless. Women everywhere are contributing to their cultures’ economic and spiritual needs, but they are making these contributions in spite of systems that restrict access and opportunity.

For example, we see in the U.S. and elsewhere the efforts of women to educate themselves and their children. Recent statistics show that educating girls and women is closely associated with better health, higher economic growth, and environmental stewardship. Yet of the 300 million children without access to education, two-thirds are girls. As a result, women comprise two-thirds of the world’s 880 million illiterate adults.

The data for the United States show that in school and in college, females are now doing as well as or better than males in many of the indicators of educational attainment, and that the large gaps in educational attainment that once existed between men and women have significantly decreased or been eliminated altogether. However, there are other areas in both elementary/secondary and post-secondary education in which differences based on gender definitions persist.

We need to expand our knowledge of the role of gender in culture and the structural barriers to full humanity that gender definitions cause. We need to learn that culture and ethnicity are not dependent upon sexism to maintain their distinctness, since it appears with increasing clarity that definitions of gender are a universal determiner of power and that women are not the definers.

As we celebrate the lives and contributions of women in our community, let us imagine how many more women could achieve their potential if they were not marked for inferiority by gender definitions. This is a new century, a new opportunity and a new challenge. We seem headed for a violent future unless we pool our intellectual and experiential wisdom. The world is shrinking, while the knowledge needed to preserve it expands exponentially. Women’s studies and feminism, indeed all education, are an ongoing and critical response to that need.