In all of the conversations that may be had around feminism every day, in all the definitions and many feminisms that exist, one of the most often stereotyped is the male point of view.
The perspectives of pornography and patriarchy, of cross-cultural gendered disparities and persistent inequalities between the sexes, can easily lead one to believe that all men are misogynistic pigs, as they are so often described.
It is a stereotype often perpetuated here at Mills. By and large, the issue of men at Mills is a temperamental one among its overwhelmingly female student body. With the number of women’s colleges in the country slowly declining, and the ever-present memory of the Board of Trustees’ failed attempt to make Mills co-ed 15 years ago, many here can be as judgmental about men as they think men are about feminists.
But men’s ideas of feminism vary as much as women’s do, and while many men were hesitant to talk to us about the topic (and a number of the ones who did were cautious about what they said), there were also quite a few eager to offer another perspective.
Jordan Gill has been around Mills most of his life. “My dad used to teach here. I was raised here — I was barmitzvahed here.”
“My mom is a very strong woman, and I have always been in a community of strong women.” Having grown up around campus, he is now a graduate student here pursuing his MFA in fiction. “It felt very welcoming here,” Gill said.
Gill defines feminism as “a fundamental belief in gender equality and a desire to work toward those ends.” Though he knows his presence on campus is controversial, he said he’s never felt like the odd man out.
“I fully support single gender education,” he said. “I hope that I can portray a positive male role model.”
The motivations men have for attending a women’s college differ. While Gill was already familiar with the school, others have come for the programs offered, and several male graduate students, all asking not to be identified, said it was because they didn’t get into their school of choice.
And while there have certainly been issues that bring tensions between the sexes to the forefront, and not everyone’s experience has been a perfectly pleasant one, for the most part the community is respectful of one another in and out of the classroom.
“I think that the women in my program are amazing,” Gill said, “and they are totally open to my feedback and presence in classes.”
English professor Tom Strychacz has been teaching at Mills since 1988, and has seen many interpretations of feminism over those years, including the successful 1990 strike against the Trustees’ vote to go co-ed.
“The strike was a very intense and powerful moment in history,” Strychacz said. Battle lines were drawn.”
“Many [now] see feminism as superceded by gender studies, which is more complicated in describing and analyzing issues of gender,” he said.
And in many ways, Strychacz brings those studies into his literature classes, and his own writing. He has written extensively on Ernest Hemingway, an author known for his machismo texts, and uses his books to teach about matters of masculinity and gender. One could easily see how teaching Hemingway might be a challenge at a women’s college like Mills, and Strychacz wrote in an essay that the strike “profoundly affected the way I think about and teach Hemingway.”
“I do assume that many of my students dislike, or anticipate disliking, the work, probably because he promotes masculinist heroics and certainly because he (allegedly) maintains misogynist views of women,” Strychacz wrote. “In this respect, though my students may be more willing to speak their mind, I do not believe that my students differ greatly from their peers at co-ed institutions.”
Strychacz has argued that among other things, Hemingway’s posturing over issues of manhood “might prove a key to understanding the construction of gendered identities.”
The danger in things like the Hustler article, Strychacz said in an interview, is that “it re-inscribes the boundary and creates a huge gulf between men and women.”
While it may be difficult to tell these days whether that gulf is shrinking or widening, there are those in the younger generation already committed to making a difference in how women are treated.
Jonathan Sloan, the 16-year-old son of Mills junior Lynne Sloan, said his view of feminism is “basically, women who want equality same as men; not better but equal.”
“Most people still view feminists as lesbian man-haters,” he said, “and I think they need to show more of what it’s really about, like the fact that you can be married to a guy and have kids and still be against men who are egotistical misogynists.”
While there is not much directly related to feminism in his coursework at Mission High School, he said, “At the beginning of my [AP English] class, we talked about how the Bible shaped views and perspectives of women.”
Sloan is currently working with Healthy Initiatives for Youth, a program that trains high school students to teach other students about youth health issues. Allowed to pick their topic for training, Sloan’s group will be teaching about healthy relationships, often considered a “woman’s concern,” but something he said he doesn’t see enough of at his school.
He’s noticed no difference in how the teachers treat the girls versus the boys, but it’s definitely apparent among the students themselves, he said.
“The teachers at my school are actually pretty good,” he said. But among the students, “the girls are still treated like trophies and they get ideas of what’s hot from music videos. It’s more about who’s got a hot ass than what she’s thinking or doing.”
Sloan said he appreciates how Mills has made a difference in his mother’s life, and said she’s always been a great role model for him.
Despite their reputations as man-hating lesbian havens, the importance of women’s colleges has had an impact on men as well. During the strike, there was even a group called “Men Against Men at Mills,” and there are many men who support women’s education — and women’s colleges like Mills in particular — though there remains the notion that Mills and its ilk are not “the real world.”
Thomas Schierenbeck, father of a Mills student, said, “Attending a women’s college is about getting different opinions from other people and drawing one’s own conclusions.”
“I know that [Jeni] can make those distinctions and experience a different side of society at Mills,” he said.
“She has had the advantage of going to a co-educational environment in high school. She also works off campus so she does get the “real world.” She knows what’s going on, I’m not worried about that.”
Esteban Garcia, the friend of a Mills student who recently visited from Andes University in Columbia, said, “There are no women’s colleges in Columbia so it is very weird for me because I think that you’ve already grown up so why separate the genders? The real life is not separate, so why do so at universities?”
Believing a single-sex population shortchanges the educational experience, Garcia said there are other ways “to deal with gender problems. We should work to find other ways so there are no longer gender-specific definitions.”
Both sexes are equally capable, Garcia said, “so they should be challenged the same way and compete at the same level.”
Vanessa B. Marlin, Kassi Kappelos, Jana Rogers and April Kilcrease contributed reporting to this story.