Dear Salem community,
As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day tomorrow, I have been thinking a lot about gender equity, the progress we have made, and the work still yet to be done, both here at Salem and across our society. This has been on my mind in many ways throughout this summer. It seems as though everywhere I turned over the past few months; I saw the stories of feminist icons and their unvarnished proud narratives represented on the page as well as on the small and large screen. Their powerful stories of success and triumph also reminded me how far we have come as women and how far we still must go to achieve the goal of equal rights, respect and privileges for all.
In June, I watched a documentary film on Netflix called, Call Me Kate, about Katherine Hepburn. (One of my all-time favorite autobiographies is Me: Stories of My Life by Ms. Hepburn, and yes, I may be biased toward her red hair and bold attitude!) Non-conforming Katherine Hepburn bucked gendered stereotypes for leading women throughout her career. She refused to conform to the gendered standards for dress in her days in the late 1930s and early 1940s by daring to wear—of all things—pants! She cut her hair short and was a self-professed “tomboy.” She experienced speculation about her sexuality due to her close female friendships and refusal to conform to gendered norms of behavior and dress. What courage and character she exemplified to be true to herself.
Then I read “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT and the Fight for Women in Science,” Salem College’s first-year read, about the groundbreaking women academics of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who pioneered their way through academic politics and outright discrimination in the mid-20th century. Eventually, their awakening to the more subtle forms of discrimination and bias led to a committee report detailing MIT’s decades of gender discrimination in terms of salary, space allocation, leadership positions, and more. The book chronicles the careers of multiple women scientists and those reluctant feminists who came to understand that, despite their hard work and acclaim as academics and scientists, being a woman barred them from many of the opportunities and perks afforded to their male colleagues well into the 1990s. This book is vital for our first-year students to raise their awareness about this important historical period. Many of our students today grew up in a time when feminism was often perceived negatively or when the public narrative declared feminism dead and no longer needed because women had achieved equality. The stories of “The Exceptions” remind us that the fight for women’s rights and equal treatment is not something of a bygone era but something that continues today well into the 21st century.
Then came Barbie. I’ll go so far as to proclaim Barbie as “The Feminist Icon of 2023.” I confess that when I sat down in the movie theater (for the very first time since the pandemic), I was unsure if I was going to like this movie. I had high hopes based on Greta Gerwig’s writing and directorial prowess, but my skepticism persisted as I ate my movie snacks. As I listened to America Ferrera’s moving feminist monologue near the end of the film, tears welled up in my eyes. I was overwhelmed by the impact of her words. What it uniquely and powerfully captured for me was the impossibility of being a woman today, the dualism that women are asked to live with daily (thin but not too thin, smart but not too smart) and to always be in perfect stasis and in sync with society’s ever-changing norms and expectations. “It is literally impossible to be a woman…Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong,” she said. Why can’t we all just be enough?
Today, in 2023, perhaps now even more than in any other time in recent history, women are fighting to be accepted as they are. To exercise their reproductive rights. To express their gender identity. To have (or not have) children. To be represented in research and in the media. To be paid the same for the same work. Just as Katherine Hepburn did in 1943 and Nancy Hopkins did at MIT in 1973.
The fight for gender equity and the freedom to be the person someone wants to be is far from over, despite claims from many sectors to the contrary. Even where progress has been made, it has not been experienced equally by all women. As just one example, we continue to see significant disparities in health outcomes, such as significantly higher maternal mortality among African-American women, an issue that does not get nearly enough research funding or policy attention.
The disparities are real, and the fight is necessary. For all of our progress in seeing women leaders in our society, all the way to the Vice President of the United States, those women are still, as Kate Zernike put it, the exceptions. Women executive leaders in health are still the minority, and an even smaller number are women of color. Every day, women worldwide struggle to be seen, heard, and accepted for who they are, the clothes they wear, the careers they choose, the childbearing decisions they make, and the opportunities they do and do not take.
Being an accepting environment for women is what Salem Academy and College is about. One alumna even said to me recently that “Salem is Barbieland,” and what she meant by that is we are an empowering, women-centered environment where women are in charge and can be whatever they want to be. She is right (although we have much less pink decor). Women’s colleges are one of the few remaining institutions exclusively committed to promoting and empowering those who identify as women as well as those raised as women and girls, to advocating for gender equity for all, and to working tirelessly to make Ms. Ferrera’s monologue no longer the lived reality for so many.
We all need to reclaim feminism and proudly proclaim our right to be whatever kind of Barbie (or Ken) we want to be. To stand up in the face of bias and injustices, large and small, and hope that one day soon, we will no longer so strongly identify with the impossibility of being a woman.
Summer J. McGee, Ph.D., CPH
Salem Academy and College
601 South Church Street
Winston Salem, NC 27101