It’s been a rough eight years for women’s rights, with a would-be cowboy president determinedly decimating reproductive rights and appointing such judges as Arkansas attorney J. Leon Holmes, a man who had publicly written that “a woman is to subordinate herself to her husband.” Despite this, globally, women made inroads against gender bias and discrimination, but also lost ground as well, illustrating that the march towards gender equality is an enterprise without a concrete destination.
But on Jan. 20, those eight years officially drew to a close. That’s right, there’s a new sheriff in town, one who feminists are speculating will be considerably more amenable to their cause. And what better way to celebrate than by attending a free lecture series hosted jointly by the SLO Public Library and Cal Poly’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department?
“The time is definitely ripe for a discussion about equality, liberation, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man,” said Rachel Fernflores, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies and co-organizer of the lecture series.
The lecture series is part of a calculated effort to increase the number of programs for adults, and followed a successful program titled Tell Her Story that was hosted at the library last March. According to Library Manager Kristine Tardiff, one of the best methods of accomplishing this aim is recruiting community partners; a university teeming with experts in various fields seemed like a natural source of lecturers.
“We have a shared interest in using our resources to serve the community,” said Fernflores. “This is a forum in which we can do that.”
Beyond selecting speakers who are all very active in their respective fields of study, Fernflores was particularly interested in stepping beyond the watered-down discussions of feminism that tend to dominate popular culture. While the subject matter isn’t necessarily cutting edge from an academic standpoint, the series will provide those in attendance with a broad overview of real issues that women face and feminism addresses.
“We’re a public institution, so we don’t censure anything,” said Tardiff. “We’re definitely supporters of intellectual freedom.”
Right now, perhaps because the economy discourages actually purchasing new products, the library is a more popular destination than ever, with circulation up by 40 percent. In short, it’s the perfect environment—both economically and politically—for a free lecture series addressing the subject of gender.
The first of these lectures already occurred, but the second—Women Around the World: Challenges and Triumphs—is just around the corner. On Feb. 3 Patrice Engle, a Professor of Psychology and Child Development at Cal Poly, as well as an advisory board member for the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, will address the issues facing women globally, specifically discussing how the United States plays a role in exacerbating or mitigating those challenges.
While Engle’s specific interest is children’s growth and development, she’s quick to point to the fact that womens’ status directly affects childrens’ well being. Topics of particular importance include inequality in the workspace, access to education, maternal depression, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, and HIV. Several of these issues are more specific to particular regions, while others—such as inequality in the workspace and maternal depression—are universal.
“I think we in the US need to be aware of the global perspective and what we’re doing to help and hinder women achieving equal status,” Engle explained. She’s specifically interested in discussing Afghanistan and Iraq, countries where the United States’ current foreign policy has had a direct and far-reaching effect. Another policy that doesn’t affect a particular region or country so much as the entire world is what Engle called “the global gag rule,” a mandate that Bush made in 2001 stating that any organization that supports abortion would not have access to United States funding.
Beyond merely acknowledging that the United States can and does have an impact on women in foreign countries, Engle will present reasons that Americans should be concerned about the nature of this impact. Perhaps more importantly still, she wants Americans to realize that the United States isn’t as progressive as many people might want to believe. In fact, the United Nations rated the United States twelfth in the world in its assessment of gender equality, meaning that discussions about women’s issues globally must preclude self-complacency. Ideally such discourse will lead to a better understanding of our own culture and ways in which we could improve policies and attitudes about gender.
While teaching a women’s studies course, Engle notices that a discussion about dowry deaths in India can provoke students to re-evaluate such long-standing traditions as women taking their husband’s last names. By creating the possibility to question and discuss cultural dictates and customs that generally remain unchallenged, Engle hopes to encourage students—and anyone who elects to attend her lecture—to think critically about gender and social change.
“One of the things that I think is really interesting is that students begin to see themselves and their perspectives more clearly,” said Engle. “I do think that people do see more things about our culture when you see the more extreme differences.”
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach knows that, as of Jan. 20, women around the world are much better off. Send ‘amen sisters’ to firstname.lastname@example.org.