As I’ve mentioned here a few times before, I went to MIT. The reason I keep saying “like so many girls in similar situations” is because there are a lot of women at MIT with similar backstories. The other thing about being at MIT, at least in my subculture, was that a lot of the overtly negative treatment regarding my interests or appearance – not all of it, but a lot, including pretty much all from femme women, of whom there are also many at MIT – went away. For the first time I was making friends with women with traditionally feminine interests, and I noticed that a lot of them, in this environment, were facing negative treatment of their own. I also noticed that the life science majors – dominated by women – were treated by too many students as easy and frivolous, with jokes about people getting As by sleeping with TAs. I felt a lot of pressure, both internal and external, to pick a male-dominated major (I didn’t, though ironically I went into one for graduate studies). I met femme queer women who felt insecure or excluded in that community. I started engaging a lot more with wider geek culture, which can be pretty sexist. I learned what internalized sexism meant. I realized that a lot of those men who complimented women for doing masculine-coded things were sexist asshats who didn’t respect women in general, and I got tired of hearing “But I don’t mean you!” if I complained about people’s comments about women.
I remember the shock that I felt when I found out that a guy who had never been anything but respectful to me was sexually harassing several very femme women in my wider social group. My conversations with him had all been about locksmithing, and he had treated me, with my black tactical pants and my men’s t-shirts and my unisex-geek-ponytail, like a colleague, while treating them like meat.
I don’t think feminine women have it harder than masculine women or vice versa…I think we experience sexism differently, at least sometimes. Like I said, people acted like I was a freak and threw random homophobic slurs (years before I realized that I was bi and started identifying as such) at me, because I was breaking norms, and in the minds of some, that deserves punishment. Feminine women often seem to get treated in a way that reflects contempt toward femininity – a contempt that, as I’ve said, I spent years getting over. They aren’t breaking that norm, but their norm is considered frivolous, second-class, and sexually available.
This went straight to my heart as a woman and a parent because I have a beautiful daughter who is good at everything from classically feminine pursuits like sewing and clothes designing, dance and hospitality to Math, Physics, Biology, and Philosophy. And yet she is refusing to even apply to MIT. Not because she can't do the work but because she fears, and I think rightly, being relegated to some kind of "also ran" status because she also loves History and English. Those courses being seen as "guts" or "too easy" at the moment because they are seen as feminine even though when the schools were all male they were seen as quite masculine.