During my master’s degree at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I made my first real feminist friend: Sara Gibson. This woman would turn out to be one of the most important people I have ever met, both personally and professionally. One day when we were early on in getting to know each other, she asked me a simple question I had somehow never been asked before: “How did you become a feminist?” I was sort of taken aback. Coming from the rural South in the United States, it was fairly radical to even use this word when I was growing up, but by the time I was in undergrad and took my first psychology of women course, I had decided to embrace the label.
However, when asked explicitly how this major piece of my identity had come about, it took me a few moments to form an answer. I thought back to my childhood, and how when my parents explained last names to me, I thought how unfair it was that women had to give up a piece of themselves. In about third grade, I started telling people I had a last name that combined my mother’s maiden surname and my father’s surname. My parents generally ignored this behaviour. I thought back to being put in objectively competitive situations with other girls as a ballet dancer, but not being allowed to acknowledge competition or my own feelings about my passion (or they theirs). I thought back to my dad telling me over and over, before I even hit puberty, “people are mean to fat girls,” and the genuine fear he instilled in me of food or eating in front of others. All this and so much more, before I even became an actual woman; that time would bring its own expansions on these issues, along with the obvious problems of sexuality in a patriarchal society.
In answering her, I found that I was always a feminist, in that I was always observant. Any girl who takes notice of her lot in life will inevitably become aware of the problematic cultural norms and this will force her to raise an internal alarm. Whether girls accept this as a problem and act on it is another matter. In answering her, I also found that maybe I wasn’t alone in re-learning how to live positively as a woman, because someone had bothered to ask. It was a turning point in my academic and personal life, and professionally I found a positive voice for what society had hitherto manipulated into being a negative defining feature of myself, my female-ness. In answering her, I found the importance, which I cannot overemphasize, of having feminist friends behind you in this world. I started my master’s thesis soon after, on the role of self-objectification in women’s sympathy, support, and blame for a victim of sexual violence, and I joined a sexual violence research lab. I found an academic mentor and community in the South I never expected, and it was this support that got me through some of my hardest days, leading ultimately to my starting a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in the Fall of 2016. Sara recently completed her thesis on the nature of affirmative consent on American college campuses, and is planning to go on to become a sex therapist.
I cannot write this piece without acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Only a few months into my current work here in Scotland, on the role of objectification and dehumanization on male sexual aggression, what felt like the unthinkable happened: my home country elected a sexual predator as President. I was devastated, and felt like everything I worked for was completely unimportant. I felt like hiding forever; and the anger, fear, and sorrow I felt was a very real presence in my life (and continues to be to a certain extent). The election brought on a depression I had never felt before, because it was completely out of my control. Turns out, Sara felt the same way, and it was only through countless text message conversations and slowly working through our broken hearts together, that we got back to work. I went from feeling my studies were made worthless and that I had lost a home, to re-framing my work into a context I admittedly never hoped to see. I became re-invigorated and more determined, as I realized feminist work, particularly in the realm of sexual aggression, had been made more important than ever. That process of acceptance and buckling down was wholly dependent on the support of another woman who once took a moment to ask me a very simple question.
About the Author
Casey L. Bevens is in her first year as a PhD student in social psychology at the University of Edinburgh working under the supervision of Dr. Steve Loughnan. She completed her master’s degree in 2016 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and spent her undergraduate career at Berry College, in Rome, Georgia.