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The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

Khoon Tee Tan

A war of the sexes seems to have been brewing right here at MIT over the past few weeks. In tit-for-tat fashion, posters and counterposters, statements and counterstatements cram the notice boards, vying for your attention and mine. Quite honestly, I have never experienced anything quite like this before, not even at Cambridge University, which is arguably a bastion of liberal ideals.

Much of the chagrin of the “campus feminists,” if you will, has to do with what is perceived to be posters demeaning to women, and such fury has been fueled further by the “long live the patriarchy” episode at the Class of 2004 Ring Premiere. In taking a view that is unsupportive of the ladies who are insulted and offended by silly posters and symbolic insignia, I run the risk of being unfairly labeled as one of the “patriarchs.” It is a risk worth taking for the benefit of sharing an honest, and in my humble opinion, reasonable view. In fact, all I deign to argue with is the manner in which the championing of women’s rights has been carried out with such self-pity and such narrow focus.

Posters such as those we see around campus usually serve to advertise an event, or to promote a particular point of view. In the case of the posters which rile some people to no end, the fact is that they merely serve as advertisements of student parties and events which are by nature harmless fun. One may take a view for or against the use of images of scantily clad men and women on campus posters, but no matter what, it is quite obvious that those posters were not championing the subjugation of women. If a majority of the women here held the view that their rights were not being respected, then these events would have been subjected to massive boycotts without even the need to organize any, and the posters would have been self-defeating. But this has not been the case, precisely because those who attend such events do so of their own free will and above all, to have a good time, and not because they are forced to submit to some patriarchal system at MIT.

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. And so it is with posters, and with the people who design and read them. Physical attraction is nothing new to the human race. The designers of those posters no doubt hoped to capitalize on this, while having some fun along the way. I suspect that they are not losing sleep over the stormy reception they were given, and may even be enjoying it. If anyone is losing sleep at all, it will be those who get worked up over silly posters and wish to “smash the patriarchy” by expressing their fury.

This is certainly not to deny that many women around the world are being discriminated against. According to the World Bank, in 1999, 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty were women. Of the world’s 900 million illiterate people, women outnumbered men by 2:1, and women were paid 30 to 40 percent less than men for comparable work (Gro Harlem Brundtland, Harvard International Review Fall 1999). Such inequalities are too stark to be explained by anything other than gender discrimination.

One would naturally have some moral inclination towards reducing such inequalities. But why? We need to realize that women’s rights are not merely egalitarian concepts which are important for their own sake. The well-being of entire societies is at stake. I dare say that any society in which women are poorly educated and suffer from ill health is a basket case that will continue to be a basket case unless some things change. Not only do women contribute to the workforce, but are often the main influence in shaping the impressionable minds of their children. And so the hand that rocks the cradle does indeed rule the world, as William Wallace poetically put it.

Broadly speaking, the repression of women in the modern world is the unfair result of the insecurities of male-dominated societies. Not all men are clever enough to appreciate and to accept the beauty of educated women; so meeting one heightens their sense of lacking to various degrees. Women are therefore compelled to illiteracy by cultural norms, and end up being excluded from the mainstream of economic, political and even social life. And the truth is that cultural norms and attitudes are terribly difficult to change by way of force or even political lobbying. But cultures do change and perceptions do vary over time.

And because perception has as much to do with the one perceiving as the one who is perceived, women at MIT and other esteemed institutions of higher learning hold arguably the most precious keys to unlocking the narrow minds of some people, while tearing down the mental barriers which so often shackle human society. Doing so does not require tearing down posters, nor protesting over insignia. These are superficial issues, which do not even count as symptoms of discriminatory behavior. One should not waste time, effort and precious notice board space for something so inconsequential. Real change occurs from real deeds and real achievements.

In any case, the vocal voice of women at MIT is a tribute to the culture on campus. It is proof enough, if any is needed, that women here possess a degree of freedom that many others can only wish for. It is quite likely that many MIT men and women perceive the situation this way. As was said by Queen Gertrude to Prince Hamlet, while watching a court play, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”