By Lonneke de Klerk
On Wednesday, August 28, 2013, the 2013-2014 academic year was officially opened during the annual convocation ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk. Dr. Nancy Mykoff gave the opening address, entitled ‘Gender Matters’. Mykoff studied American History at New York University and she currently teaches History and Gender Studies at University College Roosevelt. Even though Dr. Mykoff promotes the importance of gender, the enrollment for Gender Studies was lower than ever this year. How come? And why does gender matter?
Answering that question is a task that Dr. Mykoff did not find easy: “When Barbara Oomen asked me to hold the opening address this year, I first said no”, she confirms. “It takes my students at least three months to understand the importance of gender. How can I ever explain it in 15 minutes?” The importance of gender may indeed be a difficult subject to explain in such a short time. However, Dr. Mykoff helped the audience a great deal by using close-to-home examples.
“In the Netherlands, students often ride to and from school by bicycle. If a woman and man only have one bicycle, more often than not, she will sit on the back of the bike, even though A) she’s the owner of the bike, B) she weighs more than him and C) he has a bad back.” This illustrates the way in which gender and its differentiation unconsciously rule our lives. Biology was often used to justify differences in gender, but it is fairly obvious that there is no gene that women have that men don’t, that makes women sit on the back of bikes.
According to Dr. Mykoff, gender is a socially constructed idea that is integrated in our society. This means that we behave according to the rules of gender, like in the example above. This sitting on the back of the bike example might be innocent, but this gendered behavior can have much more serious effects.
One of those serious effects is a situation that occurred in Florida last year, when an off-duty neighborhood watch shot Trayvon Martin because he simply thought Martin was acting ‘suspicious’. The jury decided he was not guilty of murder, as he perceived the man as a life-threatening situation.
That same month, also in Florida, Marissa Alexander shot at her abusive husband as he chased her down the street. She received 21 years in jail for attempted murder. “Why?”, asks Dr. Mykoff, “Because of the social constructions of gender: women aren’t expected to be violent”.
So, in contrast to what is believed by many, Gender Studies is not just about women; it’s about men too. Still, the students in Gender Studies classes are predominantly female. According to Dr. Mykoff, male students are afraid to take the course, “because they think it’s about feminism and burning bras. I don’t burn my bra, I don’t burn anything except for my food sometimes”.
Dr. Mykoff agrees that changing the name of the Gender Studies track would be a good start to change the flawed image it currently has. Hopefully, this will result in more students taking these classes, both male and female and every other gender that exists. Why? Because gender matters.
Lonneke de Klerk, class of 2015, is a Literature and Linguistics major from Middelburg, the Netherlands.