The climate for women’s rights in college continues to change in the light of the political and social changes happening in the world around women. Female students and professors have all had different experiences but share a common plight--fighting for equality, safety and respect in both their personal and professional lives.
College towns bring together people from many different backgrounds and force them to work and live together very suddenly. When the system works well, it’s simple. Everyone is treated with respect and anyone can move up in the professional world based on the quality of their work. When the system doesn’t work as well, it’s to the extreme; women have to fight for their respect and fear for their safety. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, even as one of the most diverse colleges in the state, still has its fair share of social issues, especially when it comes to women.
Kara Stafford, freshman, has had her share of encounters with men not respecting personal boundaries.
“One time on campus I was walking home and I had my headphones on minding my own business. This guy saw me and he immediately grabbed my arm so I could talk to him. Personally, I don’t like being grabbed by people, especially by men I don’t know,” Stafford said.
Another time, Stafford was making a business-related phone call as a man kept asking her for her number and if she was single. The man continued to distract her despite of her being busy and showed no respect for her time.
Stafford has gotten used to having her space invaded. She, like a lot of women in college, had to put up with the cat-calling, unwanted touching, with the disrespect in the back of her mind and try to ignore it as she goes about her day. Stafford still feels strongly about it however.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable and disgusted. I’m not an object,” she said.
Stafford’s story shows that socially, there are men in college who think very little of women as people who are entitled to their own space. Sexist attitudes in college extend past social interactions and into the professional world as well.
Sports exercise science student Jordan Nabors feels that she isn’t taken as seriously as her male counterparts at her job. Sports and athletics are usually fields dominated by men and as a woman trying to break into the profession, Nabors feels belittled at times.
“I feel like my supervisor feels like I’m incompetent and doesn’t give me the same respect as the men [at my workplace],” Nabors said.
Junior Jennifer Parker shared a similar, but much more drastic experience with Stafford and Nabors. A local homeless man known for being loud and belligerent showed up late one night to the pizza shop where Parker works.
"As a manager, we are expected to handle situations like this that arise, but he never usually bothered me too much...I walked over to the counter and smiled. “What’s up, Fitz?” He said, “baby I got you something,” and put a Hardee’s bag on the counter. A pair of boots were inside the bag. I was confused but I said, “Fitz, I wear a size 11; I’m sure they won’t fit. Thank you, though,” she said.
Fitz persisted. “He then said “they are a size 11!” So I then asked him why he doesn’t keep them. “They’re women’s boots! Do I look like a woman to you?” I could tell in his voice that he was getting angry, so I tried to joke with him. “Could’ve fooled me,” I said, giggling. “I’m playing, but keep this for someone who really needs them. Thank you, but I got to get back to work,” Parker said.
Parker recalled the moment where the encounter went to the extreme.
“He jumped up on the steps and yelled, “well f*ck you too, you stupid a**, ugly a** b*tch! I hope you get r*ped and jumped when you leave here!” And ran out of the store,” she said.
“He chose the worst fear of a woman just because he didn’t get his way. As a rape victim, I also felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. I continuously push memories of the incident away, but that was a clear reminder that once doesn’t mean never again. It can always happen again,” Parker said.
Even though these stories are a small sample size, they serve as a clear sign that female students face physical and verbal abuse, as well as belittlement from men all over college campuses. These women are aware of the uphill battle they face for respect, as well as the danger that they’re constantly in.
“As silly as this sounds, it’s like you always have to be on a constant lookout for yourself. You always hear about rape stories and stuff like that so we have to be extra careful with what we do especially in the area we are in! We can’t really go anywhere alone,” student Jocelyn Mejia said.
Female professors and faculty at UNCP aren’t even immune to the dangers of the male-dominated power structure in college. Hannah Baggott Anderson, an English lecturer at the university, even faces her share of problems at school.
“Particularly as an educator, we have some men in our courses that do not listen to us at all. They have a visible lack of respect for anything that we have to say. And we know it’s a gender thing. We want to be able to say 'tell me you act like this in front of your male professors because I know you don’t,'” Anderson said.
All of these issues don’t just speak to a “man problem” at the university or in the area around it. Women at UNCP acknowledge their roles in trying to change the environment around them and recognize that there are men who respect their female counterparts in college.
Despite her experiences, Parker would like to see women not to be so scared in their approach when it comes to dealing with men.
“I think a lot of women live their lives too safe. They’re so focused on the fact they could get hurt by a man that they change how they live for men. It shouldn’t be that way...I think women need to understand that there are more people in their situation than they think. Don’t be afraid to speak out[about an issue], no matter how scary it is...Once I finally spoke up, a weight was lifted emotionally. Not only that, but now I am able to use it as part of my story. I help others daily. It reminds me that my past is a set of stepping stones, not stumbling blocks,” Parker said.