Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Matter of Identity

Yesterday in my Legislation & Regulation class, we were discussing the case of Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983),* where the Court upheld the IRS's determination that BJU and other racially discriminatory educational institutions would lose their tax-exempt status. As law professors often do, Professor Bagley posed a hypothetical—should women-only schools also be denied tax-exempt status as being discriminatory? Behind me, I could hear my friends Katie & Matt having a very fierce whispered conversation. As I learned after class, Matt was saying that maybe such schools should if one day we get to the point of true gender equality. Katie (who for full disclosure did go to Barnard) made the argument that even if that day did come, women's schools should still be ok for the same reason HBCUs will always be ok: because it's a matter of identity.

For what it's worth on that point, I agree with Katie. I usually do, she's pretty smart. However, the conversation got me thinking about the matter of identity. See, one of the questions I get asked a lot is why I've never joined the Women Law Students' Association (sometimes by Katie, sometimes by other people I know who are on the WLSA board). I care about many of the issues women law students face, being one myself (I know, how shocking). I'm on the board of Law Students for Reproductive Justice and we often co-sponsor events. I even danced in the WLSA act for the law school's culture show last November (starting at about 24:15; speaking of Katie, she's the awesome soloist). 

However, I've never joined WLSA or any of the other “affinity” law student groups I could. I don't really have a good reason. Like I said above, I agree with a lot of what they do. WLSA offers a support network for a group of people that, while we make up a good proportion of the law school population, still faces huge occupational challenges. It's not the dues either. I think it has more to do with the question of identity.

By that I don't mean that I don't view myself or identify as a woman. I'm pretty happy with that most of the time, all things considered. (Even if I didn't, it's not like only women who identify solely 100% as women are allowed in WLSA or anything, and it doesn't explain my avoidance of other affinity groups.) However, I do tend to reject that as a view of my identity. I've always been irrationally annoyed when approached for my view on something “as a woman,” or even when someone compliments me for doing something not stereotypically expected of women, like a friend once making a grrl power comment when she saw me carrying lumber. I feel the same sort of annoyance when people act like it's exceptional that a woman knows how to use power tools, whether they're referring to me, a third party, or even to themselves. Hell, I'm not even particularly fond of “girls' nights" on a regular basis.

I know that's not all what affinity groups are about, but it sort of touches on the other reason. I just don't know how I feel about the idea that just because we are women, we should feel affinity for each other for that reason. And that applies to anything that could be part of my identity that I didn't have a part in creating myself,** but it also only matters personally. I appreciate the important role they play, but for so long I've rejected that as an important part of my personal identity and I don't know that I have a problem with that. I'll continue to support WLSA and other such groups in all the work they do (especially if it means I get to dance on stage), but I'll probably continue to find excuses to avoid joining. It may not make sense or matter in the end, but I'm more comfortable that way.

*I just dropped a case cite in a blog post. This is why I'll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. 

**Except for the ginger supremacy movement, but that's a given.

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