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The power of language, and other revelations of a college fresh(wo)man.

As I timidly approached my first-year dorm, besieged by the merciless heat of the Los Angelean sun and accompanied by an entourage of family members carrying with them the array of items I somehow couldn't bear to part with back home in Portland, I nervously began introducing myself to my new classmates. Eighteen years old and terrified by the prospect of beginning a new life in Southern California away from the people and places I held the closest, I found myself reassured by the college's distinctly feminist mission and specific devotion to women's higher education. I felt confident that, in my new home, I would be surrounded by like-minded progressive faculty and students, and that this would be the place to nurture and grow in the feminist ideals of my childhood.

My perhaps naive ,expectations of a women s college experience were quickly challenged by many of my 200 fellow incoming classmates' immediate disassociation from the term "feminist." I noticed that many of the young women who lived in my residence hall treated this word with disdain--and asserted that they did not identify as "feminists" simply because they attended a women's college. I witnessed more dramatic eye-rolling and expressions of classic teenage apathy at the mention of "feminist issues" or the "marginalization of women" in those first weeks of college than I could count. On multiple occasions, when chatting with peers, my mention of plans to major in Gender and Women's Studies were met with indignant and strangely defensive comments like: "I'm not into all that women's rights stuff; enough already!"

In class, however, the new ideas I was being exposed to were invigorating. Discussions of Western philosophers and Eastern art, of women's health issues in Latin America and postmodern architecrural theory challenged me in new ways, and I often left class feeling as if everything I had learned up to this point had been turned on its head, or rather, that I had simply been turned on my head!

Bewildered by the lack of cohesion between my classroom and residence hall experience, I found myself simultaneously academically fulfilled and socially perplexed. My initial response was to think, quite simply, "I don't belong here." Acting on this discomfort I immediately (and somewhat frantically) began researching other colleges, requesting view-books and printing transfer applications. However, after many long-distance phone calls and office hours with professors and mentors, I decided to stay planted in California through my first year and reevaluate my college plans in the Spring.

At the end of my first semester, while studying for final examinations and struggling to write multiple research papers, I participated in a harried--however life-altering late-night study session. Sprawled on the floor of our residence hall, my classmates and I intently faced one another, debating and notating until sunrise. The power of language. It seemed as if all roads led to this conclusion. The theories of language and communication advanced by philosophers and linguists like Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure began rolling off our tongues in reference to class content ranging from "Introductory Psychology" to "Race and Politics in America." Suddenly I realized the social science classes like psychology and economics that I had always blindly assumed were "objective" and "factual" were just as influenced by the power of language as were my literature and writing classes. So it seemed, if descriptions of study populations and economic principles were influenced by word choice, then discussions of intangible ideas like "feminism" could hardly escape the pressures of linguistic perspective and subjectivity.

As the weeks quickly passed, I found my roots growing deeper and deeper in Southern Californian soil. In each classroom and every residence hall I continued to struggle with the fundamental issue of language and communication. How can we ever hope to affect any real change or communicate in any "pure" way, beyond the inevitable tangles of relativity, when language is so invested with an individual's and society's ingrained values and experiences? How can a movement, two people, or two nations and a deeply dependent global community ever expect to be "on the same page"? For much of that first year I watched, confounded, as young women in my various classes repeatedly denounced feminism while simultaneously engaging in conversations and activities I perceived as overtly "feminist" or pro-woman. The more I learned about my peers in the classroom and our extra-curricular lives, the more I realized that our initial miscommunications largely stemmed from linguistic shortcomings. Words divided us.

My classmates and I inherited an antique framework for talking about a feminist movement many thought (and even more wished) was dead, and were left ill-equipped to address the concerns specific to our own generation. Terms like "feminist" and "women's rights" were appropriated by a popular culture that vandalized their power and left them with only a partial ability to engage, excite, and motivate. Many of the young women in my generation grew up hearing these words spoken only satirically and imbibed a mainstream mentality that feminism had reached the end of the road. Equality had been achieved--and it was time for women to stop their bitching.

So here I am, four years later, hardly the timid and unsteadied college first-year, but also hardly sure of which step to take next--only certain the step must be taken. What seems paramount to me, is that as our "feminist"-minded movement grows and changes, we continue to seek new words to reinvigorate and reframe our message(s). The foibles of my first year in college, if nothing else, taught me of both the unifying and alienating power of language. As we--young people invested in the broader movement for socially conscious and inclusive change--move forward, it is essential that we reflect the lessons of our own experiences in the language we choose and, as always, lift up our collective voice.

Lisa Jacobs is a recent graduate of Scripps College of the Claremont College Consortium in Southern California. Lisa double-majored in Studio Art and Gender and Women's Studies and pursued an academic course-load with an emphasis on the politics of healthcare. Lisa's future plans include, as a recent for. tune cookie cemented, "stepping on the soil of many countries" and pursuing her passion for the women's health movement both at home and abroad. Lisa was an intern in the Fall and Winter of 2005-2006.
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Title Annotation:young FEMINISTS
Author:Jacbos, Lisa
Publication:Women's Health Activist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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