At the first Undergraduate Student Government meeting of the semester on Tuesday, USG senators voted to change the name of the Women’s Student Assembly to the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment. Although it seems like a simple cosmetic fix, this step is worthwhile in USC’s continuing effort to make students of all gender identities feel comfortable on campus.
SAGE was founded in 1990 to “raise the awareness, impact and voices of those oppressed by the patriarchy” and work toward “intersectional, collective liberation.” As one of nine assemblies within the USG Program Board, it works to organize events that discuss issues of sexual violence, body image and feminism and to influence campus culture. Considering these stated goals, the name change is quite logical.
SAGE’s name aligns the group better with its stated aims; and besides, it was always a little bit silly to have a special interest group named for women when women make up over half of the student population. Using the term “gender empowerment” shows that the group is less dedicated to any specific gender and is more concerned about issues surrouding the patriarchal system. The group of those “oppressed by the patriarchy” would not only include cisgendered women, but also everyone who lives outside of the heteronormative expectations for gender, such as transgender men and women and those who decide to live outside of the gender binary. One could even argue that cisgender men are “oppressed by the patriarchy” on some level because they are also affected by issues like poor body image and a culture of sexual violence that stems from the patriarchal system. In this way, the organization is truly inclusive of all genders.
The decision to shift the stated focus of one of the University’s most prominent student interest groups is a reflection of the power of student voices. USC’s efforts to be welcoming and supportive of all gender identities have become increasingly apparent, beginning with the expansion of gender-neutral bathrooms and continuing with introduction of gender-neutral student housing. A new name for the only gender-focused assembly is just the next logical step toward a gender-inclusive campus.
A name can only go so far, though. To see any real change on the issues of gender inclusion and empowerment, students should heed the message of SAGE and consider the myriad of harmful ways that patriarchy affects them, regardless of their own genders. Patriarchy can reveal itself in small ways, like the specific expectations of male and female behavior that leave men afraid to show weakness and women unable to showcase ambition. Research from Columbia University has shown that these subtle biases lead to a classroom environment in which male students dominate the discussion, despite the female majority in higher education. This results in a lack of confidence in many female students. Though the research did not address those who are not cisgender, the influence of male dominance on their academic performance would surely be similar, if not more, pronounced in the classroom.
Once the campus community can accept that patriarchy is a factor in their lives, it can begin the work to change it. Actions like adding gender-inclusive bathrooms, housing and signage are a fine start, but openness and inclusivity come from the individual level, not the institutional. It doesn’t seem like a radical act to simply be kind and respectful about issues of gender and sexuality, but in today’s fraught climate, it truly is. SAGE’s name signals that the campus is ready for dialogue and action on these issues, and it is now the responsibility of individual students to pursue just objectives.