Lesser Shades of Equal: Tamar Altebarmakian writes about the significance of small gestures
I had a professor who occasionally joined the graduate students for beers after class. He was a very intelligent man, respectful, kind. He was, and still is, someone I admire a great deal. He came out with us and recounted his life experiences, and at around fifty years of age, his experiences were plentiful. My fellow students and I eagerly lapped up every story and every piece of advice he imparted upon us. And at the end of each of our post-class outings, he stood up and shook hands with each of the men in our group and gave a gentle nod to the women.
Now, the younger version of me really, really wanted a handshake. I respected the professor and wanted to shake his hand. So one day, when he had finished doling out his perfunctory handshakes to each of the men in our class, I stood up and presented my hand to him.
The professor glanced at it for a moment, tilted his head, and then, without making a big production of it, he gave me a bright smile and shook my hand. And you know what, it was extremely satisfying. Not so much the act. As far as handshakes go, it was decent. It was the meaning behind the act. The solidarity. The mutual respect.
I’m recounting this experience, not because it was anything particularly noteworthy in the grand scheme of things, but because when I told some friends about it, they acted as if what I’d done was silly and culturally insensitive. What if you made your professor uncomfortable? I’m certain that I didn’t. He teaches at a liberal west coast campus, and he’s fairly vocal about his progressive leanings. The response from a majority of my friends was that I was being too feminist—a recurring chorus in my life and one that’s been getting louder and louder.
This accusation of being ‘too feminist’ comes up when I see a movie and complain about the flat, 2-dimensional characterization of a female character. When I look at a professor’s syllabus and point out the lack of female authors on the reading list. When I watch the news and note that the big movers and shakers are predominately white men (and this extends to the lack of equity for all marginalized people within society). I’m repeatedly told to let these things go. I’m told that the feminist movement has plateaued and that I’m nitpicking. Nitpicking would be complaining about how only forty-nine percent (not the existing fourteen percent) of the world’s CEOs are women, while the rest, the majority, are men. But that is not the world we live in.
So, I prompted my professor to shake my hand. I don’t regret it. It did not have a massive impact on either of our lives. At least I don’t think it did; but you know what, whenever I see that professor at school events, he always strides towards me, holds out his hand, and waits for me to shake it. Small as the gesture may be, it matters to me. It matters to our society. When you walk into a room for an interview, one of the first things a potential employer does is shake your hand. For many, it’s a way of gauging one’s strength of character. I do not believe that wanting my professor to shake my hand was a product of too much feminism on my part. I’m not even certain what being ‘too feminist’ means. A feminist’s ultimate goal is to attain gender equality, which would mean my friends are criticizing me for wanting things to be too equal. Equal means the same—there aren’t lesser degrees of equal. There are, however, lesser degrees of a person’s, a company’s, a society’s commitment towards achieving equality, and that, I think, can be challenged if those who are criticized for being ‘too feminist’ continue to speak out.
Tamar Altebarmakian is an MFA student at California State University of Long Beach and past fiction contributor to So to Speak. She is a recent recipient of the Gerald Locklin Writing Prize, as well as the Upcoming Writer Scholarship from the Literary Women: Long Beach Festival of Authors committee. Her work has appeared in RipRap, and Carnival Literary Journal, and will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Pearl.