By BETH MENDENHALL
Despite our obvious differences, there is one thing the people at goEMAW.com have absolutely right: K-State is a state of mind. The 5 years I spent at our university has made an indelible impression on my soul, and reinforces a Mendenhall family history steeped in purple pride. I love Kansas State, and as a new graduate student at a totally different university in a big city, I miss the Manhattan campus and students every single day.
Recently, the resurgence of the EMAW/EPAW controversy has drawn my attention back to Manhattan. I write here today to clear up some misconceptions about the EPAW movement, and especially my own involvement in it. I speak to you honestly, and with the best of intentions.
First, the argument. It’s really pretty simple. Terms like “man” and “mankind,” while ostensibly representing the entirety of humankind, do not. Absence of malicious intention is irrelevant. A significant amount of social science research indicates that language shapes the way we perceive and create our reality. The assumption that a term like “mankind” is universal is rooted in our cultural belief that men are the norm and women are derivative. There is an alternative term, “humankind,” which has the same denotation without the men-define-us connotations of “mankind.” There is a reason that women are still paid less than men for the same job, despite formal legal equality. That reason is the cultural and social biases in favor of men, and against women. Those cultural themes are not explicit. They operate below the level of public consciousness, and are both reflected and reinforced by our language choices. As such, the way you “feel” about what EMAW means, and what it reinforces, is not relevant. The effect gendered language has on us operates at a lower level of consciousness, but that makes it no less insidious.
EPAW does not alter a tradition. As eloquently described by goEMAW.com, “EMAW” represents a continuity of feeling between K-State students and alumni. The “M” is not the tradition, the “we are all wildcats” message is. “EPAW” maintains that tradition, but acknowledges progress in the culture of K-State students. The EMAW/EPAW debate is an opportunity for students to act on the progress in cultural gender equality achieved since the “traditional” slogan was coined. The reality of gender relations has come a long way since EMAW came to K-State, but it still has a long way to go. Those who believe that men and women have equal opportunity in our society are willfully ignorant. Because language both reflects and reinforces our reality, altering our slogan is a key step between formal equality, achieved since EMAW, and social equality, which has yet to actualize.
Now, the counter-arguments. To be honest, my responses to the #saveEMAW folks have gotten more and more aggressive and ad hominem-y because I really feel that they stem from closed-minded ignorance. For example, the fact that many K-State women are ok with EMAW is irrelevant. An unknowing victim of cultural male bias can be complicit in reinforcing the stereotypes that disempower her. Just because some women claim not to “feel” oppressed does not mean that they don’t live in a society that rewards them less for equal contributions. Additionally, “tradition” is not a strong argument for anything. It is “traditional” for women to be homemakers, racial minorities to occupy lower classes, and applying leeches to alleviate illness. “Tradition” is a description, not a value-claim.
The most ridiculous claim made by the #saveEMAW folks is that, following my argument to its logical conclusion, we would need to change our town’s name to “Personhattan” and I ought to adopt the moniker “Peopledenhall.” I know some of you are tweeting such things to be annoying, but others seem to honestly believe there is a connection here. This reveals a fundamental ignorance about gendered language that pervades much of the #saveEMAW contingent. There is a difference between words with the letters “m-a-n” or “m-e-n” and gendered language. Enough said.
Now, to clear up some misconceptions about my role in all this. In the last few days, I’ve received a deluge of commentary on facebook, twitter, and via email. Many believe I am “wasting my time.” In reality, writing this piece is the most time I’ve spent advocating for EPAW since I wrote the original article. I’ve moved on, to Baltimore, graduate school, and building a career for myself. The sign in front of the union, the new band formations, and the EPAW cookies at Hy-Vee are simply signs that the movement is picking up steam.
I did, however, recently fly home to attend the Kent State football game with my parents and friends from the debate team. While tailgating, I heard Tim Fitzgerald, of gopowercat.com and Powercat illustrated, make a series of ignorant and inaccurate statements about the EMAW/EPAW debate on the radio. Some friends and I went to find his tent at the game, and I approached him to explain the pro-EPAW arguments, as I felt he was building and attacking a straw-person. Initially, Mr. Fitzgerald refused to talk to me, saying after roughly 30 seconds “this conversation is over” and walking back to the free BBQ. After asking another radio station employee if this was how they generally treated their listeners, and K-State fans and alums, Mr. Fitzgerald was compelled to continue the conversation. Throughout the entire exchange Mr. Fitzgerald was rude and dismissive, and repeatedly called me and my opinion “silly.” I knew the best approach was a non-aggressive and reasonable one, and my goal was not to convince him to support EPAW, but rather to show him that he had misconceived the motivation behind the EPAW movement. Mr. Fitzgerald would listen to a few sentences, then re-state my argument hyperbolically, and dismiss it as silly. The account of the conversation posted on his website is, in my opinion, inaccurate. I left the 101.5 tent frustrated and upset, and in desperate need of a beer.
Since then, Mr. Fitzgerald has posted on his site that the conversation ended with him saying “nice talk, babe” and slapping me on the butt. This is inaccurate, and also highly offensive. To me, it reveals his attitude towards me during the conversation. I was simply a sex-object being cute by trying to express an unreasonable opinion, and when defeated by the big man with the BBQ, I needed to be reassured of my value as a woman with a butt-slap. I am not your “babe,” Mr. Fitzgerald, and your form of “humor” might have been acceptable in 1950’s America, but today simply reflects your commitment to a misogynistic mindset. It’s easy for men, who largely do not have to fear sexual assault or harassment, and don’t get discriminated against because of their gender, to think that this joke is funny. For me, it shows that some leaders of the K-State fan base simply don’t take women seriously.
Unfortunately, inappropriate and vitriolic comments like Mr. Fitzgerald’s have plagued the #saveEMAW movement. After writing the initial argument, one commenter expressed a desire to hit me in the face with a shovel. Others on gopowercat.com have demanded that I “know my role,” and one commenter even alluded to engaging me sexually against my will. After I was honored on the field along with the debate team at the football game, a fan yelled “eat shit, Mendenhall!” as we climbed the stairs to return to our tailgate. These few examples represent literally hundreds of ridiculous online comments. I have a tough skin, and I can handle the hate generated by the #saveEMAW movement. My concern is the way these people are representing our university, and what they say about our student body.
So, where do I hope we go from here? Well, for one, I would encourage anyone who is offended by Mr. Fitzgerald’s verbal sexual harassment to contact him, or President Schulz, about his representation of our university. Members of gopowercat.com could post on the forums populated by the underbelly of the #saveEMAW movement. In terms of EPAW, I have no involvement in the official distancing of the university from EMAW. I never called for banning the slogan- what I want is an organic movement by the students to change their slogan. If the students don’t want to adopt EPAW, that’s a shame. If they continue to publicly say violent and hateful things about EPAW supporters, that’s a bigger shame.
Finally, I want to address goEMAW.com directly. After some initial creepiness involving close analysis of pictures of me, the folks that populate the goEMAW.com forums have been open-minded and welcoming. Much of the support for EMAW expressed on this site is based on the idea that EMAW is not an acronym, but a distinct feeling of pride in K-State. They describe this feeling eloquently on their website. I believe, however, that their supposition that EMAW is not an acronym is incorrect. The pictures of Ahearn field house supporting EMAW as a tradition say “Every Man a Wildcat.” Furthermore, if EMAW is merely a reflection of a distinct and independent feeling one gets from being a K-Stater, then why do we need the “M”? A more accurate reflection of that feeling would be a gender-neutral one.
I believe that most of the people involved in the EMAW/EPAW debate, on both sides, have good intentions. We are all speaking from a place of pride in our university. Those who are exasperated by the fact that a semantic debate is taking up so much of our attention make a good point, however. I believe that what has made this conflict newsworthy is not the relative success of the EPAW movement, but the hateful backlash to it. What we need now is a productive campus dialog; we must strive to eschew hyperbolic claims in favor of well-reasoned arguments. I’ll be watching from a safe distance.
I would like to thank goEMAW.com for inviting me to write something for their website.
link to her original post: