Originally published in the Humanities Newsletter 2017 edition.
The Gender Studies Club, better known as The Birkenstocks, was created at DeSales University in the spring of 2016.
“The goal is to talk about current topics that come up in the media and share opinions in an open space where there is no judgment,” said Jennifer Thuss, Birkenstocks president.
Currently, the club is all women, but members encourage men to join.
“It seems like an intimidating thing for guys to want to join because there’s this perception that gender means female, but that’s not true. Gender includes everyone,” said Dr. Katherine Grasso, the club’s advisor and communication professor. “So the more voices that we could have in these conversations, the more we could learn. And the more that we reflect on gender and what that means for each individual, the more I think we understand different experiences, and hopefully work on compassion, equality and justice in terms of gender issues.”
The club was formed after Grasso taught a gender communication course in fall of 2015.
“At the end of the semester, a handful of students, about five or six of them, said that they didn’t want the conversations to end so they asked if we could meet outside of class.”
The students were the catalyst of the club and Grasso happily agreed to be their advisor. The Birkenstocks meet every other Tuesday to discuss articles or documentaries on issues related to gender such as rape, sex, prostitution, transgendered issues, abortion, and stereotypes of men and women.
Earlier this year, members watched the documentary “Fantastic Lies” about the Duke lacrosse team who were falsely accused of gang rape.
“It was interesting because I thought they did it, and I felt bed after because I had the stereotype in my mind that they partied too hard. And the fact that they hired a prostitute made them look guilty even though they weren’t,” said Erin Grube, treasurer of Birkenstocks.
Articles and documentaries, which often break down stereotypes or offers new viewpoints such as “Fantastic Lies,” are picked by suggestions from Grasso or members of the club. Although the topics are heavy and members often have conflicting views, the club is always welcoming.
The atmosphere is so much fun,” said Thuss. “It’s usually upbeat, but when we are talking about harder topics it’s serious, and by the end we always bring it back to something fun.”
One of the fun yet serious elements of the club is its name Birkenstocks, or Birks for short.
“Birkenstocks, I think most people know, are one of the stereotypical symbols of an angry, hairy, man-hating, Subaru-driving feminist,” said Grasso. “We wanted to reclaim something that had previously been rooted in a negative evaluation and make it something that we owned and that was positive and that was funny.”
There is a lot of rhetoric around the word “feminism” such as man-hating and angry women, which simply isn’t true.
“Feminism is the advocacy of equal rights between the genders in terms of social issues, political issues, and economic issues, so it’s really advocacy of the equality of the sexes,” said Grasso.
Grube has a similar definition of feminism.
“A feminist is someone who wants equal rights between men and women,” she said. “I’m for that and believe there should be no disparities between the genders.”
A lot of the stereotypical views of feminists come from media portrayals of radical women burning bras; however, knowledge is lacking as well.
“I think it’s rooted in not understanding it or not knowing it, which is all the more reason for people to talk about it and explore it,” said Grasso. “So it’s not a club saying you have to be a feminist to be part of the conversation, but you have to be willing to challenge your preconceived notions about feminism.”
Overall, the club fosters unique discussion about gender issues and the members of the club bring unique perspectives to the table.
Grasso encourages anyone who’s curious about gender, even if they don’t know what gender really means, to join.
“I really enjoy this club and the group of people in it. It’s a safe environment where we can share our ideas that we might not be able to share anywhere else,” said Thuss. “This is only the second year for the club so I see a lot of growth possible and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the future.”