Speaking of Women's Rights: Growing Feminists

Monday, March 8, 2010

Growing Feminists

Something we here at Legal Voice talk about, and think about, a lot: how do we effectively engage youth – both male and female – so that they, too, see the interconnectedness of what are sometimes seen as purely “women’s issues”?

I confess, I wasn’t always a feminist. I don’t think I was ever anti-feminist, but it is true, I didn’t always view things through a gendered lens.

However, I knew it wasn’t OK that my dad consistently belittled my mother (for her accent, for imperfect meal preparation, for not wearing the right makeup) and that he expected her to do the laundry, child care, and take care of all household matters even though she, too, worked outside the home.

I knew that I was lucky to be born in the U.S. and not in Korea like my mom, where first-born males were king. And I knew that even my mom had been lucky, all things considered: growing up through two wars, fatherless from age 4, my mother might well have not received schooling either. It was only because she was an only child – and because her mother had sufficient education to enable her to find employment outside the home – that she was able to go to school.

Yet I didn’t have a name for this sense that things … well, things just didn’t quite seem fair sometimes. Even though I attended an all-girls leadership camp, went on a civic education field trip to D.C., and took all manner of history classes – not once did the word “feminism” come up until college.

There, I learned that up until 20 years prior, my own school had refused to admit women – and when it did, the school merely tacked on an extra 250 to the entering class size, so it wouldn’t have to reduce any opportunities for the “1000 bright young men” it boasted of graduating each year. There, also, I learned of the fight for women’s suffrage, Simone de Beauvoir and the French feminists, Betty Friedan, and rising third world feminist political movements. Aha – perhaps the problem had no name, but the solution did (thank you, Betty)!

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised that when I attended a youth summit last week to facilitate a break-out session for a group of high school students, almost no one chose the topic “sexism.” Granted, we were up against some tough competition: drug/alcohol abuse, homelessness, the environment. Still, one would think the topic of “sexism” would be at least a little bit sexy? (We did eventually find participants and had a great conversation about a scenario involving Title IX and unequal funding of a girls’ sports team.)

Two things have stuck with me from that afternoon. One is when a female student said, “Wow. I guess I never really thought much about this issue, but I can see now how it is sexism.” The other is that the one male student at the table, who kept himself busy typing notes and didn’t participate in the conversation, except when directly asked a question.

One of women’s rights advocates’ biggest challenges is shining a light on the interconnections among issues in women’s lives – making the case for why women’s rights truly are “the cause of our time.”

Certainly, there’s nothing like experience to raise that awareness. Unfortunately, many women gain this awareness the hard way. One in five women will have their rude awakening during college; a shocking one in five women students will be subjected to rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate.

Others will experience that rude awakening at work. For Lilly Ledbetter, whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and who recently paid a trip to Seattle), it took an anonymous note in her work mailbox when she was in her late 50s – a note that informed her that her male counterparts at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company were being paid up to 30% more than she was.

Other women will become aware when they need emergency contraception, but face a pharmacist who refuses to dispense it based on his or her personal, religious, or other beliefs.

Some will be moved by stories about young women in other countries who are subjected to acid attacks just for going to school, who are sentenced by their culture as teens to marry their rapists, or who are sold into sexual slavery.

Many others, including males, will learn about gender equality through their own family members’ experiences. Children might realize the importance of women’s employment if their family’s primary breadwinner is a woman, as is increasingly the case. (See, for example, this recent report on women’s and men’s unemployment during the recession.)

If you are reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. So I’m curious: How did you become a feminist? What do you think we each can be doing to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to learn the hard way about why women’s rights matter? (Please feel free to add your comments below.)