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Post-Feminist Students? Think Again

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Growing up in the college town of Amherst, Mass., in the late 60’s and 70’s meant feminism was simply a way of life. I recall my 3rd grade teacher telling us that girls could do anything boys could and just as well. At age eight, it had never occurred to me to think otherwise, but I was smart enough to figure out that somebody must. “Oh, well,” I thought to myself, “we’ve cleared that up. Next?”

Attending junior high and high school in the early days of Title IX and having numerous college friends who attended women’s consciousness-raising groups helped me realize that there was still a lot of clearing up to do, as well as a lot of work being done. So when I joined the faculty of the all-girls Stoneleigh-Burnham School in the Fall of 1985, I was excited to see how far high school students had come since I had graduated.

Not that far, it turned out. SBS students joined a generation of Madonna wannabes in asserting their power and strength as young women by… showing their underwear. In the eyes of many students, feminism had become a dirty word. I pressed one of my students, “Don’t you believe that you should be able to work if you want, at whatever job you choose, and earn a fair salary?” She responded, “Of course. And I will. But I’m definitely not a feminist.”

There is no doubt that we have made a lot of progress since the 1970’s. It has become routine to have woman cabinet members, and the WNBA (one of the longest-running professional women’s sports leagues in U.S. history) is entering its 14th season this spring. Many of the battles being fought by feminists in those days appear to have been won. And yet…

As many schools do, and all should, my school works hard to incorporate diversity education into our program. Most people assume gender issues are particularly germane to my school since it is all-girls, but in fact, all children regardless of gender can benefit from examining stereotypes, overt and covert discrimination, among other issues. Additionally, like most if not all schools, we have students from widely diverse backgrounds. We want to make sure the entire range of their experiences is honored and all of their voices are heard.

On this year’s Day of Awareness, when giving a workshop on Caster Semenya (a South African runner whose gender was questioned after the 2009 World Championships), I showed my students an image of race car driver Danica Patrick from Sports Illustrated. In the photo, her racing suit is unzipped below her belly button and her bra is exposed—as is most of her upper body. While the students expressed outrage that this was how a major female athlete was being portrayed, it was not for the reasons I had expected. In their eyes, she was simply taking off her clothes to make it clear she was a woman and to prove that women could do anything men could do. It wasn't the image of the semi-clad woman that drew the outrage, but the idea that someone would question a woman's athletic ability. Curious indeed!

It may be that the girls were expressing an attitude that communications professor Susan J. Douglas calls “enlightened sexism”:

Enlightened sexism… insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved… Enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power… True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you. Enlightened sexism is especially targeted to girls and young women and emphasizes that now that they “have it all,” they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.

This is a particularly difficult concept to fight. Like an alcoholic in denial, our society needs to recognize it has a problem before it can start working to solve the problem. And as may be true for that unfortunate alcoholic, there are powerful forces who would oppose both the recognition of the problem and any attempt at forging a solution.

That said, we can share facts and statistics. We can tell students how little women continue to earn in comparison to men (and that the salary gap is actually widening), and how strong a role racism plays in these economic disparities. Discussing images and messages presented in the media can also help. We can emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, with enjoying competition, or even with shopping. In so doing, we can also help our students see how the media and society affect their lives now.

If we work together and do our jobs, as these young women (and men) become adults and, in some cases, start families and have children of their own, they will be able to use this knowledge to analyze and discuss the messages both obvious and subliminal. We could have an impact on how the next generation will grow up. We could empower future children to stand firm in their own swirling storm of media images. And if we succeed, we will be that much closer to achieving a genuinely enlightened and post-feminist era in which all people regardless of gender can simply live their lives as the people they were always meant to be.

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