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.)

1 comment:

  1. As an engineer for over 20 years and resident of Washington all my life, I did not experience discrimination for my first 46 years, or at least nothing I would have noted. I assumed woman had achieved a fair amount of equality. Now, I believe otherwise, and have no question there is little true equality for woman. The laws, or enforcement rather, are discriminatory.

    I don’t think my experience is unique. However, I am sure I am unique because I am still present, aware. I am intelligent, generous, highly paid, and a resilient woman. I have sacrificed for 20 years to be a full time parent, loving and accepting my husband despite his difficulties in life, maintaining a career in public service protecting lives in aviation, achieving respect in my field. Most importantly, I cannot be intimidated into devaluing the potential of my children, lowering their standard of living, or condoning their father’s behavior, or its negative impact on their lives, simply because an unjust process demands that I do while pretending the law meets its intent: to protect the rights of all citizens, without discrimination.

    Family court is supposed to make sure decisions are in the best interest of my children. If they would enforce the laws, stop entertaining fraud and abuse in the process, including immediately removing negligent officers of the court, families would be thriving when now they are not, the suffering by thousands of children would be reduced, 58% of the Judicial Budget (Ref. “State of the Judiciary” by B. Madsen, Jan. 22, 2010) could be used to reduce the budget deficit, enhance the lives of children stuck in the legal system, without essential care, in dire need of support, nurtured to be an asset in their life, and in society.

    All my sense of gender equality was destroyed by the last 20 months I have been abused by King County Family Court; recent evidence was watching my son and friend get shouted at and intimidated and threatened with arrest simply for being present, then I was screamed at and threatened and personally degraded at a court hearing. All of this coming from an elected King County Judge while 4 officers of the court, my husband and a King County law enforcement officer stood by silently. I was frozen under threat of arrest, believing it for no other reason than terror. My own attorney said little, rolling her eyes as opposing counsel made baseless remarks only meant for personal gain, devoid of benefit to my children, slandering my character as a means to his end. My rights were violated, negative impact immediately felt by myself, my 4 children and a young woman, clearly traumatized as one victim of direct abuse that day, leaving with evidence she doesn’t have equal rights. At the same time, I was rendered powerless by the Judge's abusive use of power aimed at us, me, the perpetrators knowing my trauma condition would play a role in my own defense, knowing my personality prioritized harmony over personal well being, my capacity to absorb emotional pain vast. I was further intimidated by multiple threats to take away my parental rights. The Judge appeared annoyed, angry that I assumed I had rights in his courtroom. He became enraged when I whispered, “I thought we were all just people here.” His shouting left me numb, seeing his lips move but hearing no words after the first, which triggered my trauma response: “you are delusional, what is wrong with you, you need to learn, and if you won’t I will have to do something drastic, do you realize what I can do, you will have no rights to your children.” I was frozen, said nothing, and waited for him to stop.

    This is how it ended, and how it has remained. I am attempting to take action on my own, but find the road is not well marked. Thank you for this article and for reading my comment. Thank you for the chance to reveal the struggle which I am entrenched, from which I hope to emerge, stronger, healthy, hopeful, four children behind me, following my lead to do what is right in this world, to reach their unique potential, empowered to live at choice.