If We're Going to Empower Girls, We Owe Them a Reality Check

In the 50 years since The Feminine Mystique was written — the feminist clarion call courtesy of a New Jersey "housewife" who announced to the world that, sorry, but spending our lives sittin' at home thawing some dude's frozen steak was not going to cut it, mister — the gains of the feminist movement are so in the water now, so part and parcel of our everyday existence, that it hardly seems necessary to tell today's young women anything other than what we've always told our young men: You can do anything you set your mind to.

Only, it's not really all-the-way true yet, is it?

We still earn less than men. There's still no female president. The first lady is still being written about more for how she dresses than what she does. If we're going to be honest with ourselves and our daughters, shouldn't we be teaching them early how utterly fucked the world still can be for women, instead of promising the moon and watching them hit the roof?

Could we at least point in the roof's general direction sometimes with a nice warning? Or better yet, help strategize how to blow it off? The problem is, how, exactly, do you do that without merely fostering the same insecurities and self-defeating thinking that make the problem worse in the first place?

In a roundtable video panel at the New York Times, columnist Gail Collins asks her guests, a panel of women writers, teachers and activists, in light of the anniversary of Friedan's groundbreaking, though certainly flawed mountain-shout, what their feminist "yell" of today would be. Much has been accomplished, but there is still so much work left to be done on the frontlines of equality, they said, from rape culture to violence against women to equal pay, and everything in between.

But one oft-repeated sentiment from the panelists really stuck with me: The feeling that young women today have been lied to. That growing up, they thought and were told that they were equal, only to discover that equality was still a little half-baked. Like Katy Perry in Gloria Steinem's clothing, the movement that promised equality, they realized, has only given us something a little short of the glory: Almost, but not quite there yet, equality. ABNQTYE. Not gonna catch on, is it?

But all this equal-ish talk made me wonder: Are we, in fact, doing wrong by our daughters by repeating the oft-said mantra — you can do anything you set your mind to — if we don't follow that with a realistically bolded asterisk about what challenges they are very likely face along the way, and what critical work is left to be done?

Don't we want them to know? Or are we afraid that by talking frankly about the pitfalls of life on earth in a lady body, we'll inspire trembling fear, or infect our daughters with the same internalized judgment that might have prevented us from becoming scientists, or athletes, or anything else we gave up on when there was too much discouragement?

I think there's a middle balance to strike. I think just as we teach children about running with scissors, we can also teach girls about the political world they stand to inherit. The best way to do this is not to fill them with cautionary tales that do more harm than good, but rather actually empower them with a buffer against that reality, without watering that reality down beyond all recognition into the Jack and Coke of the truth, or a context-free Girl Power T-shirt without the history lesson.

A few ideas:

Teach girls how to be angry

Look, it's totally OK to be pissed about things in life, especially injustice. Anyone who can't handle this, or espouses some idea that it's bad to ever get upset, or that being angry is unhealthy, can float away on their Chill Ship of Don't Give a Fuck. The rest of us need to stick around and learn how to show anger and how to deal with it. Yes, everyone needs to be able to process it in a healthy way, but women especially need to know when it's worth risking going 9 to 5 on this shit. (More in spirit and without the kidnapping.) The more we teach young girls how to discuss, channel and express their anger, the more likely they are to do that with and at their male peers, which means men, at a younger age, are also becoming more comfortable with this expression, too.

Get girls comfortable with math, science, technology and engineering ASAP

No newsflash here, but girls who show a propensity in any of these areas should be pushed to get as comfortable as possible in this arena as early as possible. That way, young women are less likely to ditch the "hard" sciences when puberty hits and the great confidence gap begins.

Teach them to discover and own their own sexuality

Obvs this is an age-appropriate issue, but girls should be taught how to navigate and own their sexuality in a way that makes them comfortable and realistically emphasizes their safety, but doesn't perpetuate the notion that women are responsible for how men respond to them, or other insidious aspects of rape culture, which are well-covered in this piece.

Teach girls how to challenge the status quo

We need activist girls who become activist women, and that can activism can take many forms. But in order to encourage wide-ranging world-changing in girls, we need to point out from a very young age ways in which the world needs their energy and healthy anger at injustice, and show them how to be a part of that change — and we can do that by studying what other parents have done, and by being engaged in that process ourselves.

Teach them that they can do whatever they want

Yes, by all means, we should continue tell girls they can do whatever they want — they have to believe this is possible to do all the above — but we should add the realistic, and not discouraging asterisk that it might not always be so easy. You don't tell a would-be doctor that she'll sail right through medical school. You realistically prepare her for mind-bleeding amounts of study and all manner of obstacles. So it is with some of the still-prevalent injustices women face.

Encourage girls to be creatives

Girls should be pushed and encouraged to create stories in all mediums, so that there are more women behind cameras, in front of canvases, crafting novels, and telling their stories. The more women telling those stories, the greater diversity of depictions out there, but the biggest part of making this happen is convincing women they have stories worth telling. Making your household a welcome place for strong female characters and female-created art is a big part of validating that work.

Teach them to express the injustice they face

Women need not speak out about the injustices in the world without fear of misuse. The more women who speak out, the more difficult it is to ignore, and the safer the space is for women to feel ok about coming forward.

Teach girls to relish the competition

Women who change the system for the better do so by rattling cages, persisting in the face of great bureaucracy and opposition, or engaging fellow men in competition. They also sometimes relish the challenge of cutting through the stereotype, of showing up anyone, male or female, who has the nerve to say they can't run fast enough, throw a ball right, code a computer program, critique a rock record, write a great novel or fight hard enough at the front lines.

We criticize the "alpha females" who make it look too easy to climb the ladder due to their various advantages, and that privilege is important to acknowledge. But we have to also acknowledge that these women still move the needle in our favor. I'm not arguing everyone has to be Sheryl Sandberg, but fostering a narrative of fearlessness in women, a sense of entitlement for a spot at the same tables men have never had any problem occupying, is of critical importance in turning the tide. Seeing women as big shots means we believe they can be big shots.

Teach girls the real meaning of choice

Just as we teach our children to be accountable, we, too, must teach girls that this has special meaning for them. Choosing — what feminism has always claimed to be about — has consequences. It isn't always easy. We pick one thing, which means we don't pick something else. Women need to get more comfortable than ever with their new buffet of choices, but also with the possibility for the same disappointment and unhappiness that men have enjoyed (or not) alongside their many choices. This isn't ammo for arguments that feminism has failed — it never sought to give us happiness, only greater freedom from which to fashion our own idea of happiness.

Nor does it mean that women who opt out of corporate ambition in favor of contentment have harmed perceived progress in the least. In the big, messy, complicated movement that encompasses the progress of all women, some of us can be the backbone, and others can be the bicep. The only thing that matters is to not let all this collective muscle atrophy.

Image by Jim Cooke