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.