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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Disturbing Vision of Womanhood

Teaching is a strange thing.  

Last semester, I taught a small unit on the women's rights movement, during the course of which I discovered some rather strange and/or disturbing things about how young people (in Florida, I should add) view women's rights and women in general.  Most views are understandable:  they don't quite understand what the feminist writers I present them with are complaining about; after all, they live in a world that doesn't feel like the places Dale Spender and others were talking about, even though, as I try to point out to them, things aren't as good as they want to think they are (women still get paid less than men and high-power positions are still dominated by men even though it appears that more women are attending college).  But it's crucial to explain to these students that things are not as they should be -- that equality does not yet exist.  Most of them are simply ignorant, as we all are at 17 or 18 years old.  They just don't know what the real world is like in the United States, and you can't blame them for not understanding Dale Spender's irritation or why feminists (those evil, dirty feminists) are still fighting for things like pay, rights, and so on.

But then there are those with views that make me wonder about the world in which we are raising
them.  These are the kinds of students who say we should accept the world as it is and stop worrying about it.  They don't see the point in anything Spender is saying.  Most of these students are women.  While some men in my classes do criticize Spender or other feminists for the ways in which they make their points, only a couple of male students in my classes have expressed sexism in explicit terms (one student turned in a paper which contained five pages about why women should know their place and let men run things).  The women are who I'm most concerned with, because nothing I say to the sexist males in my class is going to change them, and it's not my responsibility to change them.  I can only give them the facts and hope they do something good with them.

The female students who resign themselves to the world-as-it-is, however, are part of something more disturbing.  Maybe they've lost hope.  Maybe they'd grown up in a community where women's rights are trampled on and the world doesn't seem to be getting any better.  Maybe they see the slow crawl at which rights movements succeed as a sign that things just aren't like they used to be (even if that is an illogical position).  Regardless of the reasons, it's a situation I've yet to find a good way of dealing with.  How do you explain to a young woman that she doesn't have to settle for second best?  That change will come, even if it's slow, and that without more voices demanding that change, it'll only take longer?

Connecting this to SF/F is fairly easy.  We've had enough discussions in the community about the representation of women in SF/F to last a lifetime.  We need to be having those discussions.  But the reality is that there are young people growing up who aren't getting involved either because they don't think they can make a difference or because they've resolved themselves to the way things are.  These are people who won't push for better representation of women in SF/F or in other avenues of "civil" engagement (whatever those might be).

This is all led me to wonder what can be done.  Would comprehensive "rights" education change things?  Should more be done on the civil level to show people that they can make a difference?

The question is:  what do we do?  What do I do as their teacher?  It doesn't feel like it's my place to play activist, but at the same time, it's hard to let things stand.  A generation of women growing up thinking that it's okay to accept what they've got, rather than asking for what they rightfully deserve...that's a future I don't want to live in...

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  1. The most frustrating thing about people's dismissal of issues like this, is that the two arguments used are completely at odds with each other. On the one hand, the world "isn't like that anymore" (i.e., it's gotten better) so therefore it shouldn't be a concern. On the other hand, when pointed out that there's still a long way to go, the feeling that nothing can be changed/they can't personally effect anything/things should be accepted as they are is used. But the latter argument completely dismisses the first argument - that's things have already changed and gotten better. Why, then, this sense of ineffectualness? If things can and have gotten better, why can't people comprehend that that's exactly why they should keep trying, and why it's important for each successive generation to keep trying, because that's precisely how things DO get better?

    I personally think it's an immaturity - 17 and 18 year olds obviously have this, and adults that do simply never mature beyond a certain level of self-absorbtion. When young, we want to believe all the hardships came before us, and now we're luckily (non-senically) somehow living in the near-perfect point in history. Which of course is never true. But oh, how hard it is to drop that illusion.

  2. Oh, sure. But we have to get over that, somehow. We have to realize that the world is ever a sea of changing power relations...apathy or ignorance is really no longer an excuse for letting bad things go on in the world. I'm not saying we have to lay down everything we're doing to solve all the problems, because then we'd never get anything done, but we should at least acknowledge that doing nothing about at least one or two problems is simply letting things stand. We become complicit. That's a problem.