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Make Way for the New Feminists

The author asked her teenagers what the f-word means to them

Been around the world don’t speak the language / but your booty don’t need explaining / All I really need to understand is / when you talk dirty to me
Those words come from the radio as I drive my two teenage girls to sports practice or the grocery store. I hum along, tapping the steering wheel, and then I catch myself, “Wait! What did he just say?” (That would be pop star Jason Derulo).

I ask: “Girls, doesn’t that bother you?" It doesn't and that bothers me. Have their father and I failed to teach them self-respect? Would they allow boys to talk to them that way?

Flash forward. We’re at dinner and they are talking about the kidnapped Nigerian girls, questioning why no officials seemed to care about them until they were missing for weeks.
Such is the world of raising teenage daughters today. Mixed messages about women come at them from pop culture, news media and their friends. I wonder if they are capable of sorting the silly from the serious, and what lessons they are learning as they grow into adulthood.  

Where Have All the Activists Gone? 

When I was their age, I can't say I was really tuned into women's issues. I'm an early Gen-Xer, and the women's movement peaked when I was in kindergarten. I do remember watching women burning their bras on the evening news and telling my mother I was going to 'burn my barrettes." In school, pre-Title IX, we had few sports to choose from compared to the options for the boys. In college, I took a few interesting women's studies classes, but didn't feel those issues were terribly relevant to me. 

In the age of Murphy Brown and Cagney and Lacey, I was confident that I would have a career and family and was not too worried about how it would all work out.

Looking back, I was probably among the women who took for granted the accomplishments of the boomers who cleared paths for us a decade earlier.  

(MORE: On the Frontlines of the Women's Movement)

After a period of relative domancy, the boomers who did march the march and moved us away from the Mad Men workplace can take heart. These days, a new generation is tuning in to persistent stereotypes and inequalities, and women's issues are back on the front burner.  
Having It All, Again
I first noticed the shift the summer before last, when my 25-year-old niece asked if I had read the Atlantic Magazine cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article was about leaving a top position at the State Department to spend more time with her sons and what that might mean for other female professionals with children. My niece said that she and her friends were all talking about it. And they weren't the only ones. The article renewed debate over work/life balance and was shared more than 228,000 times on Facebook.
Next came Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book and movement exhorting women to step up and engage more fully in the professional world. Cue more controversy and discussion.  

(MORE: What a Millennial Wishes Mom Told Her About Work)

And this year, journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay have written The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know exploring why women seem to lack the confidence (and sometimes overconfidence) that helps men excel beyond women in the workplace. 

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center indicates a market for these books among Millennials 18 and older. Although these women can expect equal pay out of college, many feel that they do not have the same long-term opportunities. Three-quarters of those surveyed say more change is needed to achieve gender equity in the workplace. Only 57 percent of Millennial men surveyed felt this way. And 58 percent of women believe that men have better access to top executive jobs. 
Trickle-Down Feminism?
Where does this leave the younger Millennials? Are they paying attention?

A few months ago, our 17-year-old daughter showed me a video that was making the rounds among her friends on Facebook. It showed objectified images of women in ads and examples of women being belittled in the news media. This was my first clue that some teens were thinking about the ways in which women are negatively portrayed in popular media. She and her 14-year-old sister often see and share things like this on Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr and Upworthy. 

(MORE: Marlo Thomas is the Boomers' New 'It' Girl)

In addition to Keeping up with the Kardashians (sigh), they like to watch Girl Code, an MTV show in which female 20-something comedians take turns telling it like it is about sex, online dating, push-up bras and lots of things we don’t talk about at the dinner table with Dad. Both went with friends to see The Hunger Games starring bow-wielding Katniss and happily, I found that ours were not the only high-schoolers belting out the words to Frozen, the hugely popular Disney feature celebrating the power and independence of girls.

Some young women are becoming activists, like Madison Kimrey, a 12-year-old who took on the governor of North Carolina to demand voter pre-registration for teens. One of Kimrey’s role models is Megan Grassell, the Wyoming teenager who created her own line of bras because she was frustrated that her younger sister could not find any that were comfortable or appropriate for pre-teens. Who knows, one of these girls could be our next Gloria Steinem

5 Questions for Your Daughters
Hoping to learn more, I conducted my own, un-scientific survey, asking my daughters about a few issues:  
  • On the f-word: Our 14-year-old considers herself a feminist and doesn’t see anything wrong with the term. Her older sister says, “I align with feminist views, but I don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t feel active enough to be called one."
  • On equal pay for women: “I want it to happen, but it’s not happening now.” 
  • On how women are portrayed in popular media: “Men are highlighted for their accomplishments, whereas women are only valued for their beauty.” 
  • Their female heros are Tina Fey, Jennifer Lawrence, Malala, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
  • Whether they expect to have the same opportunities as men in the workplace: “When you walk into an interview, you are ruled out because you are a woman. (You could be) called bossy or selfish for doing the same things that would be acceptable for a man.” 

So, they have given some thought to their place as females in the world, but clearly we have more talking to do at the dinner table and on those car rides.  

Maybe I can sneak in the old Helen Reddy hit, “I Am Woman,” when they aren’t paying attention.


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