What Have You Done for Girls, Lately?

“I didn’t need this cup of coffee,” I thought to myself as the conversation with my father-in-law began to heat up, pushing my pulse higher. The topic: “Women’s Studies—Pro or Con.” Still in pajamas early Friday morning, my cherished mother- and father-in-law visiting for an all-too-quick weekend, my children playing on the rug, we were about to throw down.  Prompted by newspaper’s stories of California slashing education funding, he suggested we do away with non-essential, useless wastes of time and money. He gave Women’s Studies as his prime example.

This wasn’t how I’d expected to start the day. I don’t talk politics with my beloved’s parents. We have a wonderful time together when we avoid that topic of ample disagreement. Yet I could not leave his statement unchallenged. It struck too close. This was personal.

So…rather than excuse myself and take a shower, as I might normally do, I decided to explain what Women’s Studies courses had meant to me. The impact they had made in my life—yes, even me, raised by progressive parents. Sure, I had read the story, “Girls Can Be Anything.” But in my core, did I believe it? Was it even true?

I first felt the impact of university level Women’s Studies through my sister, when she came home from college, bursting with passion and epiphanies: “Did you realize how sexist fairy tales are?” she ranted at the dinner table one night. Sitting across from me at the dark wood table, she went on to blow up the archetypes I’d never before questioned: Sleeping Beauty (comatose is beautiful—can’t nag, can’t march, can’t speak) and the Evil Queen (powerful women are mean and UGLY!). Suddenly, these innocuous universal stories shifted, and I saw that I’d been hoodwinked, along with the rest of my peers. When she pointed out how my world view had been warped, it pulled the rug out from under me. I was hooked; I wanted to know more.

When I began college, I took several Women’s Studies courses. It wasn’t just about women and power; it was economics, history and politics. It was Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Brownmiller and bell hooks…and then some. It was about justice and viewing the world differently going forward. It taught me to question what is and to ask if there could be a different way.

I have two sons and two nieces. We live in a world where the public heroes are mostly men. They see that we celebrate men doing amazing feats of athleticism in the center of the stadium, while “Girls” in bikinis rush in to fill the 60 second space, advertising tacos on their rear ends, doing moves tantamount to a striptease (they call it dancing, but I’m a dancer, so…um…no). I ask them, “Do you think those dancers are under 18, so why don’t they call them Clipper Women or Laker Women?” and “Why can’t they wear shirts all the way over their belly buttons?” I take them to UCLA Women’s basketball, and follow Women’s March Madness with them. I try to point out inequality when I can, to give them a dose of critical thinking. I fight against the tide.

There have been small steps of progress. During the primary election of 2008, I let my niece vote with me for President, and I cried when she cast our vote for a woman; my sons voted with their father, because they were “rooting for the boy.”

Back in the kitchen, my father-in-law says, unimpressed, “So, you learned about fairy tales?”

“Well, that’s just one example of how Women’s Studies changed my world view.” It was the first moment, which is why it stayed with me. “It pierced the bubble we live in, made me want to change things. There is so much inequality still.”

“Well, what are you doing? How are you changing the world?” He asks in a voice that assumes the answer: Nothing. This time, he’s right. And I am ashamed. What do I do?

I say, “I don’t want to tell you,” like a child who has been caught. But later, I confess. “You know, the truth is, I haven’t done much.” I clear the breakfast dishes, keeping my eyes on the remnants of eggs. I can’t meet his.

My boys are playing Battleship on the floor, listening in, no doubt. What do I do? “I try to raise my children to see these things, to question the way things are, to ask them if they think it’s fair that American girls can’t play professional baseball, or Afghani girls can’t go to school.” My voice begins to crack. “But, I want to…I want to change the world. I want to help those girls in Afghanistan. I want to make a difference.”

Here, in my comfortable life, preoccupied with getting my kids to school with a decent lunch packed in their bags, I want to change their world, but I do so little. I am an educated woman in the wealthiest country on earth, a lawyer and writer. I have every freedom, every opportunity a human being can have. If I won’t change the world, who will? What do I do? What do you do to make the world a more just place?

Women and men, girls and boys. Choose something, one thing, to make the world more just for girls and women, for everyone. Because when girls are treated fairly (let’s start with getting educated), the whole world will make strides. (See www.GirlEffect.org) Ask your sons and daughters (and mothers and fathers) to dream about what a just world would be like, and then take one step (or two or three) to move it there.

And thanks to my father-in-law for giving me a kick in the pants.

Here are some non-profits that help women and girls. Please feel free to suggest more in your comments.

Global:

The Girl Effect               www.girleffect.org

Spend a few minutes on this website, created by the Nike Foundation, to learn how a focus on improving the poorest girls’ lives will raise the world’s standard of living for generations to come.

Kiva                  www.kiva.org

Using this innovative micro-financing site, you can fund (even $25 can help) a new woman-owned business and help her become self-sufficient. “Over 80% of Kiva’s borrowers are women: women who are feeding their families and communities, starting businesses and providing jobs….As you can see in this video, women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn just 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.” Listen to their stories

The Coalition for Adolescent Girls          www.coalitionforadolescentgirls.org

Women for Women International       www.womenforwomen.org

“Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies. We’re changing the world one woman at a time.”

Local:

Smart Beginnings/Easy Preventions   http://smartbeginnings.vpweb.com/

Help young women who want to stop the cycle of poverty with them, giving their children the chances they were never given.

Beyond Shelter           www.beyondshelter.org

With single mothers as one of the poorest groups in America, and most homeless families headed by single moms, I support Beyond Shelter’s efforts to help homeless families return to permanent housing helps women and their children. It’s a little bit.

National Organization for Women     www.now.org

“Since its founding in 1966, NOW’s goal has been to take action to bring about equality for all women. NOW works to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system, and all other sectors of society; secure abortion, birth control and reproductive rights for all women; end all forms of violence against women; eradicate racism, sexism and homophobia; and promote equality and justice in our society.”

6 thoughts on “What Have You Done for Girls, Lately?

  1. Laura, I think you may want to get involved with a new site called Badballet. My friend and consumer advocate (she works with Consumer Reports) Kathy started it just this week. We’ll have a launch party in April to make it official, but in the meantime there’s a Kiva page to help raise funds to improve women’s lives:
    http://www.kiva.org/team/badballerinas

    • Thank you for adding Badballet.com to the list of ways to make a difference for women. I look forward to learning more about it!

  2. Laura, this is elegantly argued and retold. Sarah Palin: bad for the gender? To ask that question is, I think, to answer it, but how sobering IS IT that is the closest a woman ever got to the White House (and yeah, I’m counting you too, Geraldine Ferraro)?

    Sadly, when you say woman and White House in the same sentence, many will think not of Ms. Clinton or even Elizabeth Dole, but, rather, a blue Gap dress… I blame our dumb sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, with a big heaping spoonful of sexism.

    Yet, both our senators are women, and that would have been anathema a mere 50 years ago, so while the race is long, it’s still being run. Go grab a water from a helpful spectator, and ignore the hecklers who won’t even agree that there is a race being run in their white picket fenced lives.

  3. Laura –
    I saw a terrific documentary premiere at Sundance in January entitled MISSREPRESENTATION. The film explores the ways in which today’s (male-dominated) U.S. news media represent real working women as either babes or b*itches. The more intelligent, powerful, and outspoken the woman, the greater the likelihood she’s portrayed as manipulative, mean, or just plain evil. It’s a sad and limited perspective that is shaping the opinions of our impressionable sons and daughters. You can learn more at http://www.missrepresentation.org. The film will be released on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network this fall.
    Great article. Thank you for re-igniting the fire in my belly about this important subject.
    ~Chris

  4. I was in the first graduating class for the Womens Studies program at the University of Maryland and it changed me forever. I took the class as an elective only to wish I could have it as my major, but it was only a certificate program at the time.
    Today I had my neighbors two little girls over (6&9) to help me decorate for Easter. When we finished, we sat down for a bit and chatted. We got on the topic of following your dreams and I made sure they knew how important it was and stressed not letting obstacles get in their way, like a boyfriend! My little way of making a difference today.
    I also saw a movie last night that your readers might want to pursue – it can be previewed at: http://schoolingtheworld.org/film/ It is more about education but it ties directly to doing things differently.
    Thanks for your post.

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