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Feminism for One and All

Girl power all the way!
Girl Power! Girls Kick Butt! Girl Pride! Girls Rule!

How many of you own or have at least seen t-shirts or other things with these slogans on them? Now, how many of you think that girls who wear such t-shirts are overly aggressive boy-haters who don't bathe regularly?

Hopefully, none of you think that, but that is exactly the type of message the mainstream media was sending out during the 1960's and 70's. It was a different type of Girl Power push... the women's rights movement.

In the 1950s, American women were supposed to fit the image of a perfect housewife. Obedient and never complaining, they were expected to simultaneously scrub the floors, change the baby's diapers and cook the meatloaf... all with a smile on their face. Working outside the house was considered unnecessary and even foolish. Girls were expected to be wives-in-training. Toys such as the E-Z Bake Oven came onto the market where little girls could play with pots and pans, and prepare themselves for their roles as cooks and cleaners.

Of course, the media played a big part in this image. In her book "Where the Girls Are," Susan Douglas writes all about mass media images of females over the last 50 years. She describes an episode of a popular 1950s show called Father Knows Best, in which a girl named Kathy has entered junior high but has trouble making friends because she is a tomboy. Her mother and older sister try to teach her that there is a time to "put down the baseball bat and pick up the lipstick." Her dad describes that it's best to act like her mom... "dependent, a little helpless now and then," because men like to be the "big protectors." When I was in junior high, I definitely liked baseball more than I liked lipstick. Oh wait, I still do! Yet, I still was able to make friends... amazing, huh?


Did you know that the manatee is an endangered species?

When the 1960s came about, attitudes began to shift. When Jackie Kennedy became First Lady, she redefined femininity. She was beautiful and intelligent, "a wife who knew more languages than her husband, and an American princess with feet twice the size of Cinderella's." The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War caused many young people -- men and women -- to become activists for social change. But young women were not just trying to end segregation and the war, they were also mad about the way they themselves were being treated.

Women began protesting traditional ideas of womanhood. In 1968, they demonstrated at the Miss America pageant, throwing out their bras and holding up posters of a woman with her body parts labeled "rump" and "loin," as if she were merely a piece of meat. Music was also adding to the transformation. Singers like Joan Baez didn't wear frilly dresses or make-up but were strong women who sang about social protest. TV shows changed to ones where women were the heroes, either with magic powers like in I Dream of Genie or Bewitched, or with kick-butt abilities like Charlie's Angels. Although these shows were meant to be about the new power of women, they were also still extremely sexist as the women were often scantily clad and still obedient to some male figure. There was still a long way to go.

As the women's rights movement hit full force, the media turned feminism into a dirty word. Feminists were portrayed as man-hating, hostile, "bra-less bubbleheads," who didn't shave their legs. When Time magazine put a drawing of feminist Kate Millet on their cover in 1970, they depicted her as a grim and not-so-attractive woman. The article about her noted that she didn't wash her hair enough. When the media finally did find a feminist darling-Gloria Steinem -- they seemed obsessed with her looks, writing about her "long, blond-streaked hair" and her "most incredibly perfect body.

Besides magazine articles and T.V shows, there were political changes during this time as well, from the formation of the National Organization for Women to the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. Although these changes had a major impact, it is important not to forget the role pop culture plays in keeping things the same. For although you can choose whether or not to join an organization such as NOW, it is much more difficult to escape the clutches of the media's influence.

The same is true today. No matter what kind of legislation there is about equal rights, true equality and respect for women cannot be reached without a change in pop culture.

Just flip on the T.V. or pick up a fashion magazine and you'll know what I'm talking about. With images of super-skinny, bikini-clad models jumping out at every turn, women are held up to ridiculous and unrealistic standards of beauty. Advertisements constantly tell us that our skin is too oily, our hair needs more pizzazz, and our thighs are just way too fat. We're constantly told that we're not good enough. As Douglas puts it, "a full twenty years after the women's movement, diet soda companies, women's magazines and the Sports Illustrated 'swimsuit issue' still bombard us with smiling, air-brushed, anorexic, and compliant women whose message seems to be 'Shut up, get a face-lift, and stop eating.'" After all these years, how come we are still putting up with such degrading messages?

Thanks to the women's rights movement, girls today have more doors open to them than their mothers did
Luckily, there have been some changes for the better. Along with Vogue and Seventeen, there are also magazines devoted to women in business or in sports. In fact, more girls play competitive sports now than ever before. Just as young boys out there can aspire to play in the NBA, young girls today can dream about being in the WNBA, or being like Mia Hamm and playing in the new women's professional soccer league or being an Olympic gold medalist. Or, for that matter, they can dream about being the CEO of some company.

Women share their ideas at this feminist bookstore in Atlanta
Although the issue of women's rights has become more mainstream, the stereotypes of hairy man-haters continue to plague the movement, and have caused many people who support gender equality to avoid the "feminist" label. In her book, Douglas talks about the main motto of women today being, "I'm not a feminist, but..." Many women talk passionately about issues such as equal pay, child care or domestic violence but do not want to be associated with the negative connotations of feminism.

In my opinion, if we see feminism as being about equality and respect, then all of us -- girls and boys, men and women, young and old alike -- should strive to be feminists. Although the status of women has improved greatly, it would be dangerous to think that everything is peachy keen. There are still too many girls sitting on the sidelines, still not enough women in the government or the corporate boardroom, still too many women and girls suffering from eating disorders and body image problems.

The fortunate thing is there are some really cool organizations out there trying to make a difference. In Atlanta, I visited Girls, Inc. -- a national organization "dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold." The way they accomplish this is through a variety of programs aimed at empowering 6-18 year olds. These range from Operation SMART -- which helps girls get involved in math, science and technology -- to Girls Re-Cast TV-which teaches how to evaluate TV programming and identify incorrect female stereotypes.

Later in the day, I found out about a program called SisterGirls run by a non-profit organization in Atlanta. Intended for all girls ages 10-15, this two-day adventure focuses not just on self-esteem but also on building community. They write in journals, do art projects, and write positive letters to other girls, all in an effort to build trust and form strong connections between each other. As organizer, Vanessa Jackson explains, "for the transformation of society, you have to take what you can from feeling good about yourself and turn that into social action."

Hopefully we all can start building a community and a society where being male or female can mean whatever we want it to, where the media stops degrading women and allows each of us to be the person we choose to be. Where we can all say, "I am a feminist. No buts about it."


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - A fish, a bicycle and a woman named Gloria
Irene - Roe vs. Wade: Bringing balance to the two sides of the issue
Jennifer - If it's a man's world, what's a girl to do?
MAD - The abortion issue: In the hot seat, again