Two 9th graders walked into the Geissler Gallery, saw me, and stopped short. Barely restraining their laughter, they asked me “Where are you sitting?” “Nowhere near you,” I responded as teachers and students around us looked momentarily shocked and then burst into laughter. They couldn’t have known my former students and I had laughed our way through dinner together earlier in the evening and jokingly decided we dare not sit near each other at Elayne Clift’s talk about women’s activism lest we inadvertently catch each other’s eyes and set each other off again. However, they did sense it was all in good fun, and joined in. In reality, there would have been little risk of a fit of giggles as Ms. Clift quickly commanded all of our attention, beginning her talk by asking her audience of students, faculty, parents and other community members how many of us considered ourselves to be feminists. I raised my hand, only to find myself even more in the minority than I had predicted.
Hot and dangerous If you’re one of us then roll with us
‘Cause we make the hipsters fall in love When we got our hot pants on and up
Ms. Clift proceeded to paint a history of American feminism, weaving familiar names and places like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Seneca Falls together with the less familiar, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, a Native American activist who published Women, Church and State, arguing that women deserved the vote as a natural right but that patriarchal systems oppressed women and denied these rights. As Ms. Clift continued to point out that in the 1800s, it was commonly believed that if women developed their brains, their uteruses would atrophy, I couldn’t help but think of Bessie Capen and Mary A. Burnham, who founded the Classical School for Girls (later renamed the Mary A. Burnham School) in 1877. Miss Capen was one of the first women to take courses at M.I.T., simply planting herself in classrooms and taking notes, eventually graduating and becoming an (unpaid) instructor in chemistry. I took notes on my iPhone, on a few occasions daring to engage in a surreptitious Google search to learn more about a specific person or event.
And yes of course we does We runnin’ this town just like a club
And no you don’t wanna mess with us Got Jesus on my necklace (lace-ace)
As Ms. Clift progressed through her talk, describing Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and other key figures in the second wave of feminism, I began to insert side notes of various ideas that I might want to explore later on. The more I did this, the more aware I became again of the students. So few of their hands had gone up identifying themselves as feminists. Though they periodically gasped in shock at some of the stories being shared, I had to wonder what they were thinking deep down. Horrific as things used to be for women in the not-so-distant past, much of the fight seems to many teenagers to have been won even before they were born. While they may well have appreciated how much they benefit today from what women had accomplished in the past, did they see themselves in this talk? I wasn’t sure.
Got that glitter on my eyes Stockings ripped all up the side
Looking sick and sexy-fied So let’s go-o-o, Let’s go!
As Ms. Clift continued to talk about the third wave of feminism and a series of international conferences on women beginning with the 1975 “World Conference on International Women’s Year,” held in Mexico City, my mind drifted to one of Ke$ha’s songs that I have frequently heard on the radio, “We R who we R.” Ke$ha, to my mind, represents that peculiar branch of modern feminism that wants to turn away from all the doom and gloom and serious talk and simply have fun enjoying the hard-won gains young women have inherited. The thought didn’t necessarily reassure me very much about what the students might be thinking, but when Ms. Clift opened the floor up for questions, one of my own advisees was one of the first to speak. She asked what actions girls could take to promote a pro-women political agenda, and her request was mirrored in a subsequent question by one of the Rock Band singers about how a girl might go about attending one of these international conferences. Ms. Clift recommended Googling “UN youth movement,” which led me to the International Youth and Student Movement for the United Nations.
Tonight we’re going har-har-h-h-h hard
Just like the world is our-our-ah-ah-ah ours!
We’re tearing it apar-par-par-pa-pa-pa part You know we’re superstars
We R who we R
Before sending us on our way (most of us detouring past the plates of cookies Dining Services had kindly provided), Ms. Clift asked us all who now considered themselves to be feminists. Her talk had certainly gotten across her earlier point that feminism may be thought of as the “belief that no one should be denied their civil and human rights because of their gender.” (Clift) It’s hard for me to believe that any of the students would disagree strongly with that simple truth. And yet, to be honest, it did not seem to me that many more people raised their hands the second time around.
We’re dancing like we’re dumb-dum-duh-duh-duh dumb
Our bodies going numb-num-nuh-nuh-nuh numb
We’ll be forever young-yun-y-y-y young
I suspect that Ms. Clift planted a seed tonight. Students are no doubt more aware of the history of feminism than they had been, and equally aware that there is still work to be done (when questioned on this topic, the first example they gave was trafficking, absolutely one of the more serious problems facing girls and women in today’s world). A few of them were no doubt compelled to further action. But in order for this talk to have maximum impact, we on the Stoneleigh-Burnham faculty will need to pick up on the threads, engage the students in conversation, meet them where they are and help them see the need to help build a path to a brighter future, one in which there will truly be no obstacles to their being their own best selves.
You know we’re superstars
We R who we R