Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Post: The Feminist Teenager

“Mom, did you know women are objectified?” asked my fifteen-year old son, as I picked him up from school. In spite of more than ten years of experience fielding my children’s questions as I am driving, I still narrowly avoided hitting the car in front of me. Ignoring my frazzled demeanor, and in typical teenage fashion, my son continued to ask more questions, as well as give me his opinions, regarding women’s lack of access to education and resources. I had to smile as he expressed earnest concern for the plight of women in general, reiterating his original question, and wondering if I, “as a woman, Mom” had been a victim of men’s oppression. It is important to note, at this point, that this is the young man who up until a few months ago had gone to see the latest Transformers movie as much for the robots as for the Victoria Secret model starring in it. This is also the teenager who spends time with his friends rating women in terms of hotness factors, and whose daily lexicon increasingly includes words like “beautiful” and “sexy.” Imagine then my surprise, to hear him use words like “patriarchy” and “feminism”, and to hear him debate the merits of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Our conversation took place during his first week in high school when his grade ten Social Studies teacher decided to begin a curriculum focused on globalization with an introduction to feminism. A bold move on her part, and one for which I, as a mother and a post-secondary instructor, am personally grateful. It is easy to track some our children’s more tangential milestones, but it is harder to discern the growth of their moral character. As parents, we always wonder if our children are absorbing some of our perspectives on life. Are we nurturing open-minded, non-judgmental individuals? Are we raising both genders to believe in equal access and equal opportunities? As a mother, I can track my children’s physical growth, but it is only through these conversations that I get glimpses of the complex human beings they are becoming.

I learned that my son was shocked when the teacher asked how many students had mothers with post-secondary degrees, and in a class of thirty-five students, only five students raised their hands. It was gratifying to learn that my son not only understood these gender differences, but could also be disturbed by them. He found it hard to understand these statistics, as he is surrounded by women who value education. He has aunts with PhDs, MBAs, and various Bachelor degrees. He has a sister and several female cousins currently working towards university degrees. On the other side of the gender equation, my son has seen his father take care of him while I have been away at conferences, working, or studying. My husband never refers to this task as babysitting, being on “mom duty’, or doing women’s work, as some of his male friends do. Even though the gender boundary lines are sometimes negotiable, our children know that our roles as family caregivers, parents, and providers are interchangeable.

This high school class on feminism also reminded me that as academics, we sometimes bash secondary school educators by dismissing their efforts and viewing their pedagogical knowledge as inferior to our own. We forget that it is often great high school teachers who have set us on the path we are now treading. I owe a debt of gratitude to them, and now to this Social Studies teacher who is molding the students I will be teaching three years from now. As a result of her efforts, these young adults will not be intimidated by courses that have “women” or “feminism” in the title or description. These are the students who will choose to take courses on gender studies, and who will come to our classes eager to join in on the conversation. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Lourdes Arciniega, PhD Candidate. University of Calgary

3 comments:

  1. This reminds me of how my english teacher slyly introduced her grade 10 class to feminism, by having us read a poem/story called "I want a wife". Of course I forget who wrote it, but it was a very interesting piece, and it really opened a lot of our eyes to the idea of gender roles. Did it push me into my feminist philosophy class...probably not, but it has resonated with me permanently, and I think that stands for something.

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  2. Thank you, Lourdes, for this truly heartening story. This is how the world changes, one excellent teacher, one brave curricular choice, one curious and open-minded teenager (boy or girl) at a time. Fantastic. Best story I've heard in a while.

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  3. I have to admit that, upon reading the title of this post, I braced myself for yet another article scolding and shaming the younger generation for not liking/knowing/embracing feminism. I was so pleased to find otherwise.

    Far too often, I come across articles despairing at how few teenagers and undergraduates care about the feminist movement. I don't think this assumption is true at all. But what bothers me most is the lack of responsibility on the part of many of these accusers. Why are these articles so rarely addressed to the younger generation? Why do they focus on teenage girls, not thinking to include boys as well? And why, oh why, do so many adults not realize that they have the opportunity to educate young people rather than shame them? I learned about feminist politics from my mother, sister and teachers. I did not wake up one day suddenly aware of all the complexities of feminist theory.

    I am really pleased to read this story. It proves what I always suspected: young people are interested in and open to the feminist movement and teachers and parents are taking the time to teach them about it. Thank you!

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