The Uncool Civil Rights Movement

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By Sadie O’Neill (originally published by Being Feminist in September 2012)

I dread this unit every year. Getting ready to say one little phrase makes me nervous, and preparing for the reaction makes me cringe. It’s sad, really, because it it is the 21st century after all and we haven’t come too far on this particular issue. I have to face a classroom full of high school juniors and say the words “women’s rights.”

I know what’s coming and I get defensive immediately, even before I have introduced the topic. Why? Because without fail I will hear a collective sigh and see a thirty-person eye-rolling. And facing that reception, I can’t scream at the top of my lungs (as I would like) but instead have to retain my professionalism and try to massage some understanding out of an adolescent audience who have been well trained to be unsympathetic to women and their “demands.” How can one teacher, in the span of a few days of an American History unit, compete against 17 years of movies, television, video games, advertisements, and general public opinion?

It hurts to see this reaction from young men and women who are on the verge of adulthood, entering relationships and discovering who they are. They are annoyed that they have to learn this. They resist it. I can’t think of a more important discussion to have with them at this age! These kids are sexually active, or will be soon. They are interacting with the opposite sex almost obsessively, thinking only about dates and crushes and who is dating whom. And yet they can’t be bothered to hear meaningful lessons about the history and struggle of more than half of their population?

Saddest of all is that the girls are just as likely as the boys to roll their eyes. I have thought long and hard about why this is, and the only answer I can muster is that the girls need to remain appealing to their male classmates, and a feminist is, well, just not date-able I guess. She is a threat. A threat to the status quo, a weirdo, an outsider. She won’t let the boys be boys, or men, or whatever it is they are trying to be to impress these girls they chase.

Well, I have to teach the unit (we only get a unit?) and I have to remain calm. I know the comments I will get before they are even posed: “Women and men are just different, so why do women want to be men?” “There are some jobs that women can’t do, and they shouldn’t get hired just because they’re women.” “If women want everything to be equal then why don’t they get drafted too?!”

I give the same calm and reasoned answers every year, without ringing anyone’s neck or throwing sharp objects at their heads (only dull objects…): “Yes, men and women are very different, but that does mot mean one is more valuable than the other.” ” What jobs can only men do?” (which invariably leads some boy to say firefighting—because of the strength needed, to which I always say there ARE women firefighters, and if a woman is completely qualified and able to perform the tasks, then can she have the job? Yes, she can, they admit.)

“Women are not drafted because we realized, as a society, that men can have children until the day they die, but women have only a limited number of childbearing years. Therefore, to send a generation of men 17-40 to die does not end the reproductive abilities of the society, but to kill a generation of women ages 17-40 certainly does.”

These questions and answers have gotten tiresome because every year I feel they are still missing the pivotal point which is “WHY DON’T YOU CARE?” Why are the kids so averse to talking about women’s issues? Why isn’t it cool?

Why isn’t it COOL? WHY ISN’T IT COOL?!?! It hit me like a ton of bricks, standing there in front of 30 resistant teens. A lightbulb! This is the same generation that gets excited about the black civil rights movement! This same class couldn’t get enough of the Black Panthers and MLK and of showing me how much they knew already and how supportive they are of (racial) equality and civil rights! This is the generation of gay rights and marriage equality! This very class of kids wore NO ON H8 buttons and proudly supported their gay classmates! The civil rights movement is COOL. The gay rights movement is COOL. How is it possible that these equality loving, progressive California teens find women’s rights to be so UNCOOL?

I turn to them and take a deep breath. I’ve got it. I think. I hope. I’m excited.

We’ve talked a lot about civil rights in this class. They all seem to understand it perfectly in the context of black America in the 60’s. Let’s just replace the phrase “black Americans” with “women.” Did African Americans want to BE white? The class laughs. Hell no, they say. African Americans wanted to be recognized and respected for who they are, including their history, culture and contributions to our world. They wanted some understanding, of their struggles and of their wants and needs, dreams and abilities. They wanted to be EQUAL, not SAME.

Try again with gay rights: Do they want to BE straight, or instead be respected for who they are and treated equally?

Can we say the same for women? Will that take the threat away and allow for a new understanding? Women don’t want to BE men, but instead want to be respected for who they are, their history, contributions, struggles, wants, needs, abilities… to be EQUAL, not SAME. I can happily say that a lot of kids “got it.” Whew.

Unfortunately, feminism and women’s rights are still not “cool.” We have a massive battle on that front which would require mass compliance by the media. Hopefully some of these kids will end up in the control booths in the future. I have to tell myself that to have hope. Maybe I can reach a few dozen students a year. Maybe I can make feminism cool to them. Maybe I can reach all 150 kids a year… maybe we all can, and maybe they will be in charge and maybe they will BE the media. Maybe. I have to believe that. That is where I wield some power, so I have to use my powers for good.

I have to give major thanks to one professor in particular, a man, Dr. As’ad Abukhalil, who stated unapologetically on the first day of the semester that he IS a feminist and would not tolerate any sexism in his class. It was eye-opening, freeing, and oh so comforting.

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