Short Memories and the Meaning of the F-Word

I recently had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by my college alumnae association to recognize donors to the association itself and to various scholarship and fellowship funds. Scattered among the tables were some of the young women students who had received scholarships made possible by these generous women from earlier generations.

When I attended the school it had been a women’s college. Now, still housed within a major university and still focused on women, it no longer grants degrees but it continues to provide an environment for young women to develop an intellectual community and offers opportunities for leadership and focus.

There were three young women sitting at our table and all three were quite impressive; two were seniors and waiting to hear about admissions to medical schools. The third was a junior, planning to be a vet. The conversation focused on their plans post-graduation and they asked us some questions about our experiences on campus. We were all enjoying our cross-generational camaraderie until I, foolishly, used the “F- word” in polite conversation: feminist.

The young women were polite, but patronized me with their smiles and explained that there was really no need to be a feminist; women were graduating college at greater rates than men, and it was only a matter of time before pay caught up. They know that medical school admission will be gender-blind. They could not understand why I would have chosen to go to a women’s college, unless, like their own rationale, there was more scholarship money available in that choice. They are completely confident that women are equal in their world. Ah, if it were so!

I need a drink! I feel ancient!

I shouldn’t single out these women. Almost daily I find young women who shy away from calling themselves feminists, believing the label means man-hating, make-up eschewing, angry old women with an ax to grind. Back in the day, when I was the age of these young women sitting at dinner, being a feminist meant that you were willing to push back against the many restrictions placed on you just for the mere fact that you were born female.

We are shaped by our times and my time on this campus was a different experience than they are having. I started college in 1971. For those of us with short memories let me offer you a brief and selected history of what has changed in such a very brief time.

1972: Unmarried women are permitted access to contraception.
1972: Title IX passes, guaranteeing equal access to academic and athletic resources regardless of gender.
1972: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a candidate for president in the democratic primary, becomes the first woman to run on the ticket of a major party.
1974: “Sex-Based Discrimination” by Kenneth Davidson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Herma Hill Kaye, is the first law school casebook on the topic.
1974: The first battered women’s shelter opens in St. Paul, MN.
1974: Ella Grasso of CT becomes the first woman to win the governorship without being the spouse of an earlier governor.
1974: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act is passed, allowing women to apply for a credit card in their own name.
1975: The Supreme Court reverses its 1961 opinion and rules that excluding women from juries is impermissible.
1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act becomes federal law, recognizing that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is discrimination on the basis of sex.
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
1986: The Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
1993: Janet Reno is appointed the first woman Attorney General
1993: Family and Medical Leave Act becomes law as the first legislation signed by Clinton after Bush twice vetoed similar bills.
1993: Georgetown opens a daycare center for staff and students 23 years after the women law students first requested it.
1994: Violence Against Women Act creates penalties for interstate stalking and other gender-based crimes.

Since 1994 the advances have not, in my opinion, been as dramatic, but they have been steady. No longer do we celebrate the FIRST woman to do something; women in greater numbers slowly and steadily have gained positions across all walks of society.

It is a truism that our experiences are different than those who have gone before and those who will come after. But it is too easy to dismiss those prior experiences as having no relevance. I remember when I was a young girl, part of that optimistic baby boom generation, growing quickly bored listening to my grandmother’s stories of the depression. Didn’t she know the world had changed, never to look back?

There are lessons in that backward glance, a chance to learn for those smart enough to appreciate the view. I sincerely hope young women today never face a moment of discrimination because of their gender but I’m not very optimistic. There is still a great deal of work to be done.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —– George Santayana

Join the discussion One Comment

  • EM Novak says:

    Oh boy…what a stroll down memory lane…I loved the time line. When I graduated from Douglass in 1975, I graduated with a belief that I would have equal opportunities in career choices and, of course, be treated as an equal with male colleagues. We were given that strong sense of confidence from our college experience. Over and over again, it was demonstrated that there was so much more that needed to be done. I only hope that those young women do not have to face the struggles that we had.