“Our job is not to make young women grateful, it is to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” – Susan B. Anthony (as quoted by Gloria Steinem)
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recounts her sense of indignation after being patted on the head by then-Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, while serving as a congressional page when she was seventeen. That was the first time in her life that she felt her gender. Still, Ms. Sandberg writes that she rejected the label of “feminist” until her 2010 TED Talk thrust her into the limelight as a champion of “women’s issues.” Now she wears the label proudly. I wish I could say the same, but I am all too aware that feminism has become “The New ‘F-Word’,” as sociologist Marianne Cooper has noted. This post will recount the start of my journey into feminism, and parts II, III, and IV of this series will consider various aspects of the current state of women’s rights in America.
Growing up, our generation was told that girls can do anything that boys can do. Sexism was not tolerated, and sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex were criminalized. Teachers, friends, and relatives often remarked that I might become president one day, and I believed them. I felt as smart, as capable, and as acknowledged as the boys at school. The sky was the limit; I did not feel in any way defined or hindered by my gender. Then I had an experience not unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s Tip O’Neil moment that changed my perspective of the status quo.
On the day I turned sixteen, I received a call from a magazine editor inviting me to report on a convention marking the 150th anniversary of the first women’s rights convention as a youth correspondent. It was an all-expenses paid trip to Seneca Falls, NY, where I would attend five days of events and interview luminaries like then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and feminist icon Betty Friedan. The only catch was that I had to leave in two days.
I hung up the phone and burst into tears. I knew it was an incredible opportunity, but I was terrified by the prospect of flying across the country by myself and shouldering such a huge responsibility. Aside from a few highlights covered in my U.S. History classes, I knew almost nothing about the women’s rights movement. I felt I did not belong at such a historic celebration; after all, I was not a feminist.
But I could not say no. Later, I learned that the first women’s rights convention, in July 1838, was called on just 10 days’ notice by five women who had never done such a thing in their lives. Days later, I was in the press box as Hillary Clinton addressed a crowd of thousands. She began her speech by telling the story of nineteen-year-old Charlotte Woodward, who came to the 1948 Seneca Falls Convention and was the only signatory of that Convention’s Declaration of Sentiments to live to see women win the right to vote. Ms. Clinton told the crowd. “It falls to every generation to imagine the future, and it our task to do so now.” She asked the audience to consider what the 200th anniversary celebrants will say about us, what contribution we will make to advancing women’s rights. I, for one, had not even realized we had further to go.
I had always been told that men and women were equal, so figured the women’s rights movement was history. I believed the courageous visionaries I’d studied in school – from Susan B. Anthony, to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to Betty Friedan – had achieved gender equality for my generation. The rest of the convention proved me wrong. Through presentations, speeches, films, and booths set up by civil rights groups, I learned that injustice continued, around the world and right here in America.
On the last day of the convention, Betty Friedan signed copies of her feminist tome, The Feminine Mystique, and then, sat down with me for a one-on-one interview. I had done my research and had a number of questions prepared, but I never got to ask any of them. Instead, Ms. Friedan questioned me. What did I want to be when I grew up? Who were my heroes? What was I passionate about? And then she asked, “Are you a feminist?” I paused. Under the circumstances, I knew there was a right answer to the question, but I was afraid of being caught in a lie. I had never advocated for women’s rights because I had never felt the need. I explained to Ms. Friedan that I felt empowered by the work of herself and others, but that if I was denied any of their hard-fought gains, I would resist loudly. “That’s a good start,” she replied.
That week in Seneca Falls was my start. Once aware of the inequalities that persisted, I began to see them around me. In her book, Sheryl Sandberg echoes Susan B. Anthony’s sentiment, writing: “We need to be grateful for what we have, but dissatisfied with the status quo. This dissatisfaction spurs the drive for change.” At sixteen, I became grateful for what I had, then learning about how far women have come helped me to appreciate how far we have still to go. I am only now becoming dissatisfied as I start to run into sexism (although often benign) in my daily life. But I will leave that for another post …