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“Looking into the origins of western feminism, in every case the women who were ‘stirring up the hornets’ nest’ were considered a bit odd. In a short amount of time, a very small group of ‘men hating’ women skewed the minds of content and happy women everywhere and made them think that they were being treated ‘unfairly.’” 

This is a real sentence written by a real student at a New England university. I was this student’s freshmen composition teacher. The student who wrote this sentence is female.

It was the first of many times that I’ve encountered a bizarre thread of anti-feminist rhetoric in student writing. In this particular case, the paper went on (and on) citing no outside evidence, no significant historical research, but at least five pages of reasons why she (the student author) was against feminism.

The student (let’s call her Jane) berated “bra-burners,” blaming them for the breakup of traditional families, the unhappiness of women, and for wasting society’s time with petty problems. Jane made no substantive arguments, and she never explained her belief that feminism had somehow been a destructive force for society. She ranted.

I distinctly recall feeling like a cartoon as I finished the paper — my eyes were popping out of my head, and my mouth was wide open in shock. I had cartoon smoke puffing out of my ears. How was this possible? Jane was one of my more promising students — she was never afraid to use “I” in her papers, she was passionate, she was curious. Why was this seemingly sane, intelligent young woman choosing to write her research paper AGAINST feminism in 2014?

I could scarcely contain my fury as I typed comments in the margins. After a stunning sentence about women’s rights (“Those ‘rights’ were granted to them voluntarily by the men who loved and cherished them”), I wrote the following:

“Why should men be granting women (or anyone else) rights in the first place?”

Jane claimed that women were “manipulated” into thinking they were some sort of “lower class,” when in fact they were actually an “upper class.” Her explanation? Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. During shipwrecks, women and children were clearly top priority.

My fingertips screamed with every click of the keyboard as I typed my response: “Who are you talking about? Was an Irish woman living in the slums of NYC upperclass? Was a black woman in 1733 Georgia upperclass?”

It went on and on — each sentence more unbelievable than the last. I took a breath and emailed some of my old professors for advice. One of my most powerful mentors sent me an “ugh,” and told me to tell Jane to watch Mad Men. I ended up compiling a list of easily digestible videos, radio shows, and texts to give Jane a super basic understanding of feminism. I sent her Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s and Courtney Martin’s TED talks.

Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieChimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few days later, we sat down in my little shared adjunct office for a one-on-one conference. I asked Jane what she liked about her paper, and what she didn’t like about her paper. She cited her passion as a strength, and the paper’s organization (!) as a weakness. I then asked her to tell me (in one sentence) why she thought feminism was bad for the world. She looked at me like I was crazy.

“One sentence? I don’t think I can really do that.”

I asked her if she thought women were happy being legally bludgeoned by their husbands.

“Well, obviously not, but I think those were probably rare circumstances.”

I asked her if she thought she had the right to an education, to be sitting in this very room as a college student.

“Well, yeah, of course.”

I asked her if she wanted to get paid for her professional contributions at a fair and equal wage.

“I mean, yeah, but that has nothing to do with why I'm anti-feminism.”

After many false starts and incoherent mumblings on both our parts, Jane finally blurted out:

“It’s just — I really want to be a stay-at-home mom one day, and I feel all this pressure to succeed at some sort of office job.”

Illumination.

The conversation took a real shift, and we had a productive conversation about the dilemma of many modern women in the Western world, how to juggle desire for a family with professional fulfillment. I even managed to point out that her very dilemma was why we needed feminism. Do men feel the same struggle to “have it all?” And as white, middle-class, women, our privilege grants us these “struggles.”

A week later, Jane wrote me the following email:

“Honestly very interesting. I find myself questioning things I was once told. I mostly base my view of feminism from what my dad raised me thinking; feminism, in every sense, is wrong. I am now starting to develop opinions and thoughts off of his track and it's a weird feeling because for my whole life "daddy was always right and knew best". Some of the articles you have sent me have really moved me where I never though I would change how I felt about it. Thank you so much for helping me on this!”

I’m not including this email to toot my own horn (but I would be lying if I said this email didn’t also turn me into a cartoon, complete with little red hearts bursting out of my chest), but to point out the need for open and honest dialogues with our girls and young women.

My initial reactions towards Jane and her beliefs were packed with derision and disbelief. But after talking to her, I not only understood where she was coming from, I remember feeling similarly conflicted and confused myself. I remember wishing to be a grand lady of leisure on an English estate, running through violet groves with my downy-haired children, oozing angel-of-the-house-ness. I’m 34 now. I’ve read The Awakening. I’ve read The Bell Jar. I’ve read Jane Eyre. I no longer harbor fantasies about ladies of leisure.

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But Jane felt a real internal struggle, and she was raised in a particular community, with particular parents, and particular priorities. Instead of judging young women who loudly proclaim to be humanists instead of feminists, we need to talk to them, to share our experiences, to lend them books, to ask them questions. We must respect their thoughts, their histories, and their brains.

By slamming the door on young women’s lack of experience, their misguided information, or insecurities about their futures, we are no better than the Victorians, admonishing little girls to speak only when spoken to. By rolling our eyes at naiveté and convoluted bravado, we lose valuable opportunities to prevent young adults from being frozen into archaic, harmful belief systems. We need to be more than gatekeepers of information; we need to be question-askers as well.

Just as Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinheim may have misjudged the mindsets of young female voters in this year’s presidential election, so too did I misjudge Jane’s intentions, beliefs, and intelligence. If we want to alienate “anti-feminists,” by all means, let’s laugh and scoff. But if we want those same girls to grow up to become thoughtful, informed women who lead the next generation of girls, let’s listen.

***This student’s identity will be kept anonymous, but “Jane” has given her full consent that her words be used in this essay.

Image: Clueless

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Sara Petersen lives in Portsmouth, NH, where she writes about parenthood, feminism, the best bralettes, and other miscellany. Her work has been published in Neutrons ProtonsBrain, ChildEntropyBustleScaryMommyBustMotherwell, and elsewhere.  She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and bad small talk here.
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