An uncomfortable silence filled the classroom. No one had started writing a response to the question I had written. Finally, one student raised her hand.
"Um, can you explain what 'chauvinist' means?"
As a professor, there are times when I gaze out at my students armed with their smartphones and iPads and am reminded of the generation gap between myself -- a Generation Xer -- and the so-called Millennials. Garbed in their retro-Nirvana hoodies and Vans, at times the gap appears miniscule, yet in discussions that require a nuanced comprehension of the past, the distance seems insurmountable.
Admittedly, I wasn't entirely surprised that the twenty-five freshmen sitting in my Introduction to Literature class hadn't been exposed to the term 'chauvinist,' a word that at one time seemed to saturate popular culture and public discourse. I'd read the declarations that feminism and all of its various incarnations from Feminists to Riot grrrls are passé, that even third, fourth or fifth-wave feminism is passé. It's done. It's over. Want proof? Last year HBO shrunk Gloria Steinem's life into a one hour mini-documentary to be placed among the shelf of other once-relevant figures from long ago. To the students in my class, the very discussion of feminism was a moot point. Problems? What problems?
Perhaps the fact that my students are blissfully unaware of the inequalities of the past is in
and of itself proof that the battle for equality had been won. Maybe it is encouraging and positive that they feel so confident about the status of women today that when we read the early women's rights crusader, Kate Chopin's, classic feminist text, "The Story of an Hour," the entire class -- comprised mostly of female students -- berated the wife for being heartless after learning of her husband's sudden death. When I tried to put the story in historical context, citing the lack of control and rights that women had at that time and the way society locked them into very specific, limited roles, the students didn't seem swayed. The wife, they asserted, was still a bitch.
It's difficult to prove societal discrimination to students who either don't see it or don't want to see it. The problem is not so much that students don't have a full grasp of the inequities of the past, but that they don't seem to possess an awareness of the inequities of the present. It's 2012, they say. We don't have any problems with 'that stuff.'
On one hand, who wants to shatter that illusion? Perhaps it is comforting to dwell in a protected cocoon, but eventually, one needs to venture out.
Where to start? Current class action lawsuits over unequal pay for equal work? The more subtle sport of reducing complex female politicians to simple votes on hair and fashion choices? Even Hollywood, the supposed bastion of progressiveness, proves it is ensnared in archaic ideas about women. Why else would a movie like "Bridesmaids" have been nominated for an Academy Award? (The only cinematic achievement about that movie was that Hollywood finally gave equal treatment to women, allowing them to fart, get drunk, and act stupid just like their male counterparts had been proudly doing on screen for decades.) If that is not enough, then a review of the recent GOP Presidential debates where women were not deemed capable enough to partake in military battles or that women should be denied access to contraception are critical examples that women are still not viewed as equal citizens.
Perhaps the Millennials can render gender inequality obsolete. Perhaps their confidence in its absurdity may indeed will it into nonexistence. Until then, the hoary past is still urgently relevant.