Though I rarely sleep well the night before a new school week begins, a recent Sunday was a heightened exception. The next day I'd be sitting around a table with 15 other teachers to discuss feminism with none other than Gloria Steinem, the iconic leader of the women's movement for more than four decades. This "master class" was organized by The Academy for Teachers, which brings prominent experts together with classroom teachers for inspiring, content-rich days that celebrate a teacher's passion for a subject. Our class with Steinem concerned the ongoing struggle for women's equality. The participating teachers taught either English or history through a feminist and social activist lens.
As a mother of twin sons I wonder and worry about how to raise my boys to be proud feminists, and as a teacher of low-income latino and African-American youth, I grapple and hope to get my students to question prevailing gender roles. When my sons show interest in the vacuum cleaner I am thrilled, but when they seek negative attention through violence, I cringe. When my students discuss the complexity of the characters in the novel Ruined who work in a brothel to escape being raped by the Congolese milita, I am awed, but when a girl laughs off her boyfriend's verbal abuse, I fume. I see myself as a part of the 40-year struggle toward greater equality, but too often these negative experiences leave me frustrated or short-tempered. I was counting on Steinem and the other teachers to give me a plan of action so I would know exactly what to do to raise my sons and teach my students to be good and decent members of a better, more equitable society.
The class took place in the elegant library of the New-York Historical Society, the city's oldest museum. When Gloria Steinem quietly and unceremoniously entered the room, wearing her signature sunglasses, you could feel a spark, a crackle. Everyone sat a bit taller, trying to hide the star-struck feeling. and we furtively glanced at each other, so as to avoid staring at her.
She took her seat and we all introduced ourselves. The assembled teachers represented classrooms from the richest to the poorest areas of the city, and impressed me with their experience and the enthusiasm. All were serious about their work, thoughtful about its connection to social activism and there were many "Mmm..mmmms" and "Yups" of solidarity during our introductions.
Steinem proved to be incredibly open and unpretentious. She led us in a rich discussion that included the state of women's rights, reproductive rights, and the media's portrayal of women. About midway through our class, she showed us a book, Sex and World Peace, which argues that the peacefulness of any nation is directly related to its treatment of women. "OK," I thought, "now she's going to take out her tool box and share the answers I came in search of."
Before Steinem continued, a teacher told a story that brought the dialogue to a screeching halt. She said a friend of her daughter had gone to a frat party at an upstate college and the guys had a scale by the door and any woman weighing over 130 pounds wasn't allowed in.
Several of us were quick to be outraged: Why would any self-respecting girl want to go to party like that? But Steinem was quick to intervene. "No," she said. "Blame the guys with the scale!" For turning the spotlight where it belonged, on the guys, I was ready to give Steinem a standing ovation.
Yet, I still didn't know what to do to make sure the children in my life would never attend a party that humliates women or ever step on such a scale. Where was the plan of action?
A younger teacher raised a tentative hand to ask the question I'd been too nervous to pose: "How can we effect change today?" Steinem paused to look around the room. She was careful to make eye contact with each of us as she said, "I've spent hours prepping for congressional hearings and it didn't change a thing, but then I make some small comment in passing to someone and that's the thing that ripples into some great change." I leaned forward. With calm passion and a real sense of urgency, Steinem told us that any act, no matter how small, and any conversation, no matter how inconsequential, offers the possibility for quiet rebellion and resistance against the blind acceptance of a patriarchal structure. She said, "We must behave as if everything matters."
Then, it hit me.
Steinem had no perfect answer, no plan of action. If there was a way to stop all the awful and unfair treatment toward women, there is no doubt Steinem would have found it. Or maybe she did have a plan, but it's simple: Acting like everything matters.
The unfortunate reality is that there will perhaps always be boys who grow up to find new ways to insult females and there will perhaps always be girls who willingly accept those insults. All a mother can do, all a teacher can do, is model our version of the world. So I'll do my best to offer hugs when my sons feel the urge to hit. I'll look my female students in the eyes and tell them they matter after their boyfriends verbally abuse them. And I'll give the boyfriend room to apologize and reflect. So, I'll parent and I'll teach and I'll try to live with kindness and positivity in the face of hate and ignorance. When I feel the frustration building, when I cringe or fume, I will seize the moment as a possibility for change, rather than one of failure.
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