06/20/2012 09:23 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

My Grandmother's Lessons

My grandma came to town a few months ago. She brought a small and carefully organized suitcase that gave her greater space to pack her lively and colorful stories. The vibrancy of each tale she told was similar to a magician pulling out a seemingly unending trail of patterned scarves from his mouth. As she gripped her iPad and proudly proclaimed her title of "High Tech Granny," her stories of colorless TVs and shared landlines seemed to be from another planet. The remoteness of her childhood and early life does not stop with the changes in technology. Her stories of the subjugation she faced because of her gender seem so far from my life of near gender equality. My grandma's struggles, both big and small, are testaments to the hard work of past feminists and reminders of why today's women must keep fighting to maintain our rights.

"You have it so good today," my grandma said matter-of-factly. "You wouldn't believe what I had to deal with when I was growing up." Born in 1936, my grandma grew up among calls for war bonds and victory gardens. At the time, Rosie the Riveter beckoned in a seemingly new age for women. But while she took up the spotlight, smaller examples of gender inequality slipped through the cracks. As my grandma explained, a girl would never receive a love note or invitation to the drive-in-theater if she ever let on that she was smarter than the boys. Ideas of college were usually out of the question with girls only allowed aspirations of becoming the model housewife. Told that a woman's job was to get married and start a family, my grandma felt a creeping sense of superiority over her unmarried friends when, by the age of 26, she was married with four kids. She'd accomplished the dream and highest goal for women at the time, so according to society, what more could she want?

The world my grandma grew up in is a reality unknown to me and many of the girls in my generation. After the struggle of feminists in the '60's and '70's, my mom and her female peers achieved levels of education and professional accomplishment previously unheard of for women. Still, my grandma assured me that although more women were going to college, they were still underpaid and undervalued in the work force. Unbelievably, even 30 years ago, society did not yet view women as equals.

By the time I was born, working moms and growing numbers of women in college were just a part of the landscape. My '90s cohorts and I were surrounded by messages of "Girl Power!" and crime-stopping female cartoon characters. From where I stand, the world seems limitless, and nothing, especially my gender, will hold me back. It is so easy for my generation and me to take our gender equality for granted. Of course I can win that spelling bee, hit a home run and speak my mind. This is America! This is the 21st century! But the sharp contrast between my freedoms and my grandma's not-so-long-ago constraints are a reminder that even in modern America, women's rights are not guaranteed. If women stop demanding equality, it might not take so long for our rights to erode.

In my grandma's time, women seeking equality had obvious walls to knock over. As these enormous obstacles to equality tumbled down, America was left with the more inconspicuous foundations of sexism. Rather than the blaring displays of gender inequality, such as laws banning women from certain jobs, we must now deal with the more subtle remains of these edicts and attitudes.

For example, my friend and I were shocked when we read a recent Miss Manners question asking whether a girl could still go to prom even if she said no to a boy who had asked her out. Miss Manners replied with a quick, "No," explaining that the girl cannot disrespect a boy by declining his unwanted invitation and then going with someone else. My friend's mom testified that Miss Manners' suggestion was in fact in line with the way she was raised.

To my friend and me, this archaic rule reeks of sexism. We were immediately disturbed that culture could give a boy so much control over a girl's life. Why is a girl expected to forgo her own prom to protect the feelings of someone she did not even want to go to the dance with? This display of sexism is small and probably won't generate any picket lines or clever protest slogans. Yet, the sexist attitude it represents is not so different from the constraints my grandma faced when she was a teenager. I worry that if today's generation of young women is not willing to take on these small issues, it might not be long until these inequalities multiply and cloud women's new frontier of freedom.

My fear of a regression in women's rights is not completely unfounded, as the inflammatory reproductive rights debates have shown. As a largely male contingency of pro-life and anti-contraception proponents create arguments and laws based on a faith I don't believe in, it is scary to think that a group that does not represent me can so drastically limit my choices and rights. If religion, culture and science can justify taking away women's reproductive rights, can these fields justify oppressing women in other areas?

I do not want to wait for the answer to this question. Yes, women have many rights today but our struggle is not over if we are committed to keeping these rights. I do not want to have to tell my granddaughters fantastical stories of times when it was acceptable for me to get straight A's and go to college as they face stifling gender inequity. Let's honor the struggle of our grandmothers and mothers and keep working for justice.