In Search of HERstory – Hotchkiss School ISGP Conference

We live in a world that values patriarchal systems of power and institutionalized control. You only need to do limited research to find statistics supporting evidence that women are still being brutalized, minimized and objectified at alarming rates around the world. This has pretty much been true since the beginning of recorded history. The subject of human rights, women’s rights and feminism is so vast that once we begin to contemplate “Showing Up”, “Speaking Up”, or “Acting Up” we might never have time for anything else. However, at the risk of potentially feeling overwhelmed and ineffectual, each of us must be charged with doing whatever we can.

These can be small things or major things. The point is to do something. Here we are all educated, so that puts us at a great advantage. But as I go around speaking with high school students, college students and graduate students, I find an overwhelming majority of them have never had the opportunity to really open their eyes to the nature of the society in which they live.

What Every Woman Wants

What Every Woman Wants

Whether tackling the subject of equal rights, equal pay, work/life balance, safety, agency or specifically for my presentation today, simply a working knowledge that our Western culture does not make an accounting of women’s contributions to society. I recently went back to school as a later-life graduate student to put some theory to my lived experience. It took one master class in the “History of Science and Technology” to read thirty books, covering hundreds of topics, where only two women were represented and none of them were authors. This tiny example is only one glimpse of one of the intellectual challenges students face when they embark on studying written history.

This reality is perpetuated within a consumer society where much of women’s labor does not count at all, unless you are counting Hallmark salutations. The labor to which I am referring is the unpaid, marginalized work of procreators and caregivers. Quoting Dr. Andrea O’Reilly at her induction to the Motherhood Hall of Fame in 2014, “It has been said that motherhood is the unfinished business of feminism. For example, namely that we need a feminism –in both theory and practice– specifically for mothers.” I argue this feminism must apply to family systems as well. The men, women and children who populate them are in the business of creating our future. Feminism must make the leap from our general history of what has been, to a future herstory. This must be learned, lived, valued and incorporated into what I suggest could be viewed as family-feminism. The values of respect and equality which feminism stand for must transition from the academic to the personal, and back again. It is in the home environment that we practice what we are taught, which in turn informs relationships with our future partners, and co-workers.

I use the word herstory to draw attention to the fact that so much of what we know and what is assumed comes from a source, or sources, which go relatively unexamined. When children are handed a history book, they don’t question whether it is a fair and balanced approach unless human rights abuses (for example with regard to Native Americans) or inaccuracies come to light. But, with regard to gender issues, or specifically the issue of how women have been represented, or under-represented, and what about those representations we deem important, flags might be raised. The view with which we collectively hold American consciousness is so endemic to our culture, that it is almost impossible to uncover some of the less-obvious, more intrinsic assumptions. Many of these assumptions form the basis on which we create careers, pick partners, raise children, and view women, and men’s roles. Naturally some of these roles don’t turn out as we would expect, but critical perspectives could only aid in our navigation of the terrain.

Ann Crittenden writes about young women today who “believe that all the feminist battles have been won,” but, as Crittenden continues, “once a woman has a baby, the egalitarian office party is over” (88).” Young women I interview insist that the problems of their mother’s generation are over. I argue differently. Not only has the landscape changed slowly or not at all, it continues to pendulum back and forth. The systemic issues continue. One example of equal pay for equal work may level out someday. But, even that doesn’t address the deep abiding negation of women’s voices in the sphere of public historical discourse and the ways we do or do not intrinsically value them.

I argue that in order to achieve any kind of lasting success we need an accounting that levels herstory for the masses. We need advocacy that highlights women’s accomplishments, promotes respect in every sector, and begins to comprehend the value of caregiving from an economic and social perspective. Until we understand that feminism must not cease from our lives once we graduate high school or college, we will continue, just as we have for the last fifty years, enjoying tentative political gains, without sweeping systemic change.

I grew up in the midst of abortion being legalized; it is still an issue today, birth control becoming available; it is still contentious in some spheres, women demanding equal pay; it is still not forthcoming, while violence against women continues at a statistical surge.

Wondrous as it is to discover campus-style feminism in an academic environment it must be more than a theoretical enterprise. Millions of women mature into their childbearing years, walk to the kitchen, strap on an apron, pop out a baby, and embrace retro versions of a patriarchal-style of family institution without even knowing what happened to them. Some women define themselves outside the system, others in the system, but feminist discourse within the political, social, and cultural realm is the only anecdote I can think of to oppressive tactics on behalf of un-women friendly, un-family friendly policies and perspectives. Despite some shifting of home labor responsibilities and the rise in the “stay at home dad” movement, true feminism is not about what you wear, what you cook, or even who does the cooking. It is about dismantling any system that is vested in maintaining dominance, perpetuating hierarchy, or harboring fear-based control.

My background is in the arts and activism. I am passionate about churning out future feminists. I find the most important thing to do when you talk to people is to listen first and then offer what might be an eye-opening example of your own personal experience. In other words, starting a great conversation can be the gateway to connection and transformation.

Today’s presentation is an introductory first step that gets students thinking about a world they have essentially been born into and taken for granted. This presentation encourages individuals to recognize that they are tenants of a society, of which certain values and orientations are institutionalized, which may or may not be salient to their intrinsic happiness, success, or personal truth, as well as their general understandings of equality. Therefore this presentation encourages students to remove their goggles, the ones that were placed on them by their family of origin at their birth and begin to ask some critical questions. The first question is “Where Are The Women?” History is fundamentally a written academic record of men’s accomplishments. While here in America we are hopefully beginning to integrate some of our famous female SHEros, women’s contributions are still woefully under-represented. Together we can talk about how we might make students aware of this, and then begin to write a new tale.



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