I Was a Teenaged Feminist?

A couple of days ago a “Dear Abby” column had a letter in it from a 16-year-old girl who works in the food service industry and reveals that a coworker quit because the boss told her he had “feelings” for her. Now the young girl is uncomfortable working there and doesn’t know what to do. Abby, in all her pre-feminist glory, tells the young girl to “keep her distance” and if she is hit on to “remind” the man she is a minor and then, perhaps, tell her parents about the incident.

No mention of sexual harassment. No mention that this is 2015 and this sort of behavior should be completely taboo.

And then, Hanna Rosin of Slate, who at 45 should know better, riffs on the most recent Mad Men episode by calling the harassers at McCann Erickson “crudely drawn,” saying that “the bros at McCann were like guys you usually encounter only on workplace training videos about sexual harassment.”

I am 14 years older than Ms. Rosin but I find it hard to believe that she finds it hard to believe that men behaved that way on the verge of the 1970s or are very capable of behaving exactly the same way four and a half decades later.

You see I was a 1970s teenaged feminist. I thought I “got it” when I realized I could turn a boy down for a date on Saturday night without lying. I could just say “no thanks” and stay home and watch my role model Mary Tyler Moore (who, alas, from this distance, was not nearly the woman I wished she was). I thought I understood that there were other options than getting married and having babies. I was sure my consciousness had been raised. But then I entered the world of work.

In 1978, at my first real job as a waitress in a family-owned restaurant, the two brothers who owned the place practiced the most blatant misogyny I may have ever come across. We wore short white dresses that conveniently rode up when we were told to stand on the booths and clean the huge mirrors. Each time we “dipped” to serve from the huge trays we carried we were in grave danger of revealing our underwear. I don’t think I had realized the difficulty of mini-skirts until that very moment. The owners flirted with us incessantly, the cooks made remarks that made me blush. The businessmen who ate lunch in the restaurant gave us tips based on how pretty we were or how well we responded to their teasing. A year later in a hotel restaurant job I was often handed room keys as “tips,” and that was the most benign part of the work.

A couple of years later, out of college and in my first public relations job, it was just assumed that I would use my looks whenever possible. Less than a year later at my first magazine job I accepted as normal the fact that male editors and writers would touch me without my permission at the same time they diminished the talent I had been hired for. I didn’t even realize it was all against the law. I thought I had to play the game. I had my “aha” moment like many other middle-aged women, when Anita Hill’s travails were revealed.

I feel angry that the young waitress who wrote to “Dear Abby”who needs the money for college is just supposed to suck it up. And I feel furious that Rosin actually thinks the men in Mad Men are crudely drawn. They may be brutal but they are real. And anyone who worked in the Seventies knows this for a fact.

But then, on the same day I was mulling over the “Dear Abby” letter and Hanna Rosin’s shortsightedness I came upon an article about the new rise of teen-aged feminism and a group of kids in Auckland, New Zealand who call themselves the Western Springs College Young Feminist Club. They discuss the dual dress standards for boys and girls, how women are portrayed on television shows and in the media, and why young people are reluctant to use the word “feminist” even if they subscribe to the core beliefs of the movement. The club has both young men and young women and their struggles mirror those from 40 years ago. Which is sad, but also good: at least they are confronting the issue head on once again. Apparently such groups are springing up all over New Zealand and catching the interest of feminist scholars. This is an encouraging trend.

I have long been worried that younger women who benefit almost unconsciously from the work their mothers and grandmothers did before them, women who attend college, go into formerly male-dominated career fields, and take part in a sexual revolution as though it were the most normal thing in the world, don’t understand both how far women have come and how far we have yet to go. I worry now, too, about the legislators in the U.S. and other countries who are keen to take away women’s rights in all arenas. And that the women who will suffer most don’t realize how precarious their freedoms are.

I hate that the word “feminist” has become such a minefield and I desperately want young people to reclaim it. But we would do well to remember that Rosin’s flip remarks aside, the 16-year-old waitress is continuing to struggle between her conscience and her pocketbook. She is not alone. And if we don’t all keep paying attention the gains we have made with feminism can easily slip away.

(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side)

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