Encouragement for Women’s Studies can lead to empowerment for young girls

Karen Brereton, Women's Literature Teacher

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One Halloween when I was young, I decided to dress up as an astronaut.  The only astronaut costumes were in the boys’ department, so I had to make my own from an old white sheet and some aluminum foil. It looked great, but I soon got the message: “You can marry an astronaut, but you can’t be one.  I loved the space program and science fiction because in books and on TV, the women of the future were space commanders and planetary explorers.  Maybe I couldn’t be an astronaut in my world, but in the future, women would wear the captain’s uniform and not just on Star Trek.

As a baby boomer, influenced by the second wave feminists, I had no doubt that the 21st century would be a very different place; women would be able to do anything.  It is a very different world, and women have broken barriers in almost every kind of career, but we still live in an economic, political, and cultural patriarchy that gives very mixed messages to young women today.  Like all teachers, I want my students to understand the world around them and figure out ways to make it better.  I want them to think critically and to be able to analyze the reasons behind the social, political, and corporate decisions affecting their lives. 

women have broken barriers in almost every kind of career, but we still live in an economic, political, and cultural patriarchy that gives very mixed messages to young women today”

— Karen Brereton

Because we have become more globally aware, we can look at the rest of the world and see how far ahead women are in the U.S.  This has caused complacency and even regression on women’s issues.  We still lag behind on income equality, workplace fairness, maternity rights, and child care.  The beauty industry has a billion dollar reason for continuing the narrative that in spite of education and accomplishments, the greatest power a woman can have is her youth and beauty.  Keep her self-esteem low and she will keep buying.  Start early by encouraging her to dream of being a Disney princess whose coming-of-age story ends with marriage.  The purpose of women’s studies is to raise awareness of this kind of 19th century thinking that still exists in our brave new world.

I would like to see women’s studies encouraged in the same way we encourage other kinds of culturally relevant classes. At the college level, women’s studies include history, law, cultural and physical anthropology, media literacy, biology, bioethics, genetics, and psychology as well as art and literature.  In Women’s Lit here at Tucson High, we use all of these areas as topics for research, but we concentrate on the literature, examining the lives and works of female writers who had to really struggle against discrimination and social disapproval.  These women are inspiring because they were so driven to write and to find their voices: Jane Austen hid her novels under the desk blotter and pretended to be writing letters; Emily Dickinson kept her poems in a box under the bed; the Bronte sisters and George Eliot had to publish under male pen names; and Virginia Woolf bought a printing press and started her own publishing house to get her novels and essays into readers’ hands.  These writers were also champions for women’s education, and this is really the best answer to all social inequality; feminist activists have protested for decades, but the biggest change in women’s opportunities has come because women were finally admitted to universities and graduate schools. 

I am very proud that we offer this class here at Tucson High and proud of all our students who are becoming so well educated about complicated gender issues. Yet even here, we still see those mixed messages.  In May, our seniors were shown a power point about appropriate attire for graduation. Shoes for boys: one slide. For girls, there were six pictures of “appropriate” shoes, all with high heels that could cause an altitude-induced nose bleed.  Control, contain, cripple: this is a strategy that has worked since the days of Chinese foot binding. Those bedazzled Cinderella slippers won’t help you fight the dragons and may make you fall flat on your face.  Women’s Lit can help to empower you to choose your own shoes and your own future.

-Karen Brereton

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Encouragement for Women’s Studies can lead to empowerment for young girls