This all was brought to mind recently when I watched HBO's documentary on Gloria Steinem. I grew up idolizing Gloria Steinem. I would guess I was rather young when I first "discovered" Gloria, and I can remember being enthralled with this glamorous woman who was getting up and speaking and leading marches. In high school, I read Ms. Magazine the way some girls read Seventeen. (Don't get me wrong -- the back-to-school issue of Seventeen was like a Bible to me, but so was Ms.) I was a lucky little girl in that I grew up in a rather enlightened household. Even though my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in junior high, she was adamant about the fact that women could do anything and raised my sister and I to build careers rather than homes. My father, despite being of an older generation -- the generation that seemed most threatened by Steinem and the women's movement, was equally adamant in encouraging my younger sister and I that the sky was the limit. He expected nothing but the best from us, and his definition of "best" did not necessarily include becoming wives and mothers. (It probably helped that my father was raised by a single mother who was one of the first women to graduate from her law school and go on to a successful law career in Chicago -- a career that included arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in the 1950's. Having a role model like that definitely creates a father who believes in the power of his daughters to succeed.) My sister and I both were tomboys to a degree as we grew up. I think my sister had a permanent layer of mud on her body until she was about twelve. We were encouraged to play with Hot Wheels AND Barbies. We were taught the ins and outs of the major sports, allowing us to watch football, basketball, baseball, et cetera with tremendous knowledge and understanding. We were taught to cook and how to change a tire. My parents created two pretty strong, independent women.
Growing up, I knew that there was a women's movement. I knew there was a fight going on about the Equal Rights Amendment. I knew that not every household was as enlightened as ours. But I also knew the times were a-changing. I just didn't realize how much they were changing until the past several years as I've read about or seen interviews with women of the 1970s talking about their struggles for acceptance and independence. In the documentary, Gloria Steinem talks about her inability to rent an apartment on her own because landlords assumed that a woman with a stable enough income to afford the rent must be a prostitute. In an interview on Oprah, Jane Curtin (another one of my childhood heroes thanks to my shockingly early discovery of Saturday Night Live) talked about single women in the 1970's being unable to get a loan or even a credit card. The things that women like Steinem and Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug were fighting for are things that I think women my age and younger take for granted. We live charmed lives compared to the lives led by our mothers and grandmothers. On a nearly daily basis, my grandmother had to correct someone and tell him that she was NOT the lawyer's secretary but was indeed the lawyer. An assumption like that today would be considered an offense; back then, it was just natural.
Of course, the fight continues. There are still tremendous injustices being done to women in this country and around the world on a daily basis. Women in Saudi Arabia can't drive cars. Seriously. In other parts of the world, it is illegal for a woman to seek an education. In this country, women are still fighting to break the glass ceilings constructed to keep them from the executive suites, and although there are cracks developing, the glass is still pretty solid in a lot of areas. Many women are still struggling with archaic pay structures, hostile work environments, and a lack of flexibility when they need to balance work and a family. Just because we can get credit cards and rent apartments without a husband's name to prove our dependability doesn't mean that we've achieved true equality.
And that's why I'm a feminist -- because I still dream of a female president (just not one named Palin or Bachman!), because I still have female students who think their dreams are impossible, and because I owe it to women like Gloria Steinem and my grandmother to make sure that our seat at the table isn't just a card table set up in the kitchen while the men are feasting in the dining room.