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In late December I read an article in the Washington Post about Geraldine Ferraro's extreme disappointment over the young women who voted for Obama rather than Hillary Clinton. Her point was that all other things being equal (meaning you were going to vote Democrat anyway) then women should have put Clinton over the top as women should have felt the higher need to place a woman in the Presidency. Here's a bit:

Ferraro was livid, and distraught. What more did Hillary Clinton have to do to prove herself? How could anyone -- least of all Ferraro's own daughter -- fail to grasp the historic significance of electing a woman president, in probably the only chance the country would have to do so for years to come? Ferraro hung up enraged, not so much at her daughter but at the world. Clinton was being unfairly cast aside, and, along with her, the dreams of a generation and a movement.

What intrigued me about this piece was the notion that feminism means you inherently must support the best qualified woman, over the equally qualified man - at all times. So if I voted for Obama and not Clinton, I am not as "good a feminist" as I should be. This also made me wonder just what being a feminist means in the 21st century and beyond that, if teens today have any idea what feminism used to mean and why it continues to matter. Is feminism an outdated word today? Is it even a negative word? And yet Lily Ledbetter proved that inequalities exist and must be rectified and who can argue with her situation - demanding equal pay for equal work regardless of gender? But do today's teens see gender bias - and should they?

Basically, the question is, what does it mean to be a 21st century feminist and on the literary front, what books/authors would you recommend to today's teens who want to take girl power to the next level?

Lorie Ann Grover: "No way, should a girl vote for a woman just because she's a woman, Colleen! Both my girls would be upset to hear that they were expected to do so. Thankfully, they are not of my mother's world, but their own. They have the luxury of looking at issues over gender representation. That said, a hip young feminist blog is The F Bomb . This was recommended by iheartdaily, and it's a great, fresh voice for teen girls.

Girldrive by Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein is compelling, both the book and blog. Here two young women hit the road and interview women across the country about feminism. Answers are different, current, and colorful.

Those two sources come immediately to mind. Other than that, I think reading broadly through YA lit will bring a great balance. The books of today empower girls to think for themselves and stride forward."

(ETA: Read a NY Magazine Q&A with Nona Aronowitz.)

Laurel Snyder: "What I cannot stop thinking about, as I ponder this question, is that no matter how much things change, teenage girls are still boy-crazy. For healthy natural reasons, of course, but this reality places boys firmly at the center of the developing girl consciousness, and at the center of their literature. As YA has developed as a genre, the boy-centric book seems to have risen to the top. I feel like the ratio of books about girls who struggle with non-boy-issues has dropped.

So I'm inclined to look to books that are a little younger, in which romance/boys are introduced, but where the stories don't revolve around the boys. An obvious book like that is When You Reach Me-- where there's a little spark of boy/girl, but the "adventure" that absorbs the reader isn't about the boy. Another example is the new Polly Horvath, Northward to the Moon. Same deal. Girl likes boy, but that feeling is an integrated part of her life, her world. The boy brings in some added drama, but so does family, mystery, travel, sense of self.

I'd love to think girls would be reading biographies of Gertrude Stein, but for me its enough to hope they're reading books about themselves, not just books about boys."

(ETA: That's a young Gertrude Stein, on the left, standing behind her younger brother circa 1900.)

Loree Griffin Burns: "My thinking about this question is all wrapped up in my reading of Phillip Hoose's CLAUDETTE COLVIN: TWICE TOWARD JUSTICE. It's purely coincidence that I happened to be reading it these past few weeks—but the coupling of book and question was instantaneous and irreversible. I have been unable to separate them.

As a teen, I would have been struck by Claudette's courage, but also outraged by her mistreatment at the hands of adults. I'm talking not only of the abuse she suffered at the hands of white police officers and bus drivers, but also the way adults in her life—many of them leaders of the Montgomery civil rights movement—shunned her when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Middle-aged me skipped outrage and moved straight to admiration; I was mesmerized by Claudette's inner strength, the hard-earned (and hard-edged) wisdom that I could hear in her voice as she spoke from the pages:

"… I wasn't ashamed of myself. I knew I wasn't a bad person. A more experienced and much older man took advantage of me when I was at my very lowest. I got caught up in a mistake, yes, but that's all it was—a mistake."

I'm not sure I could have appreciated those words at fifteen; at forty, they rang in my head.

I guess what I've decided is that what a woman needs, book-wise, is not only completely unique to the woman in question, but also changes as she ages. My advice is less about what to read and more about how to read, which is to say, widely, repetitively, incessantly, and with an open mind. What it means to be a woman will change, the woman you are will change, and the books themselves, somehow, will change. Just keep reading."

Margo Rabb: "I absolutely think feminist literature is necessary today! We've come a long way, yes--but we have a long way to go: women still earn less than men for equal work, there is still an appalling lack of women in high-level positions at scores of companies; we have yet to have a female president; and though the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was an important step, we have yet to provide all working mothers with adequate pay and leave time. I think many young girls don't realize how recently many feminist gains were made--that it's only been 89 years since women won the right to vote, and how few opportunities were available for women in the workforce until recently. Although 21st century teens probably wouldn't use the word feminist, they should know their history, and read about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida B. Wells, Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks. There's a great list called the Amelia Bloomer Project, which recommends feminist titles for readers from birth through age 18--Jacqueline Kelly's novel is on the list this year!"

(ETA: Ida B. Wells: Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells would become African-American educator, newspaperwoman, anti-lynching campaigner, and a founder of the NAACP.)

Zetta Elliott: "Feminism matters more than ever, but I think a lot of young people today don't even know what it means to be a feminist. Many girls think being a feminist means being unfeminine, and unfortunately that matters a LOT to most of today's teenage girls. I'm not sure boys know that they, too, can be feminists, but I do think that all teens are willing to talk about gender and sexuality in meaningful ways. It's important, then, that we have literature that responds to that desire to engage in conversations around power and justice and equality. I hate to say it, but sometimes a problematic book can do more for the cause of feminism than an on-point but preachy one. I read Coe Booth's Tyrell last year and was deeply disturbed, but the book is enormously popular with black teens and could be a useful teaching tool: why does Tyrell think it's his job to "fix" everything? Should he follow his father's advice and never date smart girls because they won't need him for anything? I find I often fall back on stories that leave the reader unsure—there's no clear winner because feminism is often a process of negotiation rather than an outright battle.

I like Second Wave black women writers like Ntozake Shange; her short story, "comin to terms" is always a favorite with my students even though they often can't agree on the main character's feminist status.

Would a feminist stay in a relationship with a man who tried to rape her? Would she cook and clean for him and let him stay out all night long? Can we respect her right to set the terms of her relationship? I also love the Combahee River Collective's "Statement"; written in the 1970s it remains the most lucid feminist manifesta I've ever read and it reassures those who fear being a feminist means abandoning anti-racist struggle and black men in general:

We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they act, and how they oppress. But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes them what they are. As BIack women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.

Feminism is for everyone, and I think everyone should read 20th-century activists like Audre Lorde and June Jordan, but also 19th-century anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells."

(ETA: Pic of Ntozake Shange.)

[Top Post pic: "Miss Janet Fotheringham, of Buffalo, N.Y. a teacher of physical culture, was arrested on July 14, 1917 while picketing in Washington D.C.; They were fined $25 or given the option of going to jail. Miss Fotheringham, like the others, chose jail, and all were sentenced to up to 60 days at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. The conditions were bad enough, but around 40 guards rampaged through this group one night, beating everyone and sending some to the hospital with severe injuries.

Miss Fotheringham was fortunate that her sentence was reduced to 3 days; by November, 1917, all were released. The resulting publicity in favor of woman's suffrage was priceless."]


The thing about these conversations, Colleen, is that they force me to take the time to think more deeply. I shouldn’t need such prodding, but the truth is that a lot of the time, I do.

I am forty (just to give you a sense of where I fit into the history of feminism) and admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that the term 'feminist' has always been somewhat confusing to me. Well, maybe not always, but at least since the day my seventh grade geography teacher, a woman I admired, sat at her desk and said something like this: I hope the whole world doesn’t bow to these ‘feminists’ … I, for one (she looked at us girls meaningfully here), like it when a man holds the door open for me.

I could be completely mis-remembering this; it was almost thirty years ago. Maybe this isn’t what she said at all, or not what she meant. But I remember clearly feeling socked. (I’m leaving the typ-o there intentionally.) Although I’m fairly certain I didn’t understand what a feminist was, I knew enough to be SHOCKED that a woman would decide not to be one. I became unsettled and confused about the entire issue, and I am not convinced that I have ever really worked through the ramifications of that.

All of which is to say that I think I will be reading some of the books that Lorie Ann, Laurel, Margo and Zetta recommend. Thanks, as always, for getting us talking … and reading.

..."What it means to be a woman will change, the woman you are will change, and the books themselves, somehow, will change. Just keep reading."
YES. Definitely yes.

It's a bit ironic that this topic is up for chat today; my friend Rachel and I just finished discussing her contribution to a piece on feminism in the new decade. Like Margo said, a lot of the people I know have huge issues with the word feminist, they figure it's unflattering and at all costs, they have to appear attractive, even in the labels they use. Still, people willing to engage on topics of gender and stereotypes and sexuality and boundaries -- openly and without prejudice -- can call themselves whatever they'd like. If they're not feeling the F-word, whatever.

As for the Keep Reading mantra, I enjoyed many of the books on the 2010 Amelia Bloomer list --- I'd especially check out Tanya Lee Stone's Almost Astronauts, and Marilyn Nelson's Sweethearts of Rhythm for MG readers, and Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl for older readers.

Another wonderful post, Colleen. And *such* an important conversation to keep on the table. I think I was a feminist first (in answer to that old question of whether I learned race first or gender) because I was born in India. Everyone around me was Indian, so I didn't see myself as different in that regard. But what I DID know was my mother's role in the familial hierarchy. We were a house of men. My father had three brothers, his father had a brother, and I have two brothers. That left me and my mom. It didn't take long to figure out that what was going on in our home, in terms of power distribution, was exactly what was going on in our village, in the town, the city, the state, the nation...etc. As a child, I didn't have the words for it. But as a pre-teen and teen, and then an adult, I devoured books with a feminist sensibility. I recently blogged about books I've cherished, and many of them were books that put what I knew and understood on a *gut* level, into words -- books like Marge Piercy's WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Free Renunciates trilogy (which also starts out with the very awesome oath of the Renunciates).

I think it's very important to remember that feminism is not just about women and men; it is a response and challenge to the *values* of patriarchy. And patriarchy is based on the domination of women AND CHILDREN (and the earth, Nature, the environment, etc). So on the question of whether men can be feminists--there should be no question...if they can remember their childhoods, they can embody the ideals of feminism.

I think if we were to try to give feminism another name that new name would soon also have mud-slung at it. The people who don't believe in principles of equality are constantly trying to attach as much negativity to the word feminism as they can (linking it with raunch culture, for example, which is the complete antithesis of feminism).

But of course feminism is still very much needed. There was a study about three or four years ago which showed girls freshly graduating from university (and in identical fields to boys) only made 80% of what the boys earned in their jobs. Reproductive rights are a continual struggle in the U.S. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence a quarter of women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime and RAINN stats show that 1 in 6 women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted. A couple of studies up here in Canada show that the sexual harrasment and assault of girls at school is so commonplace now that it's almost thought of as normal.

Patriarchy strait-jackets men as well as women. It gives men more power, of a sort, but demands they fit into an extremely narrow toxic version of maleness. So it's bad all round!

But anyway, I would definitely suggest reading:

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School by CJ Pascoe

Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining our Future by Barbara Berg


Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter sounds really good but I haven't read it yet.

So good to see the topic being discussed here!

I remember discussing feminism with my college students before discussing "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin. I asked the class what the definition of feminism was. One brave young man raised his hand.

"Ma'am, isn't that when a women gets angry when you open the door for her?"

* bangs head on the wall *

I wish I knew when the words was turned - when it went from a term for women seeking equal rights to manhater. And when did it become possible to say you were all for women but hated feminists?

I need to look for these answers and see what I can find.

It's incredibly frustrating to see the way the word has been twisted. There's a good article (in pdf form) on XYonline about the men's rights movement backlash against feminism you might find interesting. It focuses on Australia but very similar things have occured elsewhere:

And I saw a write-up of another feminist book that looks cool on The F-Word blog this morning "Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism." It's about a young feminist writer and her photographer friend travelling across America "in order to talk to other young women about what feminism means to them."

It is uncool to be considered a feminist today. I remember freshman year I had a teacher that procalimed herself to be a conservative feminist and all the guys in my class hated her. I wasn't a big fan of hers because she was so conservative (I've always felt that conservative and feminist are oxymorons but I'm starting to see the balance) but I admired the fact that she was a feminist.

I used to like Geraldine ferraro but after her comment about Pres. Obama I'm done. This comment didn't help things either. I admired her, but now she always seem to be complaining and while I do understand where she's coming from, she does not present her position in a respetful way. The idea that I should vote for a woman just because I'm a woman is absurd as is the notion that I should vote for an African American just because I am too. I resent that. I will vote (once old enough) for whoever I think is best.

Anyhoo, fantastic post as always! Until I started blogging I had never heard of bell hooks, audre Lourde or June Jordan. Still no nothing about her but with the help of Google I will learn! I have heard of many white feminists and suffrageists and I really admire Susan B. Anthony the most along with Gloria Steinem. I wish the efforts of Black feminists was taught more and appreciated. I love the T-shirts that say This is what a feminist looks like and then you see the shirt on guys and girls, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American.

And I agree with Lorie the fbomb rocks. and hooray for claudette Colvin! She's been one of my heroes since I first read about her two years ago.

Girldrive is the book Lori Ann recommended up in the post CK - you are two great minds thinking alike! (and thanks for the link!)

Ari, I'm very bugged by Ferraro as well. I'm thinking this must be a generational thing maybe - that she is clinging to her how it was versus how it is. Although I feel her pain to see Hillary get so close.

But then again, I voted for Obama too so I guess I'm part of the problem as far as she's concerned! ha!

Kelly Fineman

I know for sure that my teenage daughters don't fully understand or appreciate how recent the concept of equality between the genders is, although since they're both following the honors/AP history track at their high school, they get some of it. They take things like voting for granted, and can't conceive of a world where it was standard policy for a woman to lose her children in a divorce - yet both of those things have changed within the past 100 years.

Our family visit to Seneca Falls, NY a few years ago was an eye-opener for them, but boy do I wish we lived closer so we could spend more time there, so they'd become more familiar with the stories of the women who generated the earliest change (in parental rights and reproductive rights and voting rights).

About the election - my girls and I had a lot of discussions about whether to support a female or male candidate in the last presidential election. We all three of us ended up being Obama supporters, although had Clinton been the candidate, we wouldn't have cried. But it is entirely possible to be a feminist and to support a male candidate, just as it is entirely possible to be a bit of a misogynist and support a female candidate. (No names, but we saw a lot of misogynistic pundits jumping on the bandwagon of a certain female candidate in the last election.)

Meanwhile, I agree with Loree - girls and young women and even us middle-aged women need to keep reading widely.

I teach freshman composition at the University of Delaware, and several years ago I polled my classes to see how many students thought of themselves as feminists. None of them raised their hands, because to them, the word implied "man-hating, combat boot-wearing femi-Nazi." I was appalled. That same year, CosmoGirl asked me to submit some ideas for articles, and one of mine was "Feminist is Not a Four-Letter Word." (What can I say? I was raised on Sassy.) Anyway, the assistant editor actually said to me, "That ... that's not something CosmoGirl would EVER publish. You think our readers want to read about THAT?!?"

Needless to say, I never wrote for CosmoGirl.

As for Hillary: I was a Hillary supporter and got really tired of people assuming that I supported her solely because she was a female, and not because she was the candidate that I believed would do the best job.

Lastly, how has no one mentioned THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS in this post? It's my favorite E. Lockhart novel and it is a brilliant take on teen feminism.

I would love to go to Seneca Falls! That would be so awesome. We spent such little time on women's rights in my AP history class, but that was back in the 80s...maybe it is much better now?

I almost think the term "feminism" has suffered from "Devolution". It has become something it never was - a negative word in fact - and we can't seem to save it. And yes, so much was made of Hillary being a woman that saying she was qualified was almost an after thought to a certain degree which frustrated me mightily as well. I'm so happy to see her kicking ass as Sec of State - I think she is truly wonderful.

E. Lockhart rocks, Lara. Thanks for reminding us!

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