happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.

At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?”  It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.

Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it.  We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.

Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.

But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work.  Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise.  We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.

And ironically, on the same day I was reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.

I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting!  But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.

So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven.  Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men?  Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.

I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North AmericaAnd what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.

A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.

I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight).  I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more.  And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.

And yet.

If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year,  I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it.  Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.

That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.

Happy Birthday, Gloria.  I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.

Gloria at my commencement

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7 Responses to happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

  1. Michelle Longo March 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    It’s pretty disheartening to see how much things don’t change. I realize with limited time to discuss the great figures in history the curriculum developers need to pick and choose what to cover, especially since history keeps getting longer and longer. However, the more we continue to leave women out, the more we perpetuate the idea that women should be left out. It’s a vicious cycle that’s not getting better. I don’t know how that changes, but it needs to.
    Michelle Longo recently posted..In The Zone.My Profile

    • Deborah Quinn March 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      I have to believe that if we keep asking the questions (where are the women/people of color/queer people/old people…) that eventually people “like us” will find themselves in positions of (relative) power and will be able to change representations. Like Shonda Rimes and Gray’s Anatomy, and stuff like that. I just hadn’t realized, all those years ago, just what a long freaking process it would be to undo the entrenched attitudes of White Men Are the Center of the Universe. Sheesh.

  2. Poor Princess March 31, 2014 at 3:00 am #

    Yes, the great GS is still so relevant, as are these points about the curriculum. Sigh. A friend of mine was just sent a flyer for a neuroscience conference, featuring 7 or 8 invited speakers. The organizers asked her to promote their conference (come, send graduate students, post the flyer on her office door). She looked over the flyer and then wrote to the organizers (all male), saying she wouldn’t be spreading the word about their conference because she found it problematic that every speaker they thought to invite was male (also: all white). What kind of message is that? Who belongs in these old boys clubs? And who is being invited to join them?

    And another question I worry over–for me, for you, for this friend who has two boy-children–how can we make sure our boys–the ones of our loins–grow up to be as critical of these decisions, acts, and curricula as we are?
    Poor Princess recently posted..Enquiring Minds Want to Know: Questions My Toddler Asks MeMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn March 31, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

      Like many feminists with sons, I’ve decided that raising boys who ask these questions (why are there only white guys on the panel, who decides what “pretty” means, etc etc) — basically that raising good men will be my ultimate feminist act. It stuns me that in this day and age, that we are STILL having these conversations! Swear to god, thirty years ago I really thought everything had been taken care of. Feh. Grr. And etc.

  3. Natalie D April 2, 2014 at 3:55 am #

    Shat, do we ever still need her and her ideas. After becoming an adult (I use that term loosely), the amount of time I encountered institutionalized sexism, wage inequity and harassment in the workplace staggered my mind. We were taught that reparation had been made, we were all equal, had equal opportunities, blah blah blah.
    Not the fuck so.
    Thank you for saying it much better than I just did.
    Natalie D recently posted..Sitting on the CurbMy Profile


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