Creating a new generation of feminists

Remember the first season of Mad Men? I want both my girls (at the right age) to see it. Not because it’s so worthwhile for them to learn about the advertising trade. Instead, I want them have some inkling of what it was like to be a career woman in the 1950s. The humiliations, the sacrifices, the unfairness – the Mad Men series gives us a peek at what it was like, though it’s safe to say that the show makes it all look more beautiful than it really was.

It’s hard for young people to grasp the importance of feminism if they don’t realize that, not too long ago, women were considered second-class citizens. Many are simply unaware of the long years of feminist activism that got women equal rights. They tend to see only the present day: women voting, getting jobs in virtually any industry, and being paid on a par with their male colleagues. They see women running for public office, making their own decisions in regard to their health and reproduction, and getting an education.

And they see women wearing pants, too. Not so outrageous, you say? Let me tell you a story. My own oma learned to ride a motorcycle in 1921when she was a young woman living in Holland. That was after her elder sister Cor quit riding motorcycles after crashing through the door of the local candy store. Anyway, Cor decided she would be content to ride as passenger with her younger sister. They even entered a motorcycle rally (a long-distance race)—and that’s when my oma met the man who would become her husband and eventually my opa.

The next year, Oma and Opa were on a little trip when a police officer flagged them over in Breda. The problem? Oma’s leather pants. Yes, she was arrested for wearing pants. But she walked away from court with a small fine, and my dad says the Second World War “certainly finished this nonsense.”

“She got arrested for what?” My daughters do not believe their ears when they hear this story. Our response tends to hilarity, but laughter belies my serious intent: I want my girls to understand the value of the freedoms they have.

Too many teens see feminism as somehow a dirty word, and certainly not something they would embrace. For them, all doors appear open: for education, for jobs, for independent travel, for lives lived outside the customary two-parent family. This is not to say that sexism doesn’t exist in our society—there’s plenty of it, actually. But the laws of Canada don’t discriminate, and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects women’s equality rights.  And this is all thanks to the suffragists, the feminist authors, the women’s rights activists, and, yes, the politicians who saw the light and tried to make things right.

How can we ensure that those laws hold weight, and continue to even up the playing field? The best way I know is to educate the next generation about discriminatory laws and the sexism of the past. You might try chatting with your kids over dinner about a news story, like the one about Malala Yousufzai, the brave Pakistani activist whom the Taliban shot in her school bus. She was just 14. Her crime? Advocating for the right of all girls to attend school. During your discussion, just segue to the situation in Western society. Yes, there was a time when girls did not go to school. And not many boys, either. But we changed that.

The Grade 10 History course is a great starting point, because it covers the women’s movement. But you can help at home. Watch Mad Men with your older children. Or tell your younger ones those stories from their family’s past. That’s the goal. It makes the struggle for equal rights personal. It’s what will prepare them to be outraged should any politician ever try to take their equality rights away. It might even inspire them to join in the fight to bring equality rights to women around the world. You might even create…a feminist.

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