The following is the fourth installment of “The Next Generation” column, featuring young feminists under the age of 30 who are not yet established in an academic career.  If you fit this description and are interested in writing your own take for us on bridging feminist research with popular reality, please submit your idea and a little about yourself via our contact form.
I grew up in a very traditional family. I was taught that God had created specific gender roles for men and women: the husband was to provide and protect while the wife was to keep the home and raise the children. Furthermore, I was learned that feminism was anti-woman, anti-family, and anti-God, and that it is the cause of most of the problems we see in society today, from the growing number of single mothers to rising STD rates and declining real wages.

Then I went to college. My academic record was stellar, and my professors, both male and female, told me that I had potential. They encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to use my talents and abilities to their utmost, and they believed I could do it. This was the first time I had been given these messages. While my parents had always praised my intellectual ability and encouraged me in my academic pursuits, they also taught me that my role was to be a stay-at-home mother, not to have a career. Now I was realizing for the first time that I really could be anyone I wanted, do anything I wanted.

Of course, this encouragement did not automatically change my view of feminism. The pivotal point for that was a class I took on the history of the 1960s. One week of the class focused specifically on feminism, and by week’s end I was calling myself a feminist. What had changed? It’s simple, really. I realized (a) that feminism had been very much needed and had brought about some wonderful changes; and (b) that the stereotyped image I had of feminists as selfish family-destroyers was flat out wrong.

We read a lot of primary documents from the origins of the second wave feminist movement, and I was completely shocked. I might have been taught that women are to be homemakers rather than have careers, but the idea of women making a lower wage for the same labor was horrifying. When I read that women weren’t even allowed inside Harvard University’s library in the 1950s for fear they would “distract” the male students, I was floored. The more I read the more incredulous I grew. The more I read, the more angry I grew. Suddenly, my entire perception of feminism was shifting. After all, if I’d been in their shoes, I would have stood up and demanded change as well!

But before I could actually embrace feminism, I had to deal with my understanding of feminism as anti-family. Perhaps, I thought, feminists had dealt with real problems by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Once again, though, the readings for the class were excellent. While some feminists did call for the abolition of the family, I found that their numbers were few, and besides, I could now see why some would go to that extreme. The more I read about second wave feminism, though, the less threatening it sounded. As it has been aptly described, “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

I learned that feminism wasn’t about forcing women into the workforce, but about giving women options. Feminism wasn’t about destroying the family, but about making marriages equal partnerships. Feminism wasn’t about selfishness, but a reminder that women, too, are people who have needs and desires. Feminism wasn’t about wanton abortion, but about giving women the ability to control their sexuality and reproduction. Feminism wasn’t about leaving women unprotected and alone, but about giving women the means to protect themselves. This was all completely new to me!

I felt like a butterfly who had gone through some sort of weird transformation. Having been raised to see feminism as my enemy, I now could not see it as anything other than my friend. Having been raised to be a homemaker, I now had a desire to use my talents in the workplace. It was like my world had suddenly turned three-dimensional.

Those of you who are college professors or teachers can help young women raised in anti-feminist homes to come to a similar revelation.  It’s simple:

  • Believe in your female students and affirm their potential.
  • Explain why feminism was necessary by talking about how things were before.
  • Combat negative stereotypes of feminism with more realistic understandings.
  • Discuss the good feminism has done for our society, and the good feminists hope to do in the future.

Rachel Coleman is working on her Ph.D. in history at Indiana University. She is married to a man who shares her newfound feminist views, and is enjoying charting new waters of marriage equality. Together they have a daughter who is breaking down gender stereotypes even at her young age.