My Girls, Our Girls, and the Women Before Us

By Martina Kohl

“It is my hon­or to be here, to stand on the shoul­ders of those who came before,” Kamala Har­ris, the first female, the first black, the first Asian Amer­i­can Vice-Pres­i­dent of the U.S.A. proud­ly said in her first address to the nation on inau­gu­ra­tion day. Her tone is opti­mistic, her goals are ambi­tious, and her ener­gy seems unlimited.

It is true, we all are stand­ing on the shoul­ders of those who came before, all the women who pre­pared the way for our progress, our achieve­ments. And there has been quite a bit of progress as Car­ol Dyhouse, a social his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex, describes in her new book, Love Lives: From Cin­derel­la to Frozen. The title is a bit mis­lead­ing. Though myths, fairy tales, and pop­u­lar cul­ture tropes still influ­ence us, Dyhouse out­lines how women in the west­ern world have aban­doned the restric­tions of domes­tic life since the 1950s and grad­u­al­ly, though often painful­ly, have claimed access to edu­ca­tion and the pro­fes­sion­al world. A long path it has been to self-deter­mi­na­tion and eco­nom­ic independence.

But even now the ques­tion remains: Have we made enough progress? Because I do wor­ry about “my girls” these days, as Michelle Oba­ma describes them. I wor­ry about “my boys,” too, but this is a blog post to remind our­selves of Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day and Women’s His­to­ry Month. Both encour­age us to reflect on those who came before, but also on those to whom we pass the baton, whose legs we steady on our shoulders.

I wor­ry about the beau­ti­ful and bril­liant Aman­da Gor­man, who got me off the couch in an instant and glued to the TV dur­ing the inau­gu­ra­tion. She lit­er­al­ly made me feel the pow­er of her words. With her, I stepped into his­to­ry and walked up that hill. Though deeply touched, I began to won­der: Will she be comet-like, shin­ing bright­ly, lead­ing the way only to burn out? Will she be recit­ing at the next mega-event, and the next, appear in even more late-night talk shows until we move on and for­get about her enor­mous tal­ent, get bored? I wor­ry about Gre­ta Thun­berg, the fierce, small-shoul­dered fight­er for the earth, our earth, who looks so frag­ile. How is she bear­ing this enor­mous bur­den of hav­ing become the face of a gen­er­a­tion? Will the media devour them both, spit them out at some point, and dis­cov­er the next young woman on which to project all our hopes and dreams?

I wor­ry about the young women in my sem­i­nar who dur­ing Zoom ses­sions offer glimpses into their pri­vate lives, which make me feel like an intrud­er. They haven’t yet learned to appear as pro­fes­sion­al women who change into a dif­fer­ent mode, sep­a­rat­ing pri­vate life and work to pro­tect themselves.

I wor­ry about our girls, often stuck in lim­bo after fin­ish­ing school. Some of them, with their high school diplo­ma in hand, exclaim that they now have to take some time off to recu­per­ate from the stress of exams and course work. Some show signs of burn-out, so I won­der not only how this can hap­pen but also how they will cope out­side of the rel­a­tive­ly pro­tect­ed space of their schools. Oth­ers sim­ply don’t know what to do next. Uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies, an appren­tice­ship? They get a job at the local super­mar­ket fill­ing shelves to make a bit of mon­ey before tak­ing the next step. Or they sign up for a vol­un­tary social year to bridge the time and gain some use­ful expe­ri­ence. After all, a year abroad is not real­ly an option at the moment.

What many of them have in com­mon, it seems, is that a year lat­er they are not much clos­er to a deci­sion about their future. The pos­si­bil­i­ties seem over­whelm­ing and, at the same time, strange­ly restrict­ed. When I applied for uni­ver­si­ty admis­sion, Eng­lish and his­to­ry were taught pret­ty much the same way every­where, and my eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion didn’t allow me to move out of my parent’s house, which cut the deci­sion-mak­ing process short. Choic­es, though nice to have in gen­er­al, don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make life eas­i­er. Aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies demand a cer­tain inde­pen­dence and abil­i­ty to struc­ture one’s life, a chal­lenge even in ‘nor­mal’ times. But dur­ing a glob­al pan­dem­ic, when you can’t attend class­es or see your cir­cle of friends and fam­i­ly, study­ing becomes even harder.

I wor­ry about a young friend suf­fer­ing from heart­break and an eat­ing dis­or­der while apply­ing for very com­pet­i­tive uni­ver­si­ty pro­grams abroad with­out the fam­i­ly sup­port she will most def­i­nite­ly need. While she’s try­ing to spread her wings, they seem awful­ly frag­ile. How much can we help with­out interfering?

Do I wor­ry too much? Per­haps. Maybe our girls and young women are tougher than we think. And don’t many of them have bet­ter role mod­els than my gen­er­a­tion? Let’s not remain pas­sive role mod­els. If each of us men­tors one, we can help them through these uncer­tain times. Let’s lis­ten to them and give them advice — if asked. “We not only dream, we do,” as Kamala Har­ris says so eloquently.

Let’s cel­e­brate our girls and cheer them on, the Aman­das, Gre­tas, the Sven­jas and Yas­mines, the Ninas and Feri­das. Let’s join in on Michele Obama’s inspir­ing cam­paign song: “This Is For My Girls” (start at 9:22).

And could some­body please start a men­tor­ship pro­gram for our boys as well?

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Dr. Mar­ti­na Kohl is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Jour­nal. She fre­quent­ly teach­es in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­gram at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty Berlin, the Oba­ma Insti­tute at Mainz Uni­ver­si­ty, and recent­ly at Göt­tin­gen University.