“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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