For Women's History Month (March), I invited our 8th grade girls to partcipate in an essay contest. The Woman In Me was the title of the contest, and the girls were asked to write about women they admire and the kind of woman each hopes to be. The results were both disheartening and touching. First, the disheartening part. How far could we possibly have come if the 8th grade girls of 2007, in Los Angeles no less, write things like this?
"I see the role of women as second class in our world. The reason I say that is because women are still being beat this day and age by their husbands and boyfriends. Also women are still being controlled by their husbands or boyfriend which means they tell them when they can leave, talk on the phone, have friends or not all of these things. Some women have no role and it's sad because their man just walks all over them like a candy [w]rapper."
Spelling and grammatical errors aside, this provides a pretty clear picture of what this girl sees at home. Other essays included these phrases:
- women must "not care about people telling you ugly, dumb, and letting them make you lose confidence in yourself, and making you fell like your not worth a thing"
- "we help do most of the house cleaning, since most men can't even handle a broom. We women have to cook, even though some men DO know how to cook but are just to lazy to do work"
- and a very hopeful: "Boys rule the house. Women can rule something bigger like the world!"
What does this say about how our young women are being taught about womanhood? The men in these scenarios seem like pretty big dopes if you ask me, but they are somehow maintaining control over the women in their lives. I worry about these girls in South LA. They're thirteen, yet they wax off their eyebrows and pencil them on. They have lip rings and tongue rings. Their bodies have developed well beyond their years, possibly due to poor nutrition. They know that they have to fight for their place in the world, but they are ill-equipped to do so. At thirteen, the battle against the boys is still fun. It's flirtatious. It gets them attention.
When will it turn on them, I wonder? When does note-passing and hand-holding turn into obeying orders and answering to the man (literally)? How will these girls learn to overcome the suffocating gender roles that serve as their models?
The good news is, they've been paying attention. Somewhere, somehow, the idea that women know how to struggle and beat the odds has wiggled its way into their adolescent brains. One girl wrote about Tyra Banks, saying that she is "a great speaker, creeative, humble, and furthermore outgoing." Another girl writes that "A fierce personality will take a person a long way if she really wants to make it in life." Another says that "women are as important as men are", which is both hopeful and infuriating, making me want to scream, "OF COURSE THEY ARE!"
My favorite passage, however, is so lovely, so thoughtful, so sincere, that it leaves a big lump in my throat. It goes a little something like this:
"I want to be a mother who takes pride in herself and her children. I want to be a wife who takes good care of her husband. I want to be a loving sister who looks after her siblings. I want to be a niece who treats her aunts with all the respect in the world. I want to someday be a grandmother who can teach her grandchildren how to be brave and live life to the fullest."
She goes on to say, later in her essay, "I want to be the woman who steps up and speaks out for woman across the nation. I see the role of a woman being important and leaving a mark in history. I live to see women make it with or without the help of a man. In the end, I want to be me, [insert name here], a self-respected woman of her word."
Can't you just picture this girl standing behind a podium someday, telling it like it is? This girl makes me excited to be a teacher. They all do, really. All of the girls who turned in essays had something they needed to say. Whether their thoughts struck me as uplifting or tragic doesn't really matter in the end. They thought about womanhood long enought to write 500 words about it. They considered the women in their lives, noticing the bad and the good. I so want good things for these girls.