Women's history month: a reason to tell her story

March 01, 1995|By Judith Dobler

GROWING UP during the age of "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," and "Leave it to Beaver," my friends and I assumed that women weren't in our history books because they had done nothing worth mentioning. The most any woman could hope for was to have been born into prominence like Queen Elizabeth.

The women we knew were too busy being housewives and mothers to pursue other interests. And raising children was supposed to be so rewarding that few of us considered other options.

We believed in Cinderella: Once we married our prince we would live happily ever after. I did wonder at the time whether the "perfect life" might be boring, but that thought vanished among the images of flowers and white dresses floating in my head. Like many of my friends, I acquired my Mrs. before I earned my B.A.

The college students I teach today assume that since the 1950s -- a time span that included such TV shows as "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show" -- we have won the battle of inequality: "There's nothing left to be done."

But why do the stories today -- the sitcoms, the novels, the history books -- still tell the same tale?

In the book "Writing a Woman's Life" (1988), author Carolyn Heilbrun observes that for a long time men have had many stories to choose from, many paths to take as adults, many ways to express their identities. In boys' stories, protagonists become kings or captains or Lord Mayor of London, in charge of their own and others' destinies.

Women have had only one story that is truly acceptable: marriage followed by motherhood.

The woman who chooses otherwise has a lot of explaining to do. Ms. Heilbrun argues that if a woman chooses to live a quest plot, as men's stories allow, indeed encourage them to do, she must find or invent some subconscious or apparently accidental reason for having transformed her life.

To my current embarrassment, I used to explain my pursuit of a doctorate degree as being the result of having married a man whose alcoholism forced me to see myself as the family breadwinner.

We still link a woman's identity to secondary roles. The word "second," as you might expect, comes from the Latin word meaning "to follow" but it also has connections with the "alter ego" or "second self" who stands in for the "ego" as needed. Simone de Beauvoir called us "The Second Sex" for a reason. But "second," especially for young women in America, more often means "second-rate," far less than perfect.

In 1990 the American Association of University Women published a survey of young women in America. This study revealed that in middle-school, girls almost universally lose their self-esteem. As a consequence, many blunt their intelligence. In the book "SchoolGirls" (1994), Peggy Orenstein reports on a subsequent study to discover why.

By following young women in two progressive California high schools, one urban and one suburban, and by conducting extensive interviews, Ms. Orenstein found that young women are continually silenced -- by their male counterparts, by their teachers who call on unruly males more often, by their parents and by their friends. When they turn to the media and the advertisers, they are told to be objects, to aspire to physical beauty. And, in the face of all the stories that silence them, young girls silence themselves.

They begin to hope that if they're nice enough, if they're beautiful enough, no one will notice their imperfections.

They minimize their abilities, which they hide if they're smart. They hope to remain in the running for the young menand to avoid being called a bitch or being seen as aberrant. Mostly they look for someone else to take care of them.

Young women in my classes are often reluctant to speak. They fear being wrong, no matter how much I encourage them. It's too scary to risk making a mistake. Too many young women write themselves off when they find they cannot be perfect.

One of the most powerful arguments for Women's History Month lies in our respon sibility to let women, young and old, hear the stories of the women who have lived before them, to teach them the choices they face and the consequences of such choices. We need to let them know it is possible to be successful and happy; and we need to let them know their own stories, actual and imagined, are important.

Judith Dobler teaches writing at Loyola College.

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