Hannah Harshe: A generational look at feminism

Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 5:41pm

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“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks!”

This is the proclamation of Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a survivor of the Parkland, Fla. massacre. Within four days of the tragic death of her classmates, Gonzalez, along with several classmates, organized a campaign called Never Again MSD and a nationwide protest called March For Our Lives. Their petition, which calls for stricter background checks for gun buyers, has almost 150,000 signatures.

If America has learned anything in 2018, it is to never underestimate the power of Generation Z.

I kept this in mind when choosing whom I wanted to feature in my column on International Women’s Day. The holiday was adopted by the United Nations in 1975, and it only takes a quick Google search to learn about it from a public figure like Emma Watson or Hillary Clinton. But, as is the case with too many pertinent issues, we don’t often hear from young people on this topic. In the spirit of reversing this habit, I had the privilege of speaking with two intelligent and powerful young women.

Brianna Harshe is a 12-year-old student-athlete. She plays club soccer, and spends most of her time either training or doing homework. She also happens to be my sister. I was able to interview her via phone on her way to soccer training on Monday.

Harshe was unfamiliar with International Women’s Day before I mentioned it, but, based on the name, she surmises, “It’s a day for women and what they do for the world because they didn’t get as much respect in the past.”

She is quick to note the discrepancies when it comes to gender representation in the educational system: “We learn about women mostly because they’re women and not really because of what they did. We learn about men because of what they did.” According to a study by PLOS One, three out of four scientists depicted in primary school textbooks are men. A UNESCO  report released on International Women’s Day in 2016 notes that gender bias is persistent in textbooks worldwide, and this sabotages “girls’ motivation, participation and achievement in school.”

Harshe says that her role model is Carli Lloyd, because, “She was one of the first female soccer players to get respect.” Lloyd was an American soccer player, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a FIFA Women's World Cup champion and the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016. She is also a fantastic public figure to admire on International Women’s Day.

In 2016, Lloyd, along with four teammates on the US Women’s National Team, filed a wage discrimination complaint against U.S. Soccer Federation. In her op-ed for the New York Times, she explained, “If I were a male soccer player who won a World Cup for the United States, my bonus would be $390,000. Because I am a female soccer player, the bonus I got for our World Cup victory last summer was $75,000.” Lloyd may be one of the first female soccer players to earn the respect that she has, and yet she knows she has a long way to go in order to gain the respect that male soccer players have. Someday Harshe may be a professional soccer player and thanks to role models like Lloyd, Harshe will know that she is worthy of the same salary as her male counterparts.

The other student I spoke with is Riley Shaughnessy, who is 13 years old. In addition to running cross-country for her middle school, Shaughnessy is a member of the National Junior Honor Society. I am a friend of her older sister, so I had the privilege of interviewing her over the phone after she got out of school on Monday.

Shaughnessy has also noted the problem of gender representation in school, and has taken initiative to change it: “I try to learn about (men and women) equally, but other people don’t. Other kids sometimes make guys higher. I think there are a lot more guys in history, but I don’t think that’s very fair.”

In just 10 short years, Shaughnessy and her peers will be entering the workforce. Shaughnessy envisions that by the time she enters the workforce, the world will be much more gender equitable. “I don’t think there will be as many stay-at-home moms,” she says. “And there will be more stay-at-home dads.”

This is a complex, and likely accurate, assertion. Stay-at-home motherhood, in and of itself, is in no way shameful, however, mothers are often driven to stay at home not because of their personal choice, but because of cultural norms and office policies that deem men more worthy of the workplace. Similarly, fathers often feel as though staying at home instead of pursuing a career is a sign of weakness. A truly gender equitable world would allow mothers and fathers to determine whether they want to stay at home based on personal circumstance, not based simply on gender.

Shaughnessy says she is a feminist, but not the kind of feminist that is “mean to guys.” She explains that feminism is “wanting to be equal.” At 13 years old, she already has a deeper understanding of feminism (defined by Merriam-Webster as “the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes”) than many adults. 

Perhaps we can thank Shaughnessy’s two role models for this awareness. She says that she admires Beyoncé and Rosie the Riveter: “I think they’re really cool!” Though these two public figures appear to have very little in common, Beyoncé may be to today’s youth as Rosie the Riveter was to the girls of the World War II era. During her 2014 Video Music Awards performance, Beyoncé projected the word “FEMINIST” behind her on the screen, along with the quotes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” While former generations grew up hearing “feminism” as a dirty, man-hating word, Shaughnessy is growing up in a world where it’s the ideology of glamorous celebrities.

I have a lot to learn from Harshe and Shaughnessy when it comes to feminism. This International Women’s Day, let’s make sure that we all take a moment to listen to the young women in our lives — the ones we may overlook every day. I truly would not be surprised if, someday, Harshe and Shaughnessy are the kids that we read about in textbooks.

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu