By: Danielle Wilson
As I introduce the video I’m about to show to my class, a student scoffs, just loud enough for me to hear. “Why are we even talking about this?” he says quietly, either to himself, or the student next to him, or maybe he actually does want me to hear it. I choose to hear it.
“Because it’s a common literary lens and something you’ll hear about in the world around you, so I think you should be exposed to it and know what it is.”
“Okay, I get why women at this time were feminists,” another boy in the front chimes in, referring to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 19th century author of the story we’re about to read, “but like, why are women today still feminists? They already have all the same rights as men do.”
I panic a little, as I always do when talking about social issues in class. I glance at the two female students sitting a few desks away. They are looking stiffly down at their papers, not reacting but not making eye contact with anyone speaking. I wish they would speak up– it would mean more coming from them– but they are definitely not going to right now. Earlier in the year, one of them said to me, “We really need to talk about these issues in school more, but teachers are always afraid to.” I planned this lesson for them. I breathe in and try to calm my voice so that I sound less ruffled than I feel before I continue speaking.
Later that week, I was scrolling through Instagram. I came across a parenting account that I follow, and the poster had simply commented that her son had asked a girl to a dance and the girl had turned him down. The poster’s only sentiment seemed to be that her heart was sad for her son but that she was proud of him. However, the vitriol in the comments made my chest tighten. The girl who said “no” was accused of many things, mostly along the lines of being a mean, horrible, “ungrateful” person who didn’t deserve to go to the dance at all, or anywhere in life actually, because of her attitude.
I immediately flashed back to middle school, and high school, and college and to being a young adult, when I legitimately felt bad saying no to boys, especially if one had taken me out on a date, or seemed like a nice person, even if I didn’t really like them. I thought of the boy who asked me out over and over again even though I had told him no several times, until finally one day I hid in the bathroom so that he physically couldn’t ask me again. I remembered boys who became angry with me for turning them down, and I had to worry about however they would lash out as well as the social fallout that would happen, sometimes from my own friends.
I thought of how I’ve said to my husband over and over that I’m not going to go to the doctor because they’re not going to do anything for me. Yet, he walks in and says he doesn’t feel well and comes home with a prescription every time.
The fact that I lost my seniority and postponed my tenure because I had a baby, even though I stayed home for less than the amount of time I was legally allowed.
This past week, several states in our country passed abortion bans. These laws are being defined politically instead of medically or scientifically, and by people who not only do not know how biology works, but do not know what it feels like to be a woman. They do not know what it feels like to be overpowered by a man. They do not know what it feels like to be pregnant and helpless and afraid. They do not know what it feels like to bleed every month, especially if everything isn’t working properly. They may know some of the emotions of a birth or a miscarriage, but they do not also know the utter physical sacrifice of either. These people who do not know are making life decisions for the people who are living it, and they are doing it from a place of disdain, ignorance and punishment rather than empathy, and this is what is scariest.
We’ve come a long way since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”—I can vote and own property independent of my husband. But society’s biases and perceptions of women and sex and reproduction, how we talk to girls and boys, the roles and expectations that we put on each of them, the examples of gender and sexuality portrayed in the media, our current laws all have a ways to go.
My female students haven’t found their voice yet. They were too afraid to tell the boys in their class that their experience is different than what the boys perceive it to be. It took me thirty-five years to find my voice. Although, to be honest, I’m nervous writing this right now, and I was nervous explaining the feminist lens to them last week. But clearly, it’s still necessary.