Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo, wusa9.com
By Mary Jo Neitz
Since I retired five years ago, one of the things I miss most about my job teaching in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri is the students. Women’s and Gender Studies students are bright, committed, compassionate, hard-working and down-right inspiring! I miss being in the swirl of their talk, learning about their passions, and watching them do amazing things. These young women and others like them are sources of hope in 2021.
In my lifetime I have seen major changes in the lives of women and girls. Of course, I also have fears. Some of the changes I have seen in my lifetime seem precarious, especially women’s reproductive rights in the US. And the world has changed in ways that create new vulnerabilities, especially in the realm of social media.
Still, we have seen remarkable shifts away from the taken-for-granted structural inequality between men and women that I was born into. Young women in first world countries like the US find it hard to imagine that world. In most US states, husbands, including those who were separated from their wives, could not legally be accused of rape, since husbands had the right by law to sexual access. It was not until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 that women gained the right to obtain credit cards separate from their husbands. Schools funding for athletics for girls was extremely limited, nonexistent in many schools. Abortion was not legally available and even contraception was difficult for young women to get. In many schools, girls were not encouraged to take advanced science or math courses. Girls and women were not allowed to wear pants: In my high school the only exceptions were if it was cold out—very cold. When the thermometer read below twenty degrees below zero we were allowed to wear pants to school. Strict dress codes were part of a system that enforced conformity to gender norms.
In a year-end report (December 19, 2020) the Economist News Magazine featured a report on the lives of girls. The subtitle: “Being a girl is special, difficult, and better than it used to be.” The authors observe that girls do not think that there is anything they cannot do. Dutch teen responds to a question about restrictions on girls’ activities saying, “I think that is from another time”.
One theme in the Economist’s story is that girlhood is no longer defined in relation or even opposition to boyhood. Tied to that is the observation that girls today have very wide-ranging interests and identities so that advertisers can no longer assume it is a one size fits all worlds. (They note that this is much less true for boys.) This assumption may have been never been true to the reality of girls’ lives, which have always been diverse. But as the greater constraints of previous eras lifted and girls face expanding possibilities, similarities of experience and attitudes born of those constraints may no longer prevail.
The era when girls speak less as they enter their teenage years has passed. Girls and young women are visible as leaders at all levels, local, national and international. Highly visible young women lead in the BLM movement. Young women environmental activists demand the worlds attention. Responses to survey research indicate girls’ growing desires for self-reliance: when asked about life priorities, one group of working-class London girls indicated they wanted an interesting job, to change the world, and to have financial independence. This is in marked contrast to responses of girls from the same place in 1972 who wanted love first, a husband and then a career. Girls in the US were more likely than boys to say that they want to make the world a better place, and also more likely to say that they wanted to be leaders.
Looking beyond the first world, we see important improvements in women’s well-being. A UN report on education for girls reports significant progress in education for girls. Since 1970 the number of years girls spent in school in the Least Developed Countries has increased from 2.8 years to 8.9 today (http://uis.unesco.org/en/blog/data-celebrate-50-years-progress-girls-education). Years spent in school still vary from among regions, with Southern Asia leading: in 1970 their average was 3.8 years and by 2019 it was 12 years. Large increases have occurred in Northern Africa and Western Asia, from 5.3 years to 12.7 years. In Sub-Saharan Africa rates also increased went from 3.3 to 8.8 years.
The progress is notable, yet significant barriers still remain. Child marriage is still the preferred option for many families. In Latin America, for example, 25 percent of girls marry before they are 18. Once girls marry, it is likely that they will become pregnant, and unlikely that they will stay in school. The reasons for girls leaving school go beyond inability to pay fees. Families also have concerns about keeping girls safe in schools where they are vulnerable to harassment, sexual predators (including teachers and other students) and violence. Difficulties with managing menstruation also inhibit school attendance. Supporters of girls’ education now advocate for programs for the provision of water and sanitary supplies. This can lead to unexpected collaborations such as India’s Menstrual Health Management program which works with the ministry of water and sanitation. There is growing understanding that increasing education for girls requires attention to the broader context of their lives, and addressing these related issues. COVID has further complicated access to education across the world, with harsher impacts on girls than boys. For girls in many places staying at home means a greater likelihood of getting pregnant, experiencing violence, and becoming a child bride.
The UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030 include a call for gender equality and quality education for everyone. Education for girls is recognized as an important step in challenging the gender gap and overall poverty. Educated women are healthier, marry later and have fewer children. They are more likely to participate in the formal labor market. Money women earn is more likely benefit the entire family and raise everyone’s standard of living. A leading advocate in this movement is Malala Yousafzai, a 23 year old woman activist from Pakistan who received 2014 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts.
I hope for these girls and young women activists and leaders and their efforts to make a better world. I fear that we will somehow fail to provide the support they will need, and yet, in their passion and energy I see possibilities for change.