Now, being used and degraded in a hotel room in Florida was not my decision! But being used and degraded on the pages of this magazine [“Playboy”], that was my decision! Yeah! And I’m telling you that for the first time in my life, I am in control of being used and degraded!

– Jan Hooks, as Jessica Hahn in a “Saturday Night Live” script from Season 13, episode 6.

Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts (arguably the most liberal town in the entire country) in the late 60’s and 70’s meant feminism was simply a way of life. I remember Mrs. Logan, my third grade teacher, addressing the class and telling us girls could do anything boys could and just as well. At age eight, it had never really occurred to me to think otherwise, but I was smart enough to figure out that my teacher wouldn’t be saying this unless someone somewhere believed boys were somehow superior to girls. “Oh, well,” I thought to myself, “we’ve cleared that up. Next?” Attending junior high and high school in the early days of Title IX, having numerous college friends who attended women’s consciousness-raising groups, and enrolling in the M.A.T. program in French back home at UMass-Amherst taught me that there was in fact still a lot of work to do, as well as a lot of work being done. So when I joined the faculty of Stoneleigh-Burnham in the Fall of 1985, I was excited to see how far high school students had come since my own days.

Not that far, it turned out. Madonna was at that time a young, shining star, and SBS students joined a whole generation of teenage girls in asserting their power and strength as young women through, among other things, showing as much underwear as they could get away with. In the eyes of many students, feminism had become a dirty word, reserved for ugly, man-hating, hairy-legged lesbians. Setting aside for the moment the obvious homophobia of that remark, I asked one of them, “Don’t you believe that you should be able to work if you want at whatever job you choose and earn a fair salary?” She responded, “Of course. And I will. But I’m definitely not a feminist.” Ten years later, the Spice Girls would usher in a similar era. And today, although women are dominating the music charts as never before, led by Lady Gaga, I was stunned to learn some months after falling in love with her music that she appears to live much of her public life in various states of undress. “Please tell me,” I thought to myself, “that she became popular because she’s genuinely talented. Because she is.”

There is no doubt, when it has become routine to have women cabinet members, Hillary Clinton was seen as a legitimate candidate for president on her own merits, philanthropy by and for women is on the rise and the WNBA (the longest-running women’s league in U.S. history) is entering its 14th season, that we have made a lot of progress since the 1970’s. Many of the battles being fought by feminists in those days appear to have been won. But looking more deeply, we might ask how we are really doing. In 2007, according to the article “Girls Gone Anti-Feminist” by Susan J. Douglas, “the top five jobs for women were, still, secretaries in first place, followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers and retail salespersons. Farther down the line? Maids, child care workers, office clerks and hairdressers.” I am in no way putting these jobs down – I have known many amazing, smart and kind people in all these lines of work, I obviously work myself as a middle school teacher, and I also believe in the dignity and value of all jobs respected and done well. That said, one has to notice that top jobs for women haven’t changed all that much in the past 40 years. And while women are enrolling in college in greater numbers than ever before, outnumbering men by a significant amount, Douglas points out that “A year out of college, they earn 80 percent of what men make. And 10 years out? A staggering 69 percent. (…) White women still make 75 cents to a man’s dollar, and it’s 62 cents for Black women and only 53 cents for Latinas.” What is going on here?!

Last Thursday, when giving a Day of Awareness workshop on “The Curious Case of Caster Semenya,” I showed the students in my session an image of race car driver Danica Patrick from the pages of “Sports Illustrated.” In the photo, she has unzipped her racing suit down below her belly button, exposing her bra and most of her upper body. While the students did in fact express outrage that this was how a major female athlete was being portrayed, it was not for the reasons I had expected. In their eyes, she was simply taking off her clothes to make it clear she was a woman and to prove that women could do anything men could do. They seemed to be outraged that there should be any question that women can be strong athletes, but not at the image itself. Curious indeed!

It may be that the girls were expressing an attitude that Douglas calls “enlightened sexism.” In her words,
Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality, has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. Enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power— power that is fun, that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace. True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you. Enlightened sexism is especially targeted to girls and young women and emphasizes that now that they “have it all,” they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping. (Douglas)

This is a particularly tricky concept to fight. Like an alcoholic in denial, our society will need to recognize it has a problem before it can start working to solve the problem. And as may be true for that unfortunate alcoholic, there are powerful forces who would oppose both the recognition of the problem and any attempts at forging a solution. Furthermore, there are people in our society who may honestly not see that enlightened sexism exists or believe that it is a problem; at times, it’s true, reasonable and well-meaning people do have to agree to disagree.

That said, sharing facts and statistics can help lay some groundwork – my Humanities 7 class had no idea how little women continue to make in comparison to men (or that the salary gap is actually widening), and how strong a role racism plays in these economic disparities. Discussing images and messages presented in the media can help, whether this happens in the classroom, in Forum or advisory, or at home. We can emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, with enjoying competition, or even with shopping. But in so doing, we can also help these girls see how the media and society affect their lives now. If we work together and do our jobs, as they become adult women and in some cases start families and have daughters of their own, they will be able to use this knowledge to analyze and discuss the messages both obvious and subliminal in which the next generation will grow up, empowering future children to stand firm in their own swirling storm of media images. And if they do so, we will be that much closer to achieving a genuinely enlightened and post-feminist era in which people of all genders can simply live their lives as the people they were always meant to be.

Douglas, Susan J. “Girls Gone Anti-Feminist.” In These Times. In These Times, 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 10. <>.