In a recent edition of Parade Magazine, novelist Ann Hood wrote about her mother and her circle of close friends, who gathered every Friday night at one of their houses “in a cloud of cigarette smoke and Aqua Net,” dressed in velour sweat suits, skirts with matching sweaters, elastic-waist jeans, and shirts that said BEST MOM or DECK THE HALLS. Some wore wigs or wiglets or falls. They were a Dirty Dozen in all, as they described themselves. But more often, Hood remembers, they were just The Girls.
They had all grown up in a small village in Rhode Island, and all lived within a mile of each other. They were high school drop-outs, secretaries, and assembly workers. They drove station wagons, overloaded with kids, and looked forward most of all to the Friday nights they spent with each other over the years, eating chips and dip, platters of cold cuts or fried chicken, laughing, smoking, and playing poker. Sharing their worries, about their husbands and their children, and about money, always money, “because there was never enough.”
They were The Girls after their children were grown, after cancer struck, and broken hips, knee replacements, lumpectomies, and Alzheimer’s.
These grown-up Girl women who had so little currency, looking forward each week to some respite from a grinding and limited life, a few hours of cards and gossip, were the reason many of us, their daughters, we Second Wave Feminists, so fiercely refused to be referred to as girls, wanting the dignity, power, and mantle of full adulthood, and the rights (along with the responsibilities) of what went along with that. We did not see the (tensile) bonds of steel that held those women together over cards, over the years.
So when our daughters began so casually and affectionately to call themselves girls, we were horrified, and felt we had failed them. We did not know, and perhaps could still not understand, that for the next generation of young women, those who came into adulthood in the new Millennium, that while calling an adult woman “girl” was once insulting, or self-shaming, they assured us that now they could choose and use the word themselves, without self-deprecation or insult. Said one such Girl, the term, applied to women over 18, had been rehabilitated as a term of relaxed familiarity, comfy confidence, the female analogue to “guy,” and not a way of diminishing or belittling women.
In Manifesta, a book written by two Gen X women over a decade ago, they explained the use of the word girl, from Riot Grrls, to Girlies, girlfriend, as no longer conveying anything retrograde or, when coming from a peer or a friend, any disrespect.
As for Girlies, one of the most common and embraced monikers: Girlies were adult women, usually in their mid-twenties to late thirties, whose feminist principles, so they wrote, were based on a reclaiming of girl culture (or feminine accouterments) that were tossed out with sexism during the previous wave of Feminism, be it Barbie, housekeeping, or girl talk.
Twelve years later enter Girls, an HBO comedy-drama created by and starring 26-year-old Lena Dunham, based on some of her own experiences living in Brooklyn with a close group of other twenty-somethings. In the show’s pilot episode, aspiring writer Hannah gets a shock when her parents visit from East Lansing, Michigan, and announce they will no longer support her since they have done since her graduation from Oberlin College two years earlier. As one critic put it, left to her own devices — and need to pay the rent — she and her friends navigate their twenties — one mistake at a time.
The reviews and other reactions were, and have continued to be, mixed as the show is mid-way through its second season, renewed for a third. It has been called raw, audacious, nuanced, and richly, often excruciatingly, funny. It has been described as conveying real friendship, the angst of emerging adulthood, nuanced relationships, sexuality, self esteem, body image, intimacy in a tech-savvy world that promotes distances, the blood lust of surviving on very little money, and the modern parenting of entitled children — among many other things.
It has also been savaged as showing a privileged group of vapid women whining about being forced to be even remotely responsible for themselves, all white women (and men) at that, in the otherwise culturally diverse setting of New York City, causing Lena to sincerely apologize for her oversight and create, among others, a black Republican character as Hannah’s love interest in the first two episodes of the second season.
I first became interested in Girls because my own 26-year-old son, who lives within a few miles of where Lena Dunham did when she first wrote this series, and who is a comedy writer and aspiring television series producer himself, told me about it, mostly in terms of understandable envy that someone of his Millennial generation, and from his same general neighborhood, had gotten to fame before him.
I was of course familiar with the dark and deadpan humor of his writing and directing, and see similarities in style and even point of view. Let alone the predictable potty mouth. I had wanted to show a clip from the series, but decided against it, when it was almost virtually impossible to find more than a minute in any episode that did not have multiple f-bombs. Let alone full frontal nudity, references to all manner of sexual positions, masturbation, and sexually-transmitted disease.
I began a marathon of streaming Girls, ironically, on Friday, International Women’s Day, a dozen 33-minute episodes. And found myself being caught up in a narrow landscape of cluttered Brooklyn apartments, graffiti-spoiled buildings, littered streets, industrial warehouses, and occasional views of Manhattan, within this world, with its tangled web of girl-boy, boy-boy, girl-girl relationships. Often scathing and unflinchingly self-critical.
What I didn’t see, however, was a larger context for their individual and relational angst: the marginal, dead-end employment or unemployment; the waste of degrees and talents; the sense of drifting, indolence and brittle hopelessness. I called my son and asked if I had missed something in the stories of these girls and the men who surround them. Was there no social consciousness, no justice consciousness?
He said no, that this was his generation, his generation in New York, especially — self-absorbed, narcissistic — too busy navigating its streets and alleys to get outside themselves, frozen in late adolescence. Defining themselves as being the opposite of adults, with adulthood meaning a real job, instead of temp work or constantly downsizing work, or what is being labeled 22-22-22 internships: 22 hour days, for 22 year olds, for $22,000 a year. And marriage — ending up — instead of hooking up.
As writer Susan Beth Lehman has written, Lena Dunham and her series Girls has been called the voice of her generation. If this is so, she laments, then this in many ways brash and groundbreaking writer and actor is representing a generation of women who have made no social progress from their mother’s teens and 20s. Who, in her words, think falling into bed freely renders them somehow remarkable, lost and confused waiting to be fabulous, with no idea what fabulous is. Who are actually falling farther and farther behind in real economic progress and whose human dignity and privacy is being frontally attacked.
Where outside the doors to their walk-up apartments, outside their borough, is a society where gender equality is stalled. Where women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category, with African-American women having even greater disparities than white women. Where they are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. Where only four percent of the CEOs in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.
Where the definition of what is rape is being challenged and trivialized. Where thousands of rape test kits have been allowed to sit untested in police custody for years due to lack of funding to process them. Where the Arkansas legislature just passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, banning them after 12 weeks.
Where it was considered a great advance for women that the federal Violence Against Women Act was finally re-authorized.
Where justice and equity for women and girls is still an uphill battle.
Where our Girls need compassionate and tough-minded allies to not only lean in to their careers, but to push back, as Maria Shriver has written this past week in the Huffington Post, from hardship and distress.
In a country and a world where women hold up half the sky.
It was during the Millennial celebrations at Agnes Scott College, the small all women’s college near our home, that I purchased a bright red t-shirt with black Chinese lettering and underneath it that ancient proverb made popular by Mao Tse-Tung. I loved the sentiment: its bold simplicity. The president of the college then was a China scholar, in fact she returned to China after her time there. This t-shirt and this campaign to lift up women’s power and rights was a natural for her, and for this college that has so much diversity and quite a few international students and scholars.
Over the years of wearing it, often to the gym, I occasionally have been given withering looks for wearing a communist quote on my chest, or comments about how out of reach equality is for women in China, even today. It may not be great, admits Zhang Yue, host of a popular women’s talk show there for many years, but, she reminds us, of the five goals laid out for women a hundred years ago: “Abolish foot binding, educate girls, free marriage, a job, and equality with men, we got the first four. But not the last one.”
Which is a good deal more than the women who are half the sky in so many other countries around the world.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize winning married couple of journalists, have made both the saying and the cause of protecting and liberating women and girls much more well known, first with their book published several years ago, then the television documentary, and their educational foundation called, appropriately, Half the Sky.
They argued that while in the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or unfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss, in contrast, much of the world’s discrimination is lethal.
While this assumption underplays the real pain and suffering women and girls still suffer due to battering, lack of access to reproductive health care, and increasingly cavalier attitudes towards sexual abuse and rape, their point is one of severity and scale.
The Chinese moderator who defended the status of women in her country, downplayed the bias still against girl babies in her country, how 39,000 baby girls die each year because their parents do not give them the same medical attention as boys receive — and that’s just in the first year of life.
In India, wife burning to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry, still takes place approximately once every two hours.
Forced weddings and honor killings still take place in communities in England and in the United States.
In Pakistan, women and girls are still doused with kerosene or acid for perceived acts of disobedience.
Almost two million women disappear every year worldwide, some to human trafficking, others a mystery.
Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses, Kristof often reminds us in his regular columns in the New York Times. Women worldwide are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined. More girls, the authors wrote, were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars of the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the past century.
Every day in newspapers and on the Internet we can learn stories about acts of discrimination and violence against women: a brutal attempted honor killing in Afghanistan; the gang rape in India that sparked widespread and continuous protests; attacks and murders of famous and unknown women in South Africa; women’s marches against “virginity” tests in Egypt; teenagers sold into prostitution in Haiti; a 12-year-old girl forced to marry in Kenya to pay off her father’s debts.
Every day there are ways to act to help women and girls: to emancipate them and flight global poverty, as we are urged, by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. By giving to organizations that work to empower girls through supporting school lunches or paying for iodized salt to prevent brain damage in female fetuses; sponsoring individual women; joining citizen advocacy networks.
In researching their book, the authors visited Indian brothels to see the 21st century slave trade of women and girls, an estimated three million women worldwide, who are in effect the property of another person and in many cases could be killed by their owner with impunity. They are being rescued in some cases by organizations willing to fight this sex slavery by pressuring local police and through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which has at least created some awareness.
They visited a school for girls in Pakistan, and a women’s welfare league. They visited reproductive health clinics and micro credit projects. They saw for themselves small but impactful solutions to some of the larger problems. Building schools is good, they agree, but sometimes just making sure that adolescent girls can go to school during their periods (with sanitary facilities) or introducing cable television with soap operas geared toward both entertainment and enlightenment of women and girls can make a big difference in education and self worth.
Our Dining for Women chapter here at UUCA is a dinner-giving circle where members dine in and give the money they would have spent for a meal out to programs benefitting women, sending funds to international groups with a commitment to lifting women and girls out of poverty and misery.
Both of our UU associate organizations are working to stop the exploitation and oppression of women and girls, the Women’s Federation with grants to groups in this country primarily, including billboards warning against sexual trafficking, and sympathetic counseling lines for women who are seeking abortions; and the UU Service Committee working in partnerships abroad.
The Service committee has helped support the Rock Women’s Group in Kenya, teaching impoverished parents and students the skills they need to take control of their own lives, protecting them from trafficking and dangerous forms of labor that often thrive during economic down times.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, they helped Construct Camp Oasis, a home and school that is providing a safe haven for 40 girls orphaned by the catastrophic earthquake. With a secure place to live, these girls will be far less likely to become victims of gender-based violence.
These organizations, grounded in our principles, are enabling us all to live out our values of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, and justice and compassion in human relations.
The Rev. William Schulz, President of the UU Service Committee, believes that the exploitation of women has played such a defining role in societies around the world, it might be called civilization’s original sin. And he tells us that we can never achieve a truly just world until we finally expiate that sin.
In the words of the mystic Catholic theologian and nun Teresa of Avila:
The Divine has no body on Earth but yours, no hands but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the Divine compassion is to look out to the world.
This Women’s History Month and all year round. May it be so.