Several years ago I was at a meeting on Democracy at Tufts where I joined an open conversation on women and education. We had just listened to a speaker share disturbing statistics about the self-esteem and self-confidence of young women—it has been going down since the ’80s and drops while women are in college! Several of the women in the group were visiting students from African countries. At first, the American women leaned into the conversation and the African women held back but, when we specifically invited them to speak, they were more than willing to tell their stories. The women were from various countries and each was the first and only women to be studying a traditional male discipline—accounting, computer science, medicine etc. One by one they told us about professors who would not call on them or who would pointedly say “good morning gentlemen”; about classmates who would organize themselves to take turns to distract them during pre-exam study periods and would them look at two names when grades were posted—theirs and hers—and then talk loudly among themselves about how she would flunk out next time. Each also talked about their extreme isolation and how they could not reveal anything personal about themselves for fear it would be used against them.
The courage of these young women was astounding and what was even more astounding was that up until that afternoon they had never told each other their stories. Theses warrior women reminded me of many of the “first” women of my generation—women who came of age in the late ’60s and ’70s. I began to wonder how we did it and what immediately came to mind is that we did it together! We were in consciousness raising groups and a million other informal conversations where we encouraged, comforted and supported each other. I remembered the dozens of times I almost dropped out of my MBA program and how it was always another woman who got me through. My advice to these young women was that having discovered each other, they should hold on to the connection and continue the conversation in any way they could when they got back to their home countries. This experience of finding authentic common ground across cultures and generations was soul satisfying but it left me with a new question—what was happening to my younger sister right here in the US? What were the stores they might tell that were sitting behind those falling self-esteem numbers?
Since that initial conversation in July of 2013 a number of things have happened that convince me that the time is more than ripe for this conversation. Over the next few months I interviewed several young women of my son’s generation (20s) and I began to realize that feminist of my generation were almost blind to the context and realities of younger women. This idea has been reinforced by my attendance at an academic meeting at BU on “The Women’s Movement of the Late ’60s and ’70s” where a number of angry young women repeatedly interrupted sessions wanting to be heard. I read “Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism” by Astrid Henry. and concluded that women of my generation don’t know what we don’t know and our assumptions are getting in the way!
In May of 2014, there was an explosive conversation on Twitter that was sparked by a mass murderer in California who prefaced his killing spree with a misogynistic rant on You tube. Under the hashtag #YesAllWomen women around the world poured out their frustration with what they call “rape culture and “slut shaming”. We tried to have a session at the annual meeting of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD.org) to discuss how we might take that conversation into safer and more productive venues, but the need to have the conversation was so strong in the room that even a group of professional facilitators found it hard to do anything but have the conversation!
In June of that year, at the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists, I informally proposed these cross generational conversations during a multigenerational meeting of UU women. I was inundated with requests to be included and encouragement to “do it” from women of every age. To date I have shared the concept of genHERous with dozens of women and every one of them, no matter the age of the women or the region, responded with an enthusiastic and unsolicited “Yes, count me in!”
All of which led me to one conclusion. It is time to have this conversation and see where it take us!