Reflections on Gender Equity in Higher Education: Intergenerational Feminism Starts at Home

This is the third post in a series contributed by Susan Albertine, Senior Fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

This blog post started as a conversation with my daughter. About three years ago, I asked my daughter about feminism. She, Hannah, had just finished her first year of college. Prime time for a mother to swoop in and take temperature. Let’s be more precise. Second-wave feminist mom who at age 43 gave birth to her daughter descends on wary daughter after year one of college, bearing annoying questions. I could easily have been her grandmother, but she was under no obligation to extend me that courtesy.

I took the risk. Note: I am often too direct for my own good. Indeed, the conversation was awkward. Asked about the word feminism, Hannah said, “That’s your generation. I don’t know a single person who says she’s a feminist.” She said it genially, with a gleam in her eye. It put me in mind of her baby self, beaming with love, looking me straight in the eye, opening wide her adorable little mouth, and biting me. Her young adult conversations retain both their affection and their teeth. I felt it, but I was ready. Then followed ruminations.

I concluded this: My daughter sounded, at first, rather antifeminist. I went on to explore the upside: I believe that Hannah’s ideas suggest something else. She and her friends—male and female, gay and straight along a spectrum—have a fluid understanding of gender and sexuality. They imagine gender identity far more freely and diversely than I did at their age. For social purposes, Hannah thought feminism was exceptionalistic and exclusionary. It didn’t work well within the intersecting identities she and her friends have claimed. Yes, of course, feminism is intellectually useful; the understandings revealed by using gender as a category of analysis especially so. Hannah told me she appreciates that power. She offered me examples of ways she addresses gender and power with twelve-year-old girls at the YMCA camp where she works.

Reader, you may find me too charitable. I wanted to grant Hannah her positions and work with her. I expect she thought the same of mine and me. In short, it was an inconclusive conversation. But it was also promising. Every summer since, she and I have taken a mother-daughter weekend together and kept it going.

Important realizations have come to me as my daughter and I explore mutual understanding. I am starting to grasp her experience of intersectionality—multiple, fluid, intersecting sexuality and gender dynamics—built on the hope and belief in progress that guides so many millennial minds. Age has made me more worried and skeptical. We progress collectively far less rapidly than young people may imagine will be the case in their own lives. At the same time, Hannah is paying attention to my perspective and experiences. Not that it’s hers but that it counts. She’s asking me questions. With each passing year, I see her gathering experience and some tempering, some priorities for being a woman self-aware emerging in her behavior.

Not surprisingly, I’m paying attention now more than ever before to intergenerational communication. As my mother declines, I’ve been making friends with her friends, including her best friend, who is now 106. As the election season advances, I’ve been observing intergenerational dynamics of a concerning and dysfunctional cast. This election cycle has certainly prompted a display of generational fixed mindsets. That’s a serious problem for women. Generational bias easily conveys disrespect. Certainly, age and experience deserve social consideration. They don’t, however, justify incivility or condescension. Speaking out against young women who support Bernie Sanders, Gloria Steinem expected to be convincing? And Madeleine Albright?

A Women’s History Month luncheon at my office this year offered a chance to explore intergenerational communication. I brought it up, wondering what colleagues from their 20s into their 70s would say. Interestingly, several of the younger attendees, men and women, talked about their plural sense of identities. Intersectionality emerged as a promising topic for exploration. If you see yourself identifying with multiple groups, how do you set priorities among these as they intersect and perhaps conflict or compete? Is one dimension of oneself more important than others? Is there a way in which multiple identities can be negotiated in what someone called a “parliament” of oneself? Imagining oneself beyond dualisms and binaries was attractive pretty much across the board, but it appeared to be stronger among the younger participants. I also heard Millennials, who seem young to me, talk with admitted uncertainty about the points of view of the next generation, Generation Z. It was the first time I’d heard anybody voice that concern. It was a good conversation and I would recommend it as a topic to others.

Meanwhile, spring unfolds with its renewal. Hannah will graduate this month. She sent me her senior thesis, a collection of creative nonfiction titled Out Loud. She is a writer, way funnier than I will ever be. I asked her, idly, if I would appear. She laughed. Actually, she snorted. “Oh,” she said, “You’re everywhere.” Reading in deep astonishment, I found myself, a beloved and comical figure, dropping remarks and other gifts throughout, a clog-wearing NGO feminist educator of somewhat dowdy fashion habits appearing sometimes as foil, sometimes as instigator, sometimes as superego. The last piece in the collection is called “Case File #1225.” It “thinks about the act of gifting as it is linked to the roles of motherhood and daughterhood.” It presents vignettes of gifts to Hannah, with annotations, some from my mother but mostly from me. One of them was a box of mints, from me, bearing the image of Rosie the Riveter:

EXPLANATION FROM GIFTER: “Empowermints. OK. I am a women’s literary historian. Lots of boomer feminists like me were attracted to the women who went to work during WWII, like Rosie the Riveter. The poster decorating the box of mints is really famous from that era. You should know about that history and enjoy it (always teaching, I know, I am).”


FACTS: The peppermints come in reusable tin and were made by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild

COMMENTARY: Despite my fear of becoming the teacher that my Mom is, it seems important to clarify her explanation and note that Rosie the Riveter was, in fact, not a real, living woman who “went to work during WWII.” Instead, Rosie was a composite symbol of the experiences of those mid-century, working women. My Mom bought the mints because she saw the representation of feminism that she grew up with and felt a duty to pass them onto her feminist daughter. I will also note that I have not yet consumed the mints. I see them as my Mom still sees Rosie, as a lasting symbol of the woman who taught her how to be!

If there could be a greater reward for reaching out woman to woman, it is hard for me to imagine. Other than herself in being born, that senior thesis is the best gift Hannah ever gave me. It reminds me that we all need to reach out across difference, talk, converse, conflict, share, exchange humility and experience, hope and fear, extend offerings of affection, wisdom, and differing perspective. How much richer it all is across generations.

Albertine200_0Susan Albertine, Senior Scholar, Association of American Colleges & Universities, is a career-long educator and advocate for educational reform. She became a school teacher through the alternative school movement and has taught every level from preschool through graduate school. A professor of American literature and women’s studies, she taught at both liberal arts colleges and public institutions. In 2002 she became Professor of English and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey, where she served until joining the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2008 as senior director of the LEAP States Initiative. Dr. Albertine was vice president, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success (AAC&U), 2010-2016. She has published on women’s work in print culture during the growth phase of industrialization in the U.S. and on the resource that 19th-century literature can be for an integrative study of public and global health.  She writes frequently about reform of higher education, emphasizing the value and values of liberal education.



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