I remember sitting on the sofa, listening to my grandmother’s stories about her coming-of-age days during the final years of WWII. After her high school graduation she entered the work force in The City (that would be New York City, of course), where she and her fellow office girls defied cultural and professional dress codes by painting tan, narrow stripes down the backs of their calves in an effort to look as if they were wearing those highly-rationed, rare extravagances otherwise known as stockings. On the weekends she and her sisters frequented the local USO where, as Billy Joel once sang, men “ask(ed) them to dance, dance(d) with ‘em slow”. On one of those USO visits she met and fell in love with a young sailor. The romance ended shortly after the war ended, but Handsome Sailor left my grandmother with a precious memento of their love affair: my mother.
By the time my mom was two years old, my grandmother found herself a single mother in the late 1940s. She moved in with her mother and continued working in an effort to support herself and her daughter. Feeling stuck and overwhelmed, she married a man who didn’t treat her well in exchange for putting a roof over their heads.
My mother, on the other hand, attempted to pursue her educational dreams by enrolling at the local junior college after high school graduation. She, too, met a handsome young sailor and, anxious to set up her own home and enjoy some element of independence from her parents, said yes when Dad proposed. They married at the tender ages of 20 and 19. Two kids and eight years later, Mom realized that the independence she was looking for was not just breaking away from her parents by moving out of her childhood home but the growth, maturity, and self-confidence that only comes from learning how to support yourself both financially and emotionally.
Both my mom and grandmother demonstrate the motivation behind the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s: to allow women and girls other options for their academic and economical future than they were historically provided. For my mom and grandmother, and many of their contemporaries, the normal cycle of life dictated that they meet a boy, fall in love, get married, and have babies. But what if women wanted something more? (Gasp!) What if the intellectual stimulation offered by college classes and assignments helped them attain economic independence from their parents? What if the gratification and self-confidence obtained from working in a career that excited them led to more fulfilling relationships with their husbands, children, and peers? And what if those same jobs helped keep their families out of poverty or served to enhance the quality of life and educational opportunities for future generations?
Fortunately for me, the second generation women’s movement meant greater opportunities and options for girls. Unlike the youthful days of my mother and grandmother, attending university in the 1980s was no longer a luxury afforded only to boys – or wealthy girls whose families sent them off to school to look for a suitable husband. Thanks to federal legislation that created more funding sources combined with the efforts of the State of Florida to provide better access to higher education to more of its students, enrollment in the University of Florida was very much a realistic and attainable goal for me. In fact, in my mother’s eyes, obtaining a college degree was the ONLY option available to me when I graduated from high school.
So, two months after my anti-climatic graduation from high school, Mom loaded me and my foot locker full of earthly belongings into her car and drove me to that beautiful campus of red brick, Gothic buildings covered with thick ivy and surrounded by stately live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Then, after waving good-bye to my mom as she drove away, in the words of the ever-inspiring Indigo Girls, “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper, and I was free”.
For me, those four years of learning and maturing, followed by a couple of years earning a decent living, helped me grow into a stronger, more independent woman and, eventually, a better companion for my husband and sound role model for my sons and daughters – something my mom and grandmother both envisioned when they encouraged me to pursue my education before committing to marriage and raising a family.
While we must continue our diligence to overcome such issues as domestic violence, poverty, and the lingering gender stereotypes that inhibit girls’ educational opportunities here in the United States, we must also now turn our attention toward the extreme discrimination against girls throughout the world that inhibits their ability to experience the same opportunities for economic independence and growth that I found in the 1980s. As stated by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard,
“I think across the world, as we talk about women in developing countries, there’s been increasing recognition that empowering women and girls is a key change agent for development. There have been some truly shocking incidents that have caused us to have tears in our eyes and sharply intake our breath—what happened to Malala, what has happened with the Nigerian schoolgirls—that powerfully remind us that in some part of the world, getting an education is still a very dangerous thing for a girl. Education is powerful, which is why some people want to stop it and why we should feel so passionate about assuring that it occurs.”
This week world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly have discussed the issues surrounding gender inequality. Goodwill ambassador for U.N. Women, Emma Watson, delivered an inspiring speech about feminism while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed U.N. delegates regarding the impact of the Clinton Global Initiative and its future goals. This focus on girls and education leads us to the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2014, where leaders in promoting worldwide education equality will celebrate the progress made toward girls’ global education these past twenty years as well as look to the future and what remains to be done in order to continue to help make education safe and accessible for girls everywhere.
Remember, only when girls and women have the same educational and economic opportunities as boys and men will we then be able to truly overcome poverty.