Under the theme: Week of the Girl
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Musings and Exhortations
There are few advantages to aging, but one of them is surely memory. I remember as a child learning the expression, said by Mao Zedong, “Women hold up half of the sky.” I thought that in honor of Week of the Girl, I should learn how to say this in the original Mandarin. I asked several of my Chinese students for help. They would tell me how to say it, I would practice, and then I would try it on another student and ask if I made any sense. I learned two things: First, my pronunciation in Mandarin is terrible, as none of them could figure out what I was trying to say. Second, and more surprisingly, none of them recognized the expression, even once I had explained and written it. A bare generation ago, millions of Chinese students were required to memorize the sayings of Mao – but now, I could not find one who even recognized this expression.
Cultural forces ebb and flow, eddy and surge. What seems directional in a particular place and time often is not at a larger scale. Week of the Girl is about, in part, working for gender equality, about reminding ourselves that we are not there yet. Some people dismiss that sentiment by thinking that progress is inevitable, that there is nothing we need personally to do. Things are so much better now than before, and have to keep advancing, right? But progress is an illusion. When I was in high school, a woman was prime minister of Pakistan. Is there any way that could happen today? In some places, in some situations, the cause of women’s rights and gender equality has advanced in my lifetime – but in others it has retreated.
Others think we have already achieved equality, essentially, that there is nothing more to do, at least here in the “enlightened” US. Over Fall Family Weekend, I went to the showcase, and enjoyed all of the excerpts from the upcoming comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” What got the most laughs that night? A man speaking in the voice of a woman. Women can be actresses, now, but four hundred years after it was written, we cling to our gender stereotypes so strongly that still, the funniest thing about the play is a man speaking in the voice of a woman.
There is no certain progress. Any gains won by preceding generations can be erased, can be overturned, can be forgotten. All of us need to work continually for gender equality, in whatever capacity we can. For girls to be allowed to be strong, and boys to be allowed to be sensitive. Our work can push back the boundaries of prejudice; can create an island of tolerance in this place and time, but only as long as we are active and vigilant. What we win today will be lost to our children if we become complacent.