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How feminists could finally win: Take the path you designed

"Girls as energetic, eager and able as the boys, having a blast — but rarely over age 10."

An ad I saw recently showed how girls' confidence plummets after age 10. It felt like a punch in the gut.

I had just been discussing with a colleague how feminists seem to be failing girls. Admittedly edgy, my thesis is that we women haven’t sufficiently personalized "the political."

My colleague graduated high school within days of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just after I was born. She'd grown up with the movement, becoming part of it. All the connections contextualized my point.

Benefits of rights bestowed

“First, thank you for your hard work as a feminist. It’s difficult to complain about people like you whose efforts gave women like me so much."  She looked perplexed. "But it's just so frustrating.

"Because of Title IX I played on the boys' soccer team at my high school. 

"Because of confidence sports gives, when my family’s construction company where I worked in my 20s didn’t change its inequitable policies, I left.

"Because that emboldened me, I went to an entirely different type of company: a tech start-up, and later left it to cofound another tech company.

"Because equality worked, I tried to uphold the principles, including at my company.

"Because self-actualization seemed possible, after my company was established I worked from home where I could be a more present parent. First in journalism and then civic engagement, where a male colleague urged me to study feminism. He’d stayed at home with the children while his wife earned her PhD."

My colleague and I recalled that the man who connected us had invited me to co-author research on opposite-sex perspectives.

"Because culture change works, I founded another company, WetheP. To reawaken the commitment, connection and civic responsibility of  the fuffragists, Great Depression, post-World War II and civil rights years.

"Because feminism worked, I’m frustrated.”

Negotiating pick-up sports

There are so many feminist programs, discussions and committees, many for girls’ sports. But I stopped accepting invitations. I offered that I’d attend if some included pick-up games with girls. 

One group seemed interested after a Humphrey School of Public Affairs presentation. Discussing with them how stark disparities remain, I shared that women rarely play sports with girls. Which launched them organizing pick-up basketball at my YMCA.

But none ever showed.

Decades ago, research in Carole Gilligan and Lyn Michel Brown’s book "Meeting at the Crossroads" chronicled how cultural norms, not only policies and men, catalyze a devastating drop in girls’ demeanors. Physically and psychologically robust elementary school girls are left overwhelmed by socially fomented fears in middle school. Many disassociate themselves from strong former selves.

"That hasn't changed," I said. "You know that."  My colleague nodded yes.

"I see it in my daughter sometimes." Here I stifled a  small sob. "My reminder that no matter how we try, society influences us all. It obstructs nearly all parenting, policy and programs.  

"I see it at my YMCA, too. Where hordes of boys with enough dads and men to keep them in check are always playing. But men aren't there for a program. They're showing by doing in relationships with boys – and the few girls there, too. Girls as energetic, eager and able as the boys, having a blast — but rarely over age 10.

"Adult women? Nearly nonexistent. Though some love to play — they're ones who put huge efforts into girls’ sports — many athletes themselves. I don't see all the discussions creating much change.”   

Not taking the path they designed

My colleague paused before her brief, spot-on response: "So we designed the path, but aren’t leading by taking it."

Meanwhile girls still fend off a society that foists their identities’ into the very stereotypes feminism fought.

The solution, I suspect, requires walking away from some political pulpits to instead walk — or play — the themes of all those talks. In new public "demonstrations" that prove the reductive scripts we rail against are wrong. Showing by being in real relationships with real girls on a regular basis, where girls live. Because taking this game to the "arenas" it's playing out in — like my YMCA — is critical. To win back what’s seems to be getting lost in ivory-tower talks and stadium suites, where male peers compete. And ladies' lunches, too.

It’s time for the old boys’ "one winner-one loser" game to be over. Having earned policies that balance the playing field, I say we women should proudly own and embody our rights. Imagine if we unselfconsciously personified feminism's fullest potentials? Culture and civil courts would catch on. So would girls and boys who’ll soon lead them.

A new wave of feminism can help. Led by efforts like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In" groups scaling worldwide. And books like "The Athena Doctrine" on how feminine-style strategies are increasingly preferred by winners everywhere.

And the ad by Always that got me. It takes on the subversive "throws like a girl" stereotype. Not debating political correctness, just unmistakably disproving the disparaging claim.

Showing up for an end around stereotypes

No matter if football coaches or others still say such things. They’re likelier to cede some perceived power with consistent contrary evidence. Perhaps even have a  more balanced view.

For example my Dad’s "throw like a girl" taunts gained nuance when he decided my full-on athleticism was "pretty." And broke gender boundaries when he commented on my son’s "pretty" pirouettes-filled lacrosse-style.

Rather than fight repetitive battles, I'm advocating we get marching to get beyond them. Showing up and showing how to girls (and boys), where they’re at.  

Following in Alice Paul’s footsteps

Frustrated with the early 20th-century suffragists, Alice Paul innovated strategies featuring less talking and more doing. It worked. Seeing women's power demonstrated in public displays, lawmakers caught on.

Children who’d go on to be “Makers” of the then newly named feminist movement, apparently did too.

It seems a good time to innovate, again. Only now let’s go to where girls gather, mobilizing ourselves to demonstrate how they, too, can be living models of what equality means.

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is the founder and CEO of Minnesota-based WetheP, Inc. The tech-start is developing tools to help people be change-makers.

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Comments (3)

feminism, girls and sports

As an old feminist who worked for passage of Title IX of the Education amendments which covered more than getting girls into sports, I'm much more optimistic than Ms. Grazzini. My daughters, a daughter-in-law and my grand-daughters are swimmers, soccer, softball and other sports players. I agree that engaging in sports--as well as political activity--builds confidence. I also agree that we don't have enough cultural change. That's why girls tend to lose self-confidence. Our culture still demeans women. Women have to do more than encourage and assist/mentor girls engaging in sports.

We shouldn't just leave companies--especially family companies--who won't or don't change their policies. We have to challenge discrimination wherever we find it. And by no means should we walk away from politics. That's how we got Title IX and many other pieces of legislation that have contributed to cultural change. But there is still much more to be done and women can't--or shouldn't be asked--to do it alone or be blamed because they don't show up for sports events like men do. Feminism is, by definition, the advocacy of political and socio-economic equality. It requires patience and optimism and everybody doing what they can where they can. Looking back I exult in the changes we feminists--male as well as female--have made over the centuries but know it will take generations more to achieve real equality.

Mrs. Fraser, I much

Mrs. Fraser,

I much appreciate your comment, particularly given your deep experience. You capture much of what I tried to convey. But I want to clarify a couple of things you touched on.

First, I don't advocate for leaving any company without thoughtful reflection and effort to create change.

I did both before for several years, before leaving my family's company on good terms.Only after many discussions and failed negotiations. I recently published an essay on my grandfather's positive leadership (though he'd retired before I worked there), here: http://bit.ly/1n2z6Ei.

I continue to advocate equity to the Company. A highlight was my father (who had been my boss, the CEO) calling me years after I left asking for help with a press release--when one of their female laborers was given an award for her work, by Oprah Winfrey. More recently, I convinced my father to co-endorse a female candidate for Mayor -- though he and I are usually opposite politically, here: http://bit.ly/1jRhewp

Second, I agree women alone should not be expected advocate for girls and women. Which is why I made a point to include examples of male colleagues who did their share of modeling and advocacy of equity. And to note boys are watching and learning in our culture, too.

This cultural point is the one I'm making.

I want women where-ever, whenever, however they can to honor the hard work you and so many women and men have done to get us this far, by being role models and examples of it in relationships with children (and, all).

I do not, however, see women attending children's sports nearly as valuable as women actually playing sports with children (or playing chess, music, or, mock court, etc.) as women--showing their smarts and strengths thanks to gains of Title IX in ways girls are able to apply in their lives.

I also do not feel political efforts should be abandoned.

What I seek is for feminists to recognize that cultural and relational modeling is equally if not more important and needed--even, or maybe especially, for all the obstacles it poses.

Culture is where girls (and boys) can understand how normal and effective feminism and equality is---well before they try to disentangle the convoluted political strategies that belie their realities--so they are best positioned when their time to advocate comes.

Finally, I too, exult in the changes you and others made for girls and women like me.

With Gratitude,
Andrea Morisette Grazzini

Positive Role Models.

In the two opening sentences:
“girls’ confidence plummets…”
“…feminists seem to be failing girls.”
“women haven’t …”

How can girls be successful when their role models complain about, and focus on, how tough it is to be a woman/girl?

Under the opening picture:
“girls, as energetic, eager and able as the boys,”

Is that your goal in life, to be as able as a man? For too many women, that is the battle.

When women frame success as overcoming men and stereotypes, their accomplishments are framed as simply overcoming men or stereotypes. “Lean in” is full of it. Only chapters 9 and 10 are positive.

One of the difficulties of working with young women is the lack of positive role models who do not get bogged down in repetitive battles, as Grazzini does. Luckily, there are more and more women who talk constructively about their accomplishments, directing their comments to positive goals and aspirations (e.g., Mpls Chief of Police, Janeé Harteau), and becoming role models for girls to follow.