January 24, 2004

Career Girls


The latest Julia Roberts film, "Mona Lisa Smile," invites moviegoers to look back at the benighted, pre-feminist 1950's from the vantage point of our presumed enlightenment. Set at a heavily fictionalized Wellesley College, the film offers a blend of wintry campus scenes, pretty girls and smug relief at how far we've come.

The protagonist, a progressive art historian named Katherine Watson (played by Ms. Roberts), struggles to inspire critical thinking in young women who see their elite education as a passport to upper-class wifedom, not to intellectual independence. The film also reminds us of the period's political witch hunts, and of how much sexism ultimately had in common with McCarthyism. Both relied upon splitting the world into absolute categories: chaste vs. fallen woman, good citizen vs. suspected Communist.

In the end, although Ms. Roberts's character leaves Wellesley in frustration over its academic constraints, she is seen off in her taxi by an adoring phalanx of bicycle-riding students. The scene evokes the 19th-century "Bloomers," pioneer feminists in trousers who defiantly rode bicycles (considered dangerous to sexual virtue). The film's conclusion, then, weaves these girls symbolically into the history of the women's movement, leading us to suppose that, like their feminist foremothers, these students ride toward the freedoms of decades to come.

But do female students today continue to ride their bicycles steadily forward, considering themselves inheritors of the hard-won freedoms of the 1960's and 70's? As a professor of humanities at a select coeducational liberal arts college, I think not. One might imagine that women benefiting from such an education would develop a particularly astute political radar. After all, a liberal arts education aims to nurture just this brand of alertness, providing four years to read between the lines, question surface meanings, and approach the world with engaged curiosity. The skills produced by such an education should promote and sustain thoughtful critique of gender roles as well as equip students to engage in a participatory democracy.

But my own experience shows that this is not the case. Feminist awareness and political questioning are just as hard for me to inspire as they are for Miss Watson in the movie. While my own college days in the 1980's overflowed with heated debates about women's rights and cultural politics in general, such fervor now seems absent from campus life.

Although virtually all of my female students expect to pursue careers, this is where their enlightenment seems to end. For them, the reassuring power of a college degree to unlock professional doors seems to have rendered "feminism" obsolete. In other words, the fires of feminism may have burned down to the ashes of careerism.

But, as hinted at by recent public debates over women's "opting out" (leaving lucrative but life-draining jobs to focus on families), mere access to a work world still constructed by and for men cannot alleviate underlying obstacles to genuine equality. Similarly, in the classroom, the promise of career possibilities for women cannot alone counterbalance certain disturbing assumptions and behaviors, which pass unnoticed by most.

When I show classic French films in class, for example, I am consistently amazed by my students' swiftness to divide female characters into "bad girls" and "good girls" (sometimes literally using those words). One young man recently wrote an angry essay condemning a character for being "easy," for her overt sexuality (I did say this was French cinema), concluding, "She represents a model of feminist principles." He was right, but for the wrong reasons.

In the same way, the supposedly equalizing force of college does not necessarily embolden women to stake equal claim for their opinions in class. It is still common for even the very brightest female students to hold their hands over their mouths when they speak, or to cut off their own remarks, mumbling, "Forget it, it was stupid." When I call them on this, asking them to consider the political ramifications of such undermining behavior, they are surprised surprised, that is, to be asked to read their own sexual politics.

But such reading is crucial, especially since literacy in sexual politics means literacy in all politics. Despite some reawakening of student activism via Howard Dean's Internet-based campaign, in my experience, attempts to introduce contemporary politics into classroom discussions meet with blank stares. Even this past year, as our country began a war, I encountered mostly silence when I broached the topic of Iraq, a mix of paralysis and anxiety, plus some disgruntlement over my deviating from the syllabus.

But each year, frankly, I feel increasingly compelled to look beyond my syllabuses and to devote myself more to teaching "wakeful" political literacy: the skills needed to interrogate all cultural messages. Students need to be able to mine the implications, for example, of a "Family Time Flexibility Act" which, while claiming to help women balance home and family, might have actually decreased overtime pay. They need to look critically at a presidential address that divides the world into opposing halves labeled "with us" and "with the terrorists."

Ultimately though, if students resist such reading and suffer from amnesia in politics sexual and otherwise it's because they drink from the same pool of Lethe we all do. A film like "Mona Lisa" merits more than our own complacent smiles. The troubling 1950's may not be quite the quaint relic we think they are.

Rhonda Garelick is an associate professor of French and Italian at Connecticut College.

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