Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Reflections on Marlo Thomas’ Torch: Progress and Painful Truths

Smurfette as she originally appeared (left) an...

Image via Wikipedia Smurfette as she originally appeared and after Papa Smurf remade her...wow

Marlo Thomas: Passing the Torch… Who’s Going to Run With It?.

In this article on The Huffington Post, Marlo Thomas talks about the victories that have been won in the fight for women’s rights and reflects on the way that she’s seen things change. One of the quotes that Thomas makes that really resonates with me is this:

“If there’s one thing we trailblazers figured out, it’s that you need to lift up many women, not just one woman. For women there’s safety in numbers. If you have only one woman at the table, she’s a pest. Two women? That’s a team. But three? Now that’s a coalition. “

For several years I was the only woman professor in my university department. My male colleagues have at most points been supportive and encouraging as I grew from a new professor to become a tenured, experienced teacher and researcher. However, there were certainly times, especially in those early years, when I didn’t feel that my voice was strong enough to be heard. Now there are three women in my department, and I feel the change. The three of us don’t always agree on everything, but we are good friends and allies, and I know that even if they disagree with me when I speak up about something, they’ll hear me out. Their presence alone makes it easier for me to speak up. I think that is what Thomas is pointing out, that the more women are involved in positions of power and authority, the easier it is for other women to become involved as well.

Reading Thomas’ article, I was also struck by how much still needs to be done to reach equality. For example, there is still not wage equality for women. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) says that women working full-time earned less than their male peers in nearly all professions in 2009, earning 77 cents for every dollar that a man earned.

There is a clear promotion of women’s value in their appearance and sexuality in most mainstream media. Even in children’s programming, you see the lone token female (Smurfette anyone?) and the objectification (Transformers) of even that character. The system that promotes women as valuable through their sexuality runs rampant in much popular media, from television to movies to music.

I found Thomas’ article inspiring as we reflect on the progress that has been in the area of women’s rights. In my own life, the fact that in my department there are now three full-time female faculty members and one full-time adjunct is amazing considering the fact that when I was in school and for many, many years there was one lone female faculty member. When I think about the opportunities that I have that my mother and grandmother didn’t, and the fact that my daughters have even more, I’m encouraged. But at the same time, there are some painful truths that must be considered. The ones I mentioned above just begin to scratch the surface. Women are still underpaid across the board. Women are still subjected to the idea that their primary value comes from their physical appearance and their ability to be the object of someone else’s pleasure. Women still face the challenge of trying to use their talents while balancing their personal lives in a way that is generally foreign to men, especially if a woman has children.

So, I’m cautiously optimistic. I love Thomas’ article and the truths that she speaks about progress for equality. And I’m reminded of this quote,

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.  ~Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler”

As long as people, both men and women, think of feminism as anything other than the notion that women are people and deserve to be treated with equality, there is still progress to be made. I’m ready to pick up the torch, how about you?

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