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COLUMN LEFT / RUTH ROSEN

Society Fails the Next Generation : While girls prepare for an egalitarian world, boys still expect to be family patriarch, with the main authority.

August 30, 1994|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, is writing a history of contemporary feminism titled "The Second Wave."

Be prepared for the gender wars to last well into the next century. Two recent news stories suggest that teen-age girls and boys--far from moving toward a peaceful truce--are rapidly headed on a collision course. While teen-age boys dream of replicating the much mythologized traditional family of the 1950s, replete with male breadwinner and stay-at-home housewife, teen-age girls are busy reinventing feminism and preparing to support themselves and their children.

Contrary to popular opinion, feminism is neither dead nor dying. Around the country, thousands of high school and college-aged young women are joining small groups designed to enhance their self-esteem, improve their self-reliance and challenge stereotyped gender roles. These young women already describe themselves with the "f" word-- feminist-- that nearly disappeared from polite language during the '80s backlash.

Products of divorced families and a changed economy, these young women know they will have to work outside the home. What angers them are the many obstacles that prevent women from safely navigating their work and family lives.

In San Leandro, Calif., for example, troubled high school girls meet regularly to discuss gang violence against women. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and racially mixed young women whose families are painfully familiar with financial disaster, physical abuse and emotional deprivation. At Berkeley High School, a chapter of the National Organization for Women recently started a program on sexual harassment. A recent survey of girls at the school revealed that 54% of them had experienced some form of sexual harassment, usually from male students.

Unlike the feminists of the '70s, these young women are less likely to be married and finished with college when they join women's groups. They are also more sensitive to race and class issues and embrace a vision of a multiracial and multiethnic movement.

Two years ago, for example, Rebecca Walker, the daughter of novelist Alice Walker, helped found the Third Wave, a multiracial organization that hopes to merge civil-rights and feminist issues. Young feminist organizations such as the Women's Action Coalition use guerrilla theater to publicize their grievances. Riot Grrrl, a group that boasts chapters in several cities, attracts members from the punk music scene who have promoted women's rights and criticized sexist lyrics.

Growing numbers of young women are again asking why they must bear exclusive responsibility for family and home.

While girls anxiously prepare for the brave new world of working women, their male counterparts still dream of Ronald Reagan's rosy-tinted mythic 1950s. In a nationwide poll of teen-agers, only 58% of the boys expected their future wives to work outside the home, while 86% of the girls assumed they would work in the labor force. Even more disturbing, most of the girls saw boys as equals, but a majority of the boys described girls as inferior.

Teen-age boys and girls may exist in different time warps. In follow-up calls, a majority of boys expressed a deep longing for a traditional patriarchal home in which they would be the sole breadwinner. (How did they miss the news that a restructured economy requires two incomes in all but the most wealthy families?) Even worse, of the young men who imagined working wives, most could not envision sharing household or child-rearing tasks. In contrast, the girls expected their future husbands to share the "second shift," the work of caring for family and home.

Thirty years after the contemporary women's movement began, we are no closer to a gender truce than before. Somehow we as a society have raised a generation of young women who expect egalitarian relationships and young men who dream of assuming the authority and responsibility of a family patriarch.

Who is at fault? In part, the Religious Right, for equating "family values " with a patriarchal family structure based on a mythic male breadwinner. But parents and schools must also be blamed for failing to prepare teen-age boys for a changed world, one in which women will have to work in the labor force and therefore expect men to work more within the home.

The gender wars, it appears, may drag on for generations. I foresee a collision course fed by clashing expectations. Unless boys understand the economic and social changes that have transformed American society, their futures will be filled with dashed hopes and painful divorces. As always, there will be millions of casualties--the children of the next generation.

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