When a student asked me whether her generation were not much like mine, the question amused me. I see myself in the quiet classrooms of the 1950s, respectful of the distant professor, anxious to get things right and intimidated by the setting of scholarship.
The very fact that she felt comfortable enough to ask me that question was indicative that the generations did not compare. This student who asked me the question so earnestly was wearing a T-shirt with a very rude slogan. Certainly, no one would have appeared in class in bygone days advertising puck power.
However, these apparent differences, though they caused me to hesitate to respond, did not obscure my sense that there were some similarities in very different contexts.
As one who was once a Young Democrat on a campus firmly loyal to Eisenhower, I can understand the impatience of some of my students with the apathy that surrounds them. The hearts that beat under the alligators seem to tick steadily away in an atmosphere of general unconcern for the issues of the day.
Apathy and passivity, the charges that were leveled against my generation, have settled in on campuses after the disruptions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The response to authority, however, is not truly passive, for this is a generation which, though it practices conformity with all the zeal we did, is not used to rules.
Housemothers are gone. Curfews are ended. Sign-in sheets no longer exist. Class attendance is not required. Dress codes are in effect only at a few church-related schools. There are men in the rooms--and in the bathrooms.
Curiously enough, students who are politically conservative do not have trouble with this relaxed state of social affairs. Nothing seems to shock or embarrass them.
My concern for young women now in college is that the passivity that pervades campus life will influence their attitudes toward the sex discrimination their mothers experienced. The most sensitive students I have often turn out to be those whose mothers are divorced and/or are trying to complete their educations or resume careers in mid-life.
The stories of the past are not known to today's college students. In the 1950s, Radcliffe girls (and they were girls then) took speedwriting in order to get jobs in publishing houses. Harvard men became editorial assistants right away. Everyone grumbled, but nothing changed. Newsmagazines hired women to be researchers and men to be writers. Newspapers routinely assigned female graduates of journalism schools to the women's pages.
As a product of a women's college, I thought that the classroom separation from men might have contributed to an acceptance of the inequities of the working world, so I asked a friend who had been at the top of her class at a coed university what her conditioning had been. She told me that she felt absolutely equal to men in the school setting, but never for a moment did she think this equality would carry over to a work situation. Once graduated, she knew she would be ranked several notches down from her male contemporaries, and when she began a job at a federal agency, her GS rating proved her correct. A college education had been a pleasant interlude; it counted for very little vocationally.
A common pattern in the 1950s was putting your husband through school. Many of these law and medical schools did not admit women. Often the wife, working as a teacher or secretary, was ahead of her husband in intellectual capacity, but it was understood he would be the professional.
When I tell my students these stories, they can't believe we put up with it, and tell me so quite graphically, for although they think of themselves as passive, to me they are assertive and much tougher than I was.
Recalling the low expectations of my generation, I am encouraged to hear my students talk about their plans for law school or business careers. Too many women I know are casualties of the 1950s who lost years and experienced high frustration levels that stemmed directly from their failure to appreciate their own potential and from their acceptance of the prevailing culture.
The answer for my students, then, is that no generation of females will ever replicate mine. They are beginning much farther along the road to equality. Perhaps they'll get where they want to go without the detours and disappointments of my peers.
Maybe they can relax a little. After all, if many of the battles have been won, aggressiveness is redundant. Why should they maintain the fighting stance of the 1960s? They can afford to be polite. They are not revolutionary. There's not much argument in the classroom.
It interests me that the activist students of the 1960s who are teaching now seem to be less at ease relating to the current crop of students than I. For their part, they're hoping for some fireworks, while the students find them too militant. A poll on our campus revealed the faculty to be far more liberal than the students, particularly on feminist issues.
The results did not surprise me. My reaction differs from that of my younger colleagues in that I have seen these young women before, 25 to 30 years ago. It's just rather odd to be running into them again.