The wife was working in the college textbook division of a major publishing house. As an incredibly smart woman armed only with liberal arts degrees, the business did what it did with most women back then. She was a secretary. Oh, they may have called her an administrative assistant, but she was a secretary.

She sought more and after a while said that she wanted a starting editorial position. She was told that she could not have that. “Why not?” The reply was that beginning editors were promoted out of the ranks of travelers. Travelers were akin to salesmen who went to college bookstores to assess not only what was selling but what books might be needed in the future. Thus, the traveler could gain the knowledge valuable to an editor as to what manuscripts should be acquired and what books developed.

Fine, the wife said. “I’d like to be a traveler.” “You can’t be,” came the reply. “Why not?” “We could never, as we do with travelers, send a young woman on the road all alone.” In case you needed any more reasons to understand why Ctach-22 had become such a big book.

The persistent wife, taken aback, then pointed out that her boss was an editor, and he had never been a traveler. “John,” the reply came, “has a master’s in English from Harvard.” “But,” came the wife’s surrebuttal, “I have a master’s in English from the University of Chicago,” then on the forefront of literary criticism. To which no reply came. And no editorial job. In case you needed any more reasons for why there was a feminist movement.

This situation would flash through my mind decades later when a young woman in one of my classes would start a comment, “I am not a feminist, but . . .” Often I would interrupt. I might simply point that she was training to be an advocate, and it was seldom good advocacy to start your position with a negative. And seldom did it matter for the woman’s point whether or not she was a feminist.

Sometimes, however, I might go further and ask her if she thought women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job, or whether women should have the same chance at getting a job as a man. The answer was always yes. Sometimes I might go on and ask whether good childcare should be more readily available, but then I generally just saw complete confusion because few of these women yet understood the difficulties of combining a career with motherhood. Finally, I might ask what it meant to be a feminist, and I seldom got a coherent answer.  It was more on the lines of, “Oh come on, you know.” This kind of discussion was a digression to the subject matter of the class, and I would move on. But it was clear that on some level important to these young, educated women, they wanted to separate themselves from the group of people called “feminists.”

I once thought I had a reasonable understanding of what “feminism” meant, but now I am baffled.  What does it mean to the young woman who identifies as a feminist? To the young woman who is not a feminist? To the young men of today?

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