Feminism, Cyndi Lauper and College Students Today
As a teaching assistant for a New York social history course, I’ve been assigned to teach Kathy Peiss’ Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York. Employing the tried-tested-and true method of trying to captivate your readers with a catchy pop culture quote, Peiss began her conclusion with the words: “When the working day is done, oh! girls just want to have fun.” Peiss had spent the previous chapter describing the ways in which working class womenin the years 1880-1920, fought gender and economic restrictions and asserted their autonomy and sexuality through mixed-sex leisure activities. Their efforts profoundly influenced the ways their wealthier peers would socialize in subsequent years and decades, demonstrating the agency and importance of working class women. To cap off her tour de force, Peiss then invoked the song lyric again in the book’s final sentence on page 188:
That working women “just want to have fun” may thus be taken as a trivial claim, easily achieved in the world of leisure, or as a profoundly liberating–and unfulfilled–feminist demand.
Temple University Press published Cheap Amusements in 1986, and I was pleased that my students, none of whom were born by then, recognized the Cyndi Lauper song is came from. I was a little less pleased, or perhaps simply surprised, to their reaction when I presented Peiss’ conclusion as a question: was the pursuit of fun trivial or feminist?
In one of my two sections, my students balked at the question. They didn’t know how to respond. So I asked them: what is feminism? Is anyone here a feminist?
Nobody jumped at the label. The men stayed silent. The women responded with “hmmm,” and confused looks on their faces. One of them, a good student and active participant in the class, said she didn’t like the term as it was defined today. She said that she embraced the idea of equality, but that women should not have to give up their femininity, which is what she felt that feminists today demanded of women.
I tried to explain different strands of feminism to them, outlining the differences between sex and gender, and how some feminists called for equality and sameness, and some called for equality and difference, and sometimes those forces came into conflict, and sometimes they work together, but ultimately the conflicts between feminism were a strength, rather than a weakness of the movement. (I got this understanding from Denise Riley’s excellent Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of Women in History, New York: MacMillan, 1988).
Still, I was surprised at how hesitant they were to embrace the label feminist. Indeed, in my first section, the students commented on how similar their present day socializing was to the dances Peiss described in Cheap Amusements. They related to the single women who, some 100 odd years earlier, went to dance halls to meet young men. They laughed at Peiss’ assessment that while single women alone could be mistaken for prostitutes, “hunting in pairs permitted women to retain their respectability in the aggressive pursuit of pleasure” (114), or at the woman who declared ‘”fun loses its savor unless it includes boys'” (181). They understood that their increased class status and disposable income granted them a degree of freedom that their predecessors lacked, and that now they liked a new form of sisterhood, to go out as women, around men, but not necessarily explicitly to meet men. THey understood the newness of what the women in 1880-1920 did, and how they paved the way for modern leisure, even if their actions were not expressly political.
Obviously this analysis is purely anecdotal. Here is my concluding thought: I guess they rejected what they called “radical feminism,” even though the changes that their predecessors wrought were pretty radical, and they still benefit from them today. As a TA, it’s not my role to make them feminists, or to encourage any particular political position. Still, I found the experience puzzling and a bit disheartening. It sounds like they “just want to have fun” without the feminism part.