Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What is an adult?


For class this week, my students read Bonnie Morris's "When I Was a Teenage E.R.A. Activist." Morris's article talks about her experiences as an 18-year-old activist-intern, going door to door in a wealthy middle-class suburb in the South, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. The article is chock-full of thought-provoking narrative, including whether or not women's rights have been fully realized, how those campaigning adopted the very strategies of dominance they were rallying against, and how education seems to play little part in curing people of ignorance. The one question, however, that stirred up conversation in my classroom had little do with Feminism and much more to do with liminality.

Despite Morris's overt Feminist critique, her definition of womanhood was the one thing that caused blatant disagreement among my students. Morris writes, "At eighteen years old, I was old enough to vote, have sex, and get married-- three very significant and historically complex embodiments of American womanhood...." (169). In general, my students felt that this was not a sufficient definition of adulthood. Though it is clear that Morris was trying to do Feminist work here and was less concerned with the notion of adulthood than with the notion of womanhood, I thought it was interesting that my students were struggling with her definition in those terms.

As a result, I pushed them to think about how they defined "adult," and why Morris's definition of an adult woman was inaccurate. They listed off the usual: age, maturity, wisdom, independence, bills, responsibility, a consciousness for the ways actions affect others. One student pointed out that Morris's definition wasn't really a definition, but a list of rights.

Still, their definitions were somewhat run of the mill. What I found most interesting is that, when I asked my class, "Do you consider yourself an adult?" There was a generally confused silence. No one really said no, and no one really said yes. At best, I heard some incoherent mumbles. Stuck in the liminal space of being a college freshman and being either at the very beginning of adulthood at 18 or the very end of childhood at 17, most of my students didn't seem to embody either anymore.

image from
As a graduate student, I couldn't help but empathize with their confusion (and perhaps this is where Morris is most correct in her assertions). Though I am well beyond 18 years of age, I struggle to define myself as an adult. Saying, "I am a woman," is a difficult thing for me. I still call myself "girl." Woman evokes an image of power and of inspiring females to whom I am not prepared to claim myself equal in rank, though I can't help but wonder why this is so.

I would say it's a Feminist issue, but I think men have it just as rough. Though they consciously avoid being defined in the feminized state of childhood by identifying themselves as "boys," they often get stuck in "guy," rarely accepting "man." Unless, of course, it is to jokingly declare, "I'm the man!"

What is it about our culture that makes adulthood so hard to define and so hard to identify with? 

1 comment:

Tara said...

This reminded me of an article I read months and months ago when it made the rounds on Facebook. It spoke at great length about this extended liminality between childhood and adulthood.

I feel the same way about calling myself a "woman" -- it's weird. I hate being called "ma'am" and that is happening more and more often. I don't feel grown up, but when I go over the bullet list of what I have done and am doing with my life, it sure sounds like I am.