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How I Learned to Fear and Admire Young Women

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett AC ’01

Anyone who believes that large groups of young adult females are cleaner, quieter and more civilized than, say, large groups of young adult males has never spent any extended time at a women’s college.

You can trust me on this. I am a veteran. After years of wondering what it would be like to live in a world by, for and about women, I found myself in just such a place.

Here’s how it happened: A decade ago when I turned 40, I quit my job in The Seattle Times newsroom, sold the good silverware and decamped to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., to finish a college degree I’d abandoned in the 1970s.

I wasn’t quite so naïve that I expected twin sweater sets and pearls at a women’s college at the end of the 20th century, but I wasn’t prepared for alien abduction either—which is essentially what transpired when I elected to live in a Smith house my first year.

“Life on this planet is very strange,” I wrote a friend after my first week living with housemates younger than my favorite sweater. “The aliens who swooped down and took me are all female, all painfully young. They wear hideous clothes from the ’70s. They pierce everything they can. They are smart and wild and loud and intense. I spend a lot of time asking young women who got perfect SAT scores to stop popping their gum in class.”

By the end of that week it was clear to me that such intelligent young women, left to themselves without guys in the picture and fed a steady diet of starch and caffeine, are a force to be reckoned with. Picture a pack of highly literate, sleep-deprived she-wolves smoking cigarettes, arguing passionately about everything while absentmindedly twisting their nose rings.

I spent my first two nights lying awake in a twin bed in a 7-by-9 room, listening to the throbbing bass of a stereo and shrieking laughter from half a dozen young women next door. Finally I snapped, went next door and pounded on the door, yelling for quiet.

When 17-year-old Mary Katherine flung open the door, enveloping me in a cloud of patchouli incense, I shocked myself by bursting into tears, brought on by exhaustion and prolonged exposure to rap music.

She pulled me inside, “It’s OK,” she said briskly. “My mom totally has nut-outs like this all the time.” The circle of other women nodded their agreement, urging pizza, Doritos and M&Ms on me, calling comforting words over the still-booming stereo.

They resumed their conversation: a debate over the ethics of lying. Is it ever acceptable? What if the truth will hurt more than help? What amends can be made for lying in the past? Is lying on behalf of a cause that will benefit countless people really a lie?

They were articulate, they were fearless, they were unpredictable. They cited sources ranging from Kant to Catholicism, Simone de Beauvoir to Spike Lee.

Sitting there that night, it dawned on me: This is who will be running the country when I am an old woman. I knew, right then, that we’d all be better off when these brave-new-world citizens were in charge.

Which is why I was able to keep from slapping one of them at lunch the next day as she served herself three-bean salad from the buffet with her bare hands, while ranting about global warming with her mouth full.

Since (finally) graduating in 2001, I’ve more often found myself in the company of younger women, in part because of demographic reality (even some of my bosses are now younger than me) and in part because I came to value the energy and originality of these women young enough to be my daughters.

OK, so I still have no clue why my 20-something friends watch and listen to the TV shows and music they do, but much of what they express continues to resonate and provoke in the best senses of those words. Some examples:

Feminism is a given. It’s popular to decry the collapse of the women’s movement, but this generation of women that refuses to feel grateful for equal treatment proves otherwise. They are informed, Internet-savvy consumers who speedily shop for bargains, compare news accounts of world events and independently research health and medical issues as a matter of course. They are comfortable with androgyny and with more fluid (to my mind, realistic) definitions of sexual orientation.

Finally, the 20-something women I’m acquainted with more often understand that the “self” in “self-image” is their property. One of my young Smith friends writes that she is fascinated by the countless self-help articles in women’s magazines that offer tips for dressing and behaving for success.

“Adopting someone else’s idea of the Perfect Woman is about as appealing as wearing their underwear,” she wrote. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

See? The future looks brighter already, doesn’t it?

Ada Comstock Scholar Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett '01 is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, who laments the fact that her neighbors “play music like they are Smith students.” She is writing a biography, to be published by The University of North Carolina Press, on the late Harry Golden, civil rights activist and bestselling author in the 1950s and ’60s. The book evolved from her Smith honors thesis. Daniel Horowitz, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of American Studies, was her adviser. A version of this article recently appeared in The Seattle Times.

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