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I feel a thrill when I see women marching together to declare their unity and strength. Women and strength—in the same sentence. I don’t know if I can adequately explain what it means to be treated as a secondary human being, to have special rules because we’re…well…weaker.
I wasn’t there when women were denied driver’s licenses or even the right to vote. How unfair to women such as the ones who singlehandedly carved homesteads out of the wilderness for themselves and their children after their husbands (if they ever had husbands) died or left. I do remember being required to wear dresses to elementary school in the bitterest cold. (We girls wore leggings under our skirts—leggings we had to remove before we took our seats.) In fact, my freshman year at a small private college, women were required to wear dresses to Sunday dinner in the cafeteria or we had to go without eating. My roommate and I kept bread and peanut butter on our windowsill.
As I watch female Olympic athletes fly through the air on skis or snowboards, I recall playing basketball in high school. I was the captain of our sorriest intramural team. Wearing balloon-like gym shorts (in military institution green), girls could play either forward or guard—each relegated to half the gym because running up and down the entire gym floor would be too taxing. (In THE GOOD EARTH, women were taking minor breaks from fieldwork to drop their babies, and we couldn’t run the length of the gym floor.) But being coddled wasn’t the worst of the problem.
Later, in a more sophisticated high school, my social studies teacher chose a girl each day whose job it was to sit on a high stool in the front of the class. When I was the one chosen, my skirt never felt long enough. I was the new girl and I was humiliated.
In university, another girl and I were asked if we would teach undergraduate courses—with no remuneration, of course. It was an honor to be singled out of our teaching methods class to plan lessons, create and run off reliable tests and flawless handouts, grade papers, and conduct interesting classes—while we were still studying. But we were never to reveal that we weren’t, in fact, graduate teaching assistants. We donned our dresses and did the job—well, if our students were to be believed—and my professor gave me a “B” in teaching methods class. I suppose he wanted to make sure I didn’t think I was anything special. Later, in graduate school, I taught with a graduate student whose handouts were replete with misspellings and grammatical errors. He came to class unprepared, late, and looking unprofessional. But he surpassed me, not in grades but achievement.
I understand some women prefer being sheltered and coddled and are willing to ignore belittling comments, lesser pay, and the crush of low expectations coupled with more work to preserve that culture. They join the chorus blaming the victims of sexual assault because “they must have asked for it.” Those women have a right to their opinions—as long as they don’t force them on the rest of us who want to know what life would be like without ceilings, what social interaction would be like if we didn’t have to stay on the defensive. I can’t help wondering if my life would have been different if I hadn’t been so well-trained to “act like a lady”—which did NOT mean adhering to well-mannered ethics, as it did with gentlemen. My mother explained that it meant to speak softly, dress modestly, and don’t be bold.
Time is Up. Now it’s time to be bold.