I don’t think I paid much attention to gender disparity until high school, when the differences began to annoy me. Boys could wear trousers, but unless the temperature dipped below 20 F., girls had to wear dresses. In all seasons, our bare legs were fair game for the guys who sat in the hallways grading them as we walked by.
Boys were sports heroes; girls were cheerleaders. Girls who ended up pregnant were labeled sluts. The boys who got them that way were admired as studs. Girls with academic aspirations were steered toward teaching or nursing and away from professions that might interfere with their real purpose in life, marriage and motherhood.
On it went, like drops of water eroding stone. But it was more the personal erosions that pushed me to label myself a feminist in an era when women asking for equality were dismissed as bra-burning, family-destroying, man-hating harridans.
One of them occurred in my high school in Twin Falls, Idaho. I made an appointment to talk with the counselor about scholarship opportunities. It was toward the end of my junior year. At that point the only blot on my perfect academic record was a physical education class that pulled my average below 4.0. I was planning to be the first in my family to complete a university degree.
The counselor had a different view. He brushed off my request for assistance. “You’ll only get married and have kids,” he said, implying that any money spent on my education would clearly be wasted and that I was unworthy of a scholarship.
My being from one of the few single-parent families in the school may have influenced him. Maybe he figured anyone in my socio-economic status was a poor candidate for higher education. Maybe he was having a bad day or mixed up the records and thought he was talking to someone else.
I’ll never know. I only know I was deeply humiliated and struggled on my own to gather enough resources to finance my education. When I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and later completed a master’s degree, I mentally thumbed my nose at him.
A second incident ended any hesitation I might still have felt about identifying myself openly as a feminist. It was back in 1969, and I was a new wife, married to an Army lieutenant. He was stationed in El Paso, Texas, the last post before he was to be shipped off to Viet Nam.
One of my first stops in any new town was the public library. El Paso was no exception. I walked up to the counter and asked to apply for a library card.
“You’ll need your husband’s signature.”
“Your husband will need to sign your application for a library card.”
“That can’t be possible.”
“That’s the rule.”
“You mean, if I had come in here before my marriage I could have had a library card with only my own signature, but now I need my husband’s permission to have a library card?”
“Does he have to have my signature to apply for a library card?”
By now a lengthening line of people was witnessing my anger and humiliation. I walked out of the library and found a used book store. At least I could still buy books without my husband’s signature.
It’s been decades since those two incidents. They were neither the first nor the last to make me keenly aware that any kind of stereotyping erodes our souls.
On the plus side, all of the little erosions, taken together, have me more empathetic toward The Other. An African American roommate in college took me to her home in Washington, D.C., one summer and introduced me to the pain of racism. When I was a school librarian, I regularly dealt with parents who wanted to censor books and magazines. I never backed down and never lost a case, but I never stopped feeling compassionate toward their fears for their children. Gay and lesbian friends and family opened my eyes to the casual and painful homophobia they still endure. And on it goes.
The house of my life is still under construction. Growing up with a mother who cared deeply about victims of injustices and who had a heart big enough to hold all sorts of diversity laid the foundation. Experience added building blocks.
Having to acknowledge my share of culturally inherited stereotypes kicks out a bearing wall now and then. But I’ll keep building and keep trying to make my personal house solid enough to be a beacon. And I’ll always identify myself as a feminist.