Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fighting Sexism? Splendid!

At the beginning of the month, the American History Teachers' Collaborative held a focus workshop on the history of feminism in America.  It was an amazing day, and we had phenomenal speakers.  Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner gave a joint keynote address in the morning followed by historian Barbara Berg giving an afternoon keynote address.

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I had the honor of going to dinner with Amy, Jennifer, and some teachers from the AHTC the night before the workshop, and they were just such lovely women.  Their presentation the next day was wonderful and inspiring.  They met while working for Gloria Steinem at Ms. Magazine.  At the end of the day, Amy hugged me.  This person who is amazing and important (and has undoubtedly hugged Gloria Steinem) hugged me!  That basically means I've practically hugged Gloria Steinem.

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Barbara Berg's keynote posed a couple of really interesting questions that got me thinking about my own life in terms of sexism and feminism.  I have lived a relatively privileged life, but I've encountered sexism since I was a small child.

The first question that got me thinking was "When was the first time you encountered sexism or gender inequality?"

The first time I remember being on the receiving end of sexism was when I was probably 6 years old.  My parents signed me up for instructional league baseball.  In my hometown, there was no softball option for girls that young at the time, so those of us interested in playing either sport had to play baseball.  There were probably 6 or 8 teams in my league.  The league didn't have tryouts, but the coaches all got together to draft their teams.  They tried to split the girls evenly among all the teams, but my team was "stuck" with two girls.

One of the main differences between instructional league and regular little league is that the parent coaches pitch to the batters.  Otherwise, everyone would get walked, and games would take for-ev-er.  As I stepped into the batter's box at my first game, my parents immediately noticed something different about how the coaches behaved.  With my helmet on my head and my hands choked up probably too far on my 14oz aluminum bat, I waited for my first pitch.  My coach took the baseball in his hand, rocked back and lobbed me an underhand pitch.  After I made contact with the ball and ran to first base, one of my male teammates took his place at the plate.  This time the coach sent an overhand pitch toward the batter.  In fact, as we cycled through the next few batters in the lineup, they all hit overhand pitches.  Then Karla, the other girl on my team came to the plate.  Once again the coach lobbed an underhand pitch toward the plate.  It was obvious at that point that she and I were being treated differently from the rest of the team.

After the game, my parents approached the coaches to discuss what they had just witnessed.  The coaches tried to justify their behavior by saying that as girls we would eventually be playing softball and should get used to underhand pitching.  While it's true that both Karla and I would go on to play softball in summer leagues and high school, that wasn't the point.  We were being treated differently based solely on our sex.  At 6 years old, there's not much of a difference in the strength, speed, or agility between the sexes.  Hell, with our hair in ponytails and hidden under ball caps, you couldn't even tell that there were girls on the field!  There was no need to treat the girls on the team any differently than the boys on the team.  My parents assured the coaches that I was prepared to play the same game in the same way as my male teammates.  After that my coaches pitched overhand to both of us for the remainder of the season.

Would I have been any less of a ballplayer if the coaches had continued to pitch underhand to me?  Probably not.  At 6 years old, in a league where everyone bats every inning, and no one is ever considered "out", it's not like I was destined to become the next great baseball player.  The situation did illustrate that even at age 6, boys and girls are treated differently in athletics.

I'm grateful my parents saw the inequality and put an immediate stop to it.  I was never raised to believe I couldn't do anything based solely on my sex, and I think this incident illustrated that for me.  It made a mark on me at a very early age that my sex was not an excuse for anything.

Of course now that I've written about this event from when I was 6, I'm remembering that the real first time I remember encountering sexism was when I was 3 years old and in preschool.  While playing outside on a particularly hot day, I remember the boys in my preschool class were allowed to take off their shirts.  Since I was also hot and sweaty, I tried to take my shirt off as well.  I was admonished by the teachers and told that it was only okay if the boys took off their shirts and not the girls.

Now, I developed early, but I can promise that I certainly did not have boobs at age 3.  Had I taken my shirt off, there would have been no difference between my body and that of my male classmates.  The teacher really should have adopted an all-or-nothing approach to the subject.  Either everyone gets to remove their shirts or no one does.

So I guess that's really where it started for me.  The more I think about it, the more stories from my own history I remember.  I've got a great one from high school that involves Scholastic Bowl, the Assistant Principal, and No Doubt.  Stay tuned for that.

What about you?  Do you remember the first time you encountered sexism?

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