Thursday, May 29, 2014

More Thoughts on Sexism and #yesallwomen? Splendid!

In light of the recent events in Isla Vista, California, the hashtag #yesallwomen has become a trending topic.  Most of people who use the hashtag are women, and they're sharing stories about the injustice they've faced as a female.  Some of the stories are heartbreaking 140-character tales of violence and sexual abuse.  Some are stories of discrimination and inequality.  All of them share the theme that being female in this country, and the world, comes with a special set of obstacles that we must overcome daily.  This is part of my story.

Back in March, I talked about the first time (and second, actually) that I remember experiencing sexism.  While both of those instances were important events in my childhood, they were not nearly as important as an incident that happened in high school.

All throughout high school I participated in Scholastic Bowl.  If you're unfamiliar with the concept, Scholastic Bowl is an official team activity governed by IHSA rules in Illinois.  Teams of up to 15 students, 5 at a time, compete against different schools to answer the most questions correctly in a match.  Matches consist of 10 toss-up questions in math, science, social studies, literature, fine arts, and miscellaneous (sports, technology, agriculture, consumer economics, etc.)  At the end of each round, a bonus question is presented that has multiple answer parts and is worth more points.  Basically it's high-anxiety bar trivia.  Because everything is high-anxiety when you're in high school.  If, for some reason, you're interested in reading official rules, you can check out the Handbook for ManagersLike with other IHSA activities, there are often JV and Varsity teams.  JV Teams typically receive slightly easier questions.  And while the varsity players were typically juniors and seniors, it wasn't unusual to have sophomores playing varsity - especially in my small school.

The misogyny started pretty much right away.  As a freshman, I mostly played on the JV team, but both JV and Varsity travelled together to all our matches, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with upperclassmen.  One senior boy in particular liked to tell "women jokes".  One of his favorites was to ask a girl why she was wearing a watch and respond to whatever answer she gave with, "But I don't know why you need to wear one.  There's a clock on the stove."  He was a real charmer.  As a freshman I laughed along because I wanted to fit in and not rock the boat.  But those kind of jokes got old really quickly, and it got harder for me to hold my tongue.  Luckily that particular gentleman graduated, and I didn't have to deal with him again.  Honestly, he should be happy he never had to deal with me again.  But that was the culture of our team, and it would only get worse the next year.

We had a new guidance counselor/coach my sophomore year as the chemistry teacher/former coach had retired after the previous school year.  I don't remember if the new coach and I consistently butted heads before this incident, but we certainly did following it.  It was near the end of our season, and we were heading to a tournament - probably the county tournament.  The coach was chronically disorganized and had made a mistake in what time the match was.  We ended up arriving at the host school super late and had to go straight into our first match, which immediately frustrated me and some of my teammates.   As we made our way to the room for our first match, our coach told us who the "starting lineup" would be.  He chose 5 boys.  All the girls on the team looked at each other, confused, because we knew that over the course of the season, many of us had higher percentages of correct answers than at least two of the guys who would be playing.  When we asked the coach if he would reconsider, he told us to "just let the boys handle it".  Utilizing the coach's male dream team, our team lost that match.  I was furious, as were other female members of my team.  As a naturally competitive person, it was excruciating to watch my team lose knowing that I could have contributed, and perhaps helped us win.

Furious at the blatantly sexist behavior and statement from my coach, I arrived at school the next day armed with my teen angst, a heaping dose of indignation, and song lyrics.  I printed the lyrics to No Doubt's song "Just a Girl" in a large font and papered the outside of my locker with them.  That morning I was called out of my second hour class to meet with the assistant principal (or Ass Prince as we so cleverly thought of him) in front of my locker.  When he asked me to explain my new locker decor, I recounted the previous day's events.  I was fired up, but I never raised my voice, nor did I use any foul language. The Ass Prince responded by calling me hysterical and telling me to remove the lyrics from my locker.  I refused based on the principle that other students were allowed to decorate their lockers based on athletic teams or other activities, and this was in relation to one of my extra-curricular activities.  Furthermore, those song lyrics are not obscene or in any way inappropriate.  It was then that my school administrator told me that he thought I had mental problems, and that maybe I should go talk to my guidance counselor.  You know, the person who condescended to me the evening before.  The one whose behavior was the reason I made this statement in the first place.  I politely told the assistant principal that I would not be seeking advice from that guidance counselor any time in the near future, and I excused myself to return to my world history class.  I don't know for sure that my conversation with the administration made any difference, but after that, at least one girl played in the season's remaining matches.  As for our coach, he was replaced the following year with a different guidance counselor who is a wonderful woman that nurtured us as a team rather than creating rifts between genders.  She also regularly told us how smart we all were, which certainly didn't hurt our self-esteem.

I consider myself lucky because my experiences with sexism and misogyny have been verbal or intellectual, unlike some of my friends who have experienced sexual assault and violence.  It is an incredibly sad thought to me, though, that I get to consider myself lucky because my experiences thus far haven't involved physical violation of my person.  Because of this I can confidently say that #yesallwomen experience sexism.  I can also say that as a feminist, I think it's time we do something about that.

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