Toad in the Hole

November 17, 2005

Why I'm a Feminist

Reading some stuff in Twistyís blog roiled up some memories of clarifying moments Ė what Ms magazine used to call the "Click!" Ė and of stuff I came embarrassingly late to realizing. Here, pretty much at random temporally but in categories and spread over a few daysí posts, is a list.

Iím so old that:

I didnít attend the university of my first choice because I wanted to keep the option of changing my major from German (language) to English literature, and while Iíd been accepted into the school of foreign service Ė where the languages and linguistics division was -- with a decent scholarship, the liberal arts school with the English lit. department was still segregated and wouldnít admit me.

When Iíd graduated from college with my officially useless English lit. degree (I guess Iím using it now, though, as a writer) and applied for assorted entry-level crap jobs in Harrisburg to earn my keep, I had to fill out at least one job application that demanded the date of my last menstrual period.

At the time, jobs were listed in the classified ads under "Men" and "Women," just by the way.

I was incredibly relieved when I first heard of ("second-wave") feminism because it was somehow easier to be called a "crazy man-hating feminist" than just "crazy" Ė which until then Iíd half suspected myself. The point was that I wasnít the only one.

I had no words for what I was trying to tell a guy I dated in highschool Ė come to think of it, maybe the only guy I dated in highschool Ė that I wasnít somehow insulting him when he said, "I want you to be my girl," and I answered, "Letís just keep going out and not calling each other things like that, OK?" To his credit, now that I think of it, he accepted that, if with some wounded puzzlement, and didnít stomp off in a huff. Iím not sure he ever got why I wasnít quite so honored as I was supposed to be, though. It wasnít as if I wanted to play the field, and Iím pretty sure he realized that. It was just that the possessive pronoun gave me the heebiejeebies.

When my mother went to our parish priest, a youngish, very liberal (even radical in some ways) friend of the family, and asked him to help her out with my fatherís abuse of her and us when he was drunk, he told her she had to stay with him "to save his soul." As far as I can determine, thatís all he told her.

Leslie Gore was my second hint that there might be kindred spirits out there: "You Donít Own Me." (The first, rather different, was the Mad Magazine piece "The Night People vs. Creeping Meatballism" that I read when I was seven, and I remember the feel that tantalizing experience vividly.)

A good part of my senior-year highschool theology course was devoted to two kinds of rhetoric training: how to argue with non-Catholics and how to argue with boys who wanted sex. ("Sex" is here construed to include what was then called "petting" Ė which, by the way, was also a mortal sin, whether you did it or had it done to you.) Never once was it admitted into the discourse that we girls might also get turned on and/or want to have sex. What we wanted didnít matter so much, because a/ we were presumed not to want it as strongly and b/ we were the gatekeepers and mysteriously responsible for whatever happened. And because it didnít matter so much what we wanted in any context, really. We had Duty.

I was part of an almost inadvertent revolution on my college campus: We started wearing pants to class and to the dining hall. And into town, heavens! This started in the winter, when it got to about ten below zero Fahrenheit, and the wind blew mightily. No, in fact, there werenít any ankle-length skirts on the market to wear long woollies under Ė ironically enough, those started with the hippies.

(The place was so isolated that I had to be both the hippies and the politicos, with very little company in either. And I thank whatever gods there be for the company I did have in both.)

More later.

Posted at November 17, 2005 05:50 AM


I'm so old that when I was in college, the following rules applied: men and women lived in separate dorms. Men could come and go freely; women had "hours" -- you had to be in by a certain time, and this was enforced by "fire drills" that were just thinly disguised bed checks. (Apparently no one cared if the men burned up.) If a woman wished to leave campus overnight, she had to have a certified letter from her parent our guardian giving permission. But the men's punishment for getting caught in the women's dorm in flagrante was kind of worse -- they were subject to expulsion, which meant losing their student deferment, which meant a free, all-expenses paid trip to scenic Vietnam.

Posted by: Maggie at November 17, 2005 01:44 PM

I'm not as old as some of these events, but if I'd been 4 years older I wouldn't have been able to go to the college of my choice (though I could have gone to the women's college of the same university -- still, not the same thing).

And in the 1990s -- yes, the 1990s -- the women in the NYC law firm where I worked (myself included) had to mount a campaign to be able to wear pants to work. Mainly we had to convince the male partners that we'd still look "professional."

My English college, during my year abroad, was a women's college, and while it didn't have a curfew like most of the colleges did (it was an Oxbridge thing) making it actually kind of hip that way, male visitors leaving between 10pm and 8am had to be escorted by a member of the college or else face arrest for trespassing. This was supposedly for our safety. I guess the women in the coed colleges didn't need protection from trespassers -- ?! (Of course, the solution was to sleep in until after 8am!)

And oh, "Duty." That's why my mom stayed with my dad.

(Came over here from Chris's. Never commented before. Hi!)

Posted by: Dr. Virago at November 17, 2005 02:25 PM

i'm so old that my college wouldn't allow women to live off-campus (not in a dorm or sorority) until they were 23!

hooray for "The Night People vs. Creeping Meatballism," an important part of my emerging consciousness too.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at November 17, 2005 05:54 PM

i'm so old ... even though i scored in the 99th percentile in the math aptitude tests in 8th grade, no guidance counselor suggested i continue taking math classes in high school. so i didn't really *get* that i was good at math until i went back to college at 40.

when i was in high school, it was possible to have straight-faced discussions about one's Reputation.

compulsory skirts, yes. the next class after mine got to wear pants during those snowy winters. and it was a scandal that i walked around bare-legged under my skirts. (a primarily economic decision: no pair of hose lasted 15 minutes without a run for me. perhaps it was a message from the goddess.)

also, the first college i dropped out of had a graduation requirement that women pass a swimming test. and i guess they didn't care if the men drowned. maybe it's a darwinian thing.

and of course: abortion wasn't legal, and oral contraceptives not widely available. there's the deal about Reputation right there.

Posted by: jean at November 17, 2005 06:22 PM

my young HS teacher, who convinced me to apply to the liberal arts college i attended -- told me about ptotesting curfews, the first co-ed dorms, etc.

i'm still old enough, at 48, to remember:

seeing a poster in the office of my elementary school, showing different minimum wages for men and women.

my parents did not permit me to apply to UC berkeley, for fear i'd become a hippie.

telling off a classmate in a freshman discussion group, after he declared that women were biologically destined to raise the children, and therefore women shouldn't think of careers. [he disappeared for several days, and emerged with vague apologies.]

hearing from a co-worker at a college campus job that i should become a legal secretary, because i was "pretty smart."

when i started law school, i had never met a female lawyer -- although my family knew many lawyers. the fabulous adjunct who taught advocacy through a semester of increasing pregnancy is still a hero, to me.

joining the bar of another state in 1984, the chief justice of that state had special comments for "you ladies" -- he advised that we not wear "those dangly earrings" in court. or pants. you can't get legal mentoring like that just anywhere.

Posted by: kathy a at November 17, 2005 06:38 PM

Welcome to newcomers, and isn't this fun, in a perverse way? I kind of get that sitting-around-the-potbellied-stove thing... that's how old I am.

Who here is old enough to have heard the phrase "wifely duty" used in seriousness? Anyone?

Posted by: Ron at November 18, 2005 12:44 AM

I remember, in Junior High School, which for me would have been 1971 to 1974, the girls took Home Ec and the boys took Shop. You weren't allowed to cross over.

I asked one of our Home Ec teachers about it. I was told that, if all the girls wanted to take Shop, then there wouldn't be enough spaces for all the boys. Yes, clearly *that* would be a tragedy!

There was one girl who did get to take Shop. I never did figure out how she managed. I suppose her parents fought for it.

I'm still a little afraid of power tools.

On the plus side, I'm not afraid of sewing machines, like a lot of men are. I don't mean "won't sew because it's girly," I mean literally afraid of the sewing machine. More than one guy has told me he thinks he'd immediately sew his fingers together. You could do it, my mother punctured her thumb with a sewing machine needle once.

So the policy didn't just handicap women.

Posted by: JoAnne at November 20, 2005 03:28 AM

JoAnne -- that's practically Freudian. Whew.

And yeah, think of all the guys who can't cook for themselves. Not only is that expensive, but.... Well, think of it: A man who can cook is the sexiest man there is.

Posted by: Ron at November 20, 2005 06:37 AM

Ron - the sexiest guy is the guy who can clean!

Posted by: Buffalo Gal at November 20, 2005 11:24 AM

OH yes, BG -- and one who cooks and does the dishes is quite a find, if I may be a little smug about it.

Posted by: Ron at November 21, 2005 02:15 AM

I'm a newbie to this blog, and little late to the conversation, but I have a few memories to share.

When I was in Junior High (1984-1986), my school required boys and girls take both Home Ec and Shop. This was radical. However, in the shop classes girls were handed a block of wood and some sandpaper and told not to touch the machinery the boys were instructed how to use, and in the Home Ec class the boys were allowed to peel potatoes/wash food/ fetch heavy things/STAPLE their sewing projects together, but not permitted anywhere near a stove or sewing machine.

During High School, all the juniors had to take a career aptitude test. The test asked gender, and gave gender-specific advice. I was advised to seek a career as a receptionist, because I could recognize spelling errors so well. The young man in my class whose SAT Verbal score was the same as mine was advised to go into law.

In my second, very recent, attempt at earning a BA (double major in German and English Literature, btw), I had a professor who bemoaned the fact that he wasn't permitted to date students in the US and had to travel to Europe in the summers to find young girls to "date." (He is far from young, bald, paunchy, and unpleasant to be around, just for context.) He also openly stated -- in class, no joke -- that women had no business in the academy, and were there only because affirmative action demanded the university hire women, even though they clearly weren't qualified. I have many more revolting anecdotes about this bugger, and his friends, but I'll leave it at that.

I am happy to report that I haven't yet encountered any blatant idiocy in grad school.

Posted by: Heo Cwaeth at November 27, 2005 07:44 AM