March 8, 2007
Blog Against Sexism Day!
Amanda Marcotte asked a couple of discussion-inspiring questions in recognition of Blog Against Sexism Day, and I thought I’d try my hand at answering the first (my answer is long-winded, so I figured I’d just stick with one question).
When did you become a feminist? Either when you embraced the word or when you realized that sexism is still a problem and that feminism is still necessary?
My parents raised me to believe that men and women should be treated equally. I was a quiet, bookish child, and to a certain extent I think that helped me from trying to conform to traditional gender roles–I wouldn’t have fit in anyway. I wasn’t a girly girl or a tomboy–I was just me. I had My Little Ponies, but I also loved to climb trees. However, as I started to get older–later grade school, junior high, high school–gender roles became more apparent to me, because I became aware that people didn’t expect me to be good at math or science because I was a girl.
A pertinent example comes from my freshman-year Geometry class. The sequence of college-prep math courses in my school district was Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II/Trig, Math Analysis (combined advanced trig, pre-calc, and a few other things), and–if there was time–Calculus. Particularly brainy kids would start the sequence in 8th grade (I even knew a few real smarties who started in on Algebra in 7th grade, but that was much more rare). So, saying “my freshman-year Geometry class” is a bit misleading, as there were sophomores and juniors in the class as well. (My high school didn’t have seniors my freshman year, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, our textbook had brain teasers in it, and one of the teasers early in the book was based on the classic story of a boy and his father involved in a car accident. The father is killed, but the boy is merely injured, and is rushed to the hospital. When he’s wheeled into the operating room, the doctor takes one look, then says, “I can’t operate on this boy–he’s my son.” This story illustrates the sexism still inherent in our society: people will do all sorts of mental gymnastics, from guessing the doctor is the boy’s stepfather to ideas much more convoluted, often without realizing the simplest–and correct–solution: the doctor is the boy’s mother. In this version the woman was a scientist with an antidote to a poison or something to that effect, but the idea was the same. The teacher asked those of us who’d heard the story before and/or knew the solution for sure (a group in which I was included) to stay quiet while the rest of the class puzzled it out aloud.
When the solution was revealed, one of my classmates, an 11th grade boy, scoffed. “Women can’t be scientists,” he said. “They’re, like, scientettes or something.” I don’t think I was the only one chagrined by his statement, but no one challenged him. I can’t say that that was the moment in which I became a feminist, but I know I accepted the word as an accurate descriptor of my own ideals sometime in that general period.
My freshman year was when I began to refuse to let people tell me what I could or couldn’t do based on my gender and/or appearance. I’d fully embraced my band geek status at that point; I’d been playing the flute since 5th grade, and picked up the trumpet in 8th. Our band had no tuba player, and I got it into my head that I was going to learn to play the tuba. I mentioned the idea to the band director, who looked me up and down and said, “No way.” I refused to accept that answer, and that refusal shaped my life and identity from that point on in a number of ways. Most pertinent to this topic, though, is that from then on, I refused to let anyone convince me that my gender or appearance made me inherently less able to tackle particular (non-biological) tasks.