Thursday, November 1, 2012

When we had to wear dresses to school

I was writing about cooking for a while and enjoying it, but getting the images into the pages was a pain so I tapered off doing it.

With what has been going on the past few months for the election I've been reminded of all the experiences I've had in my life related to mistreatment based on my gender and thought I'd write about them just so my kids, and others, can see what it was really like.  Why what we've achieved so far is so important and why we shouldn't go backwards.  These recent pronouncements on rape, birth control, and equal pay coming from men, and this general disparagement of 'feminists' feels like an attempt to put women back in their place to me.  Having been there, I'd prefer not to go back.

So first, a small story about grade school back in the late 60s.

When I was in public grade school in the late 60s in Ohio, girls were required to wear dresses to school.  You can see me in all the old class photos, and all the other girls, in their dresses.  And I'd say most of the time I didn't really think about this requirement.  When you grow up in something, you don't really see it as odd, it's just the way things are.

I'm in the front row, second from the right
But it was in winter that this requirement hit home.  Even in the middle of winter, we had to wear dresses, but we were allowed to wear pants under our dresses for the walk to school.

But once we got to school we had to take the pants off.  Now here's where things get interesting.  And this is what I remember, perhaps different teachers handled it differently, but this was my experience.  We weren't allowed to use a locker room or the bathroom to remove our pants.  We had to stand behind a movable chalk board at the front of the class and take our pants off there.  So as kids were getting seated, the girls had to go behind a chalkboard and remove our pants for school before we sat down.

I remember how this felt.  I was 'other' and shown to be 'other' in front of the entire class.  It made me feel excluded, set aside, humiliated to have to do what I did.  That the boys could see that I had to do this.  That I had to do something they didn't.  I can still picture it as clear as a video, and it's one of my clearest memories of grade school to this day.

People like to dismiss small things like this, it's easy to read it and think "What's the big deal?" but for a little girl still working out her place in the world it conveys much more than adults think it does.  What people don't realize is these gender roles are culturally reinforced from birth - EVEN TODAY.  You just don't see it because you are in the middle of it, because it's what's always been done.

My favorite example of this type of thinking is my 3 sons.  I cannot tell you how many times when I tell someone new that I have 3 sons, there is an immediate reaction "You must have to deal with fights all the time!"  Guess what?  I don't.  Because I decided what was going to be acceptable behavior in our household and I made sure it stuck.  Hitting, physical fighting was not accepted as normal behavior.  We didn't spank because our rule was people should not hit each other.  

Now I have a 13, 15, and 17 year old, and guess what? I can remember one minor hit from probably more than 10 years ago.  The boys have learned to work out their differences without resorting to hitting, and we specifically guided them in that direction.  The idea that 'boys will be boys' is a culturally accepted piece of bull crap just as much as girls being assumed to have certain behavioral tendencies.  Whatever tendencies are there to start with (and this can be debated), it is the culture that sculpts, reinforces, and suppresses what doesn't fit with the culturally accepted norms.  

What is critical is to be willing to challenge your assumptions about gender, but the first step is to try to realize what assumptions you have in the first place.
I'm in the front row, far right

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