I worry that 20- and 30-somethings all believe that it was always like this. That all jobs were always open to women as well as men, that education was an equal opportunity for women, that women’s sports programs were always available in schools, that women could always choose whatever last name they wanted to go by after marriage – keeping their own, adopting their husband’s, or hyphenating. That they always had the choices we have now.
I’m here to remind them that we didn’t. Having lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s, I can recall the blatant, unquestioned sex discrimination, the limited choices, and the contempt for women who wanted more. “More” meaning to not have to deal with obstacles erected because of gender or custom.
I am grateful that my own transition into adulthood coincided with the rise of such brilliant and brave women as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and the numerous others who risked everything by not taking no for an answer. (Read Gloria’s DTBF story, “On Self Esteem.”)
Before I even heard their names, I and many other girls my age had already experienced the frustration of being shut out from opportunities that were readily available to the boys our age. I remember specifically applying for a summer internship with the government that would allow the successful candidate to spend time in each department, to include a week’s ride-along with the city police. Because I had planned to major in the political and social sciences and was an honor student, I knew the internship would be a perfect fit. At least something I could shoot for.
I was not even allowed to apply for the internship because, I was told, “you’re a girl.” Hard to believe now, but true. Ever the optimist, on the day the interviews were scheduled, I put on my best interview outfit and reported to the guidance counselor’s office, asking to be seen. Told no again “because I was a girl,” I asked him why that was the policy and why that precluded me, a perfect candidate for the position, from even having an interview. The guidance counselor then patiently and explained to me that the police ride-along was the issue.
Not comprehending, I asked the reason for that. He looked uncomfortable. It was because, he said, it would entail me, a 16-year-old girl, being alone in a squad car with a male police officer. What would his wife think? What if we were in a compromising position? OK, I was still lost. I had never even heard the phrase “compromising position” before. But I knew it must be something unsavory that was somehow my fault for being female.
Looking back, I realized that I and every other female student was refused that opportunity because either : a) all men are too unprofessional and bent on attacking 16-year-old girls at the first opportunity; or b) we were all tempting little tartlets just waiting to seduce an older man in uniform with a paunch and a three-pack-a-day habit. Nice. I wonder they didn’t make us wear burkhas.
Angry about this and other injustices I experienced against myself and other girls and women, I remember the wonderful epiphany of hearing women like Gloria and the resonance of the wonderful new word “Feminist.” Like the suffragists before them, these women were reviled and ridiculed, subject to the cruelest and most debasing insults and criticisms. Not to mention torture, imprisonment, and commitment to insane asylums. All resonant of Medieval or Calvinistic witch burnings. And still they kept on. They kept speaking. They kept writing. They kept leading.
In college, in the male-dominated major of law enforcement, I was constantly having to justify my presence to the majority male students, but I was now lucky to have the support of a more enlightened faculty. I felt buoyed by Gloria – I almost wanted to be her. I wore aviator-framed glasses just like hers with jeans, turtlenecks and boots (Gloria’s uniform), and reveled in the kinship I felt.
Things progressed for women as the ‘70s progressed, but the going was still tough . After marrying, I kept my own name (I refuse to use the ridiculous, laughably archaic term “maiden name.”) Thus began my battle with the IRS. It seemed that a couple could not file a joint return if they had different last names. I continued to refuse to use my husband’s last name on our return until after months, they finally I think just got sick of me and just gave up. After all, they couldn’t make me change my name, even though that at first seemed like kind of a revelation to them.
I’m proud to have been at the forefront of change. I am just sad that younger women today have no idea how we even got here, and are so willing to even give some of it back. They have no idea how much thanks are due women like Gloria Steinem and others who were willing to risk everything to bring the rest of us forward. I am grateful for their fearlessness and their fabulousness. I am grateful for their leadership and their strength.