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When Are We Going to Talk About Sexism?

Girls can be anything as long as we don't promote ourselves or outperform boys.
 
 
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While I applaud Sen. Barack Obama's speech about racism in America, I wonder if I will ever see someone tackle sexism publicly with the same seriousness. Please understand I do NOT minimize the human tragedy of racism by longing for a national dialogue about misogyny and gender-driven limits. I am well-aware that I am an educated and privileged white American woman and I am grateful for all of my advantages. (I'd be homicidal if I were a poor woman of color and had to deal with the triple whammy of classism, racism AND sexism.) As it is, as a privileged white woman I constantly have to temper my rage over the lethal "trifecta" of the "isms" by working to point out blatant examples of all of them, often packaged together.

The "isms" are also tricky because as South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko said, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." Believe me; I'm well aware that some of the worst sexists of all are women themselves. Tricky business indeed, when the "oppressed" are in league with the "oppressors." To rebut the abolitionists, there were slave owners who showcased the slaves who "witnessed" for the preservation of slavery.

How do I boil down a lifetime of experiencing sexism into one little column? I can't and I won't. I will attempt, however, to present a few morsels -- from relatively banal "disses" to actual life-threatening violence -- and trust that you, as a reader, can discern that the accumulation of chunks can make quite a stew of "You go, girl!" mixed in with the gravy of "You'd better not!" Many of us females of all colors have had to negotiate a crazy-making, dangerous mess of "Yes, we can't!"

As a little girl, I was much smarter than a lot of the kids -- girls and boys -- but was told in no uncertain terms to "dumb" down because the boys wouldn't like me. Similarly, I was athletic but was told to "throw" races to let boys win since, again, boys would feel badly. These were subtle to blatant warnings: No one will ever want to marry you!

I witnessed that one of the most humiliating things that could happen to a boy who was acting up was to be placed in the girls' line as a punishment. No one wanted to be a GIRL, even some of us girls didn't want to be GIRLS, because it was obviously so second class to be one. We didn't get resources for our interests; no one even thought of providing them, like for sports, math or science clubs. The sex segregation was rampant, including what we wore. We HAD to wear dresses, even at 40 below zero, with little girls literally getting frostbite on their legs because nothing says "feminine" like flesh damage from sub-zero weather! Although we had elementary school "elections" in November, girls were told to run only for secretary. While we did run for office, girls bragged that they didn't vote for themselves as some kind of badge of honor. Girls can be ANYTHING as long as we don't promote ourselves or beat boys at doing it! Yes, we can't!

Fast forward to junior high and high school. Even though it was a definite social faux pas to be smart, we smart gals learned to be smart under the radar for fear of alienating boys AND girls. Shunning is an ancient form of social control. My high school counselor told me to forget my law school dream because, after all, "You'll just fritter that education away once you get married and have kids." Implicit in that statement was that I would be taking up a seat that should go to a white male. I saw boys who were a lot less intelligent and talented than I encouraged to apply for the best universities. Not one person told me to apply for an Ivy League school, which barely had any females anyway. While there was no question in my family that I should go to college, it was understood to be an education that would make me a better mother and wife, not someone who's training to be a leader or God forbid, independent. Yes, we can't!

So I go to an OK college and am celebrating a certain amount of hard-won independence since it's the beginning of the third wave of the feminist movement. A fellow student rapes me and I don't have a clue how to defend myself. I'm blamed for it because, after all, that's what I get for being out on my own. Yes, we can't!

And now I see Hillary being told to step aside so Obama can take his rightful place as the Democratic candidate. Excuse me? She shouldn't stay in because ... ?

We can run for office, but we can't fight like hell or even win?

For all the years that so many of us have put up with "the problem with no name" sexism, please don't tell me "Yes, we can't!" one more time.

 
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