Alternative title: How I became a feminist before I knew that was a thing.
I grew up like a lot of other little girls that were raised in the 80s. I had an American Girl doll (Samantha), I played with LEGO sets, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books, and watched the Jetsons on Saturday mornings. I took ballet and tap dance classes and piano lessons.
In third grade I started playing soccer. I had to choose between soccer and continuing dance classes and the decision was really easy for me. I loved soccer. It was something I had to work at and practice, unlike school which was very easy for me. Kicking the ball down the field to just the right place for a teammate made me feel very powerful (it still does, actually). I liked being on a team and having a collective goal to work towards. I wanted to play as much as possible.
So I played soccer at recess and at lunch . The only other people playing soccer at recess and at lunch were the boys in my class. So I played with the boys. The girls were all playing foursquare or hopscotch or tetherball. And, I have nothing against hopscotch or these kinds of games, but compared to soccer there just wasn’t any contest. The boys were happy to have me. I was pretty good and I got better as I played more.
Everything was fine for a while.
I don’t remember exactly when, but sometime in either fourth or fifth grade, one of the parent volunteers that patrolled the yard at lunch pulled me aside one day and told me that I couldn’t play soccer with the boys anymore. She had talked it over with the other lunch ladies and they wouldn’t let me play with them anymore. I was really confused, especially since I had been doing it for so long, and I asked why. She said that they were worried I would get hurt.
I almost laughed at her. That was my first reaction. It just felt so ridiculous. I think I actually responded with something along the lines of “the boys are much more likely to get hurt than me.” Because I could hurt them. Because I was much better than most of them (they would have agreed with that). And, I actually had some evidence to back this up since in the two or three years I had been playing with them I had never been injured but a few of them had been. It was usually their own fault.
I tried to protest. I tried to convince the lunch ladies that I was more of a threat to them than them to me. That I needed to play in order to practice so I could make the all-star team again. But, no. They were very firm in their decision. To me at the time, it was a horrible injustice. The boys were actually mad too, and they also tried to convince the lunch ladies to change their decision, but it didn’t help. That made me feel better but it didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t being allowed to play soccer with them just because I was a girl. I didn’t really know the word “feminism” at the time, but this was the clear beginning of it for me.
So I continued to play at recess when the lunch ladies weren’t around and then at lunchtime I pretended to enjoy playing tetherball while my friends played soccer on the field next to us. A couple times I went over and played soccer at lunch, but they always came over and made me stop. If anything, the small rebellious act of playing with the boys at recess increased my enjoyment of soccer.
Being told I couldn’t do something, especially something I enjoyed and was good at, really affected me. The outrage that it generated stayed with me for a long time. I think about it often, actually, and how formative of an experience it was for me. It was the first in a series of events when I was told that because I was a girl I wasn’t supposed to like something or do something (either implicitly or explicitly). I sometimes wonder if I would have made different choices later in life if this hadn’t happened to me at this early age. Would I have persisted in physics for as long as I did? Would I have picked a different major that had better gender parity? I don’t know.
But I do know that I learned very early on that society had certain ideas about what my life was supposed to look like. I have made many choices in my life that have very consciously gone against these ideas of societal norms. I am not going to apologize for spending the entirety of my 20s in graduate school instead of finding and marrying some guy. I am not going to wear makeup if I don’t feel like it and I’m not going to hide my grey hair.
And I’m sure as hell not going to let someone tell me I can’t do something because I am a woman. If anything, that is only going to make me want to do it more.
I am very thankful that I had parents that supported me in my dreams to be a physicist/astronaut. They always believed in me and didn’t second guess my choices. I am thankful that I went to an all-girls high school that taught me about feminism in a more structured way and allowed me to find out who I was without the pressure to impress or be worried about the presence of boys in the classroom. I think it helped.
During the World Series last week they were playing a commercial starring Mo’ne Davis. She was the break out star of the Little League World Series this past summer and she knows a little something about playing with the boys. In the commercial she states that “I stand for girls who want to play sports with the boys” and it makes me really happy that a) she exists and b) she is being celebrated. It’s a little step forward, but it’s progress nonetheless. I hope there a lot of girls out there who see Mo’ne Davis and think, yeah, I can do that too.