This is a completely personal anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth. This is about a defining moment for me in my education as an egalitarian.
Equality is something we talk about, we assume to be the case for everyone, and never really question. Here, it’s the air we breathe. It’s not true. We are not all equal. And in spite of our all our lip service to the idea of equality under the law or the equality of opportunity, we all know, if we’re honest, that we’re still trying to get to that level. Probably it’s a function of how well we think our lives are at any given moment. “If I’m doing all right, there’s no problem. What are those people over there complaining about? I don’t see anything wrong with my life.”
This is about gender equality. It’s one of the most under-considered things in our present world. When I say that, what I mean is that here, in the West, where we have all but won that particular war, where it is normal to see women in roles that 50 years ago would have caused near-scandal, we have so normalized it that it has become a political topic for talking heads instead of a heartbreaking reality of barriers and stigma and sometimes death, as it is in many places still throughout the globe.
I saw a PBS special last week about early television and on it Angie Dickinson was talking about her series Police Woman. Breakthrough television. It had been the first dramatic tv show since the mid-60s to be headed by a female in prime time. It was shortly before Charlie’s Angels and a decade after both Honey West and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. During the interview, Dickinson commented that the feminists had been angry with her because she hadn’t used the show as a statement for the cause. She defended herself by declaring that she was feminine not a feminist—as if being a feminist were somehow a bad thing, a dirty word, a slur.
Which seems to be the case these days among a certain segment of women, many of them too young to remember what it was like when women couldn’t do anything they wanted to.
Here’s my belief—any system that works to stifle an individual’s dreams and goals and sense of self simply because of a biological condition of being (gender, race, etc) is a system in need of reform at best, overturning at worst. If you say to someone “You may not do this or that because you’re (a) a girl, (b) the wrong color, or (c) differently abled that an assumed norm” then you are being a bigot.
Back in high school, I took a fancy one year to the idea of becoming an architect. I took mechanical drawing one year, then the next architectural drawing. I ended up dropping it. But both classes were entirely male. This was 1971 and 1972. I didn’t question it. Probably like a lot of boys then, I kinda sorta had the notion that girls didn’t do certain things because they didn’t want to. I don’t know where I got that idea, but to my unformed mind it was the only thing that actually made sense to me. The only reason I didn’t do things was because I had no interest in them. All the cultural referents supported this rather passive belief and I didn’t question it. Not really. I’d already dismissed the idea that girls were incapable of doing the same things as boys because I’d been reading Heinlein and Schmitz, but that was science fiction and the future. I hadn’t made the connections yet.
I said both those classes were entirely male. That’s not quite true. My architectural drawing class had one girl. But I didn’t know about her for nearly half of the first semester.
The classroom was a long room with four ranks of drafting tables, all facing the front and the chalkboard. At the rear was a small room that probably had been a cloak room at one time but now acted as a supply room for the class and was also where the blueprint machine was set up. Our class was taught by a Mr. Hoppe, who was a short, energetic man with an almost comic stentorian delivery that reminded me a bit of Don Adams. He liked to roam the aisles, lecturing us about having something when we left high school that would “put folding money in your pocket!” I liked him. Everybody liked him. He was about five-foot-four, dark hair, cleanshaven, with bifocals.
What I did not know was that he was teaching a female. He had her set up in that utility room with her own drafting table. I thought this was odd. What, she didn’t want to hang out with the rest of us? Was she stuck up or something?
Then one evening I had to go to his classroom to drop off some paperwork, after school hours. Mr. Hoppe wasn’t there, but three other guys from the class were. I heard them laughing from the utility room. I went back and there they were, with this girl’s work spread out. One of them was sitting at the drafting table reworking some of the drawings while the other two were laughing at what he was doing.
What was he doing? He was ruining her work. This wasn’t the equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. No, he was meticulously redoing her drawings and inserting mistakes.
Let me say right here that her work was superb. I have a talent for drawing and a good imagination and I thought I would make a good architect, but there were some things that just made that unlikely. One was neatness. My drawings were generally a mess—smudged, bad lines. The other was lack of patience, but that’s a problem I have with everything. But her work was pure art. Clean, easy to read, detailed, just….beautiful.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I blurted out.
Two of them just stared at me, but the one doing the reworking said, “Teaching the bitch a lesson.”
“You’re gonna get her a bad grade,” I said. I still didn’t get it.
“Yeah, well, she’s got no business doing this.”
And I still didn’t get it. I left and the next day I reported it to Mr. Hoppe. All hell broke loose. The three guys were booted from his class. One of them—the one who’d been messing with her work—vowed to get even. (He tried later, it didn’t work. It cost him a black eye and a sprained ankle. This was during my physically fearless period and he frankly never saw what was coming when he called me out.)
This went on all the time, I found out. Mr. Hoppe was delighted that someone had finally said something, because he told us all, that day, that this girl was his best student, he knew she wasn’t making those boneheaded mistakes, but he’d never been able to catch the vandals.
He actually gave us a feminist lecture. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect it was. Not because he was a feminist, I don’t think, but because he respected ability above all else. And she had it, he said, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we thought it was right to stand in her way just because she was a girl. He’d been forced to keep her out of the regular class room because time again she would not be left alone to do her work. The “guys” always sabotaged what she did, either by flirting or by making fun of her or by insulting her.
I admit I was innocent. I didn’t understand this at all. It completely overturned what I thought had been going on. I mean, I knew a lot of girls who didn’t want to do “guy things” and made a show of it, so it just didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t their choice. That it wasn’t always their choice.
What changed for me that day took years to fully manifest. As I think back on it, there were a few other girls who had wanted to do certain things that girls “just didn’t do.” I knew one who wanted to take shop. The whole school denied her access to the courses. One girl I remember raging at the administration and then a week later announcing to us that she was transferring to a private school where she could pursue what she wanted.
Young women today have different experiences with the world, so often you find them raising their eyebrows at old-school feminists railing at some injustice. An electric crawl goes up my back when I hear some young female proudly declare that she’s not a feminist and would never be. I know on some level they’re equating it to fashion, that feminists don’t dress well and never use make-up. The superficiality of their reaction is probably based on something not much deeper.
It does get tiresome to listen to some old fart going on about how things used to be. But I hope the old farts never stop. How else are we to remember what we’ve gained?
My feminism eventually became a marrow-deep belief that we must treat each other like PEOPLE first, male and female maybe not quite second, but never let the gender distinction override our common humanity, and likewise with every other distinction you can name that makes no difference. We all have dreams and ambitions and no one has a right to tell us we can’t have them because we were born with the “wrong equipment.”
This personal reminiscence has been brought to you by a triggered memory. Have a good day.