I watched a lot of high school basketball this winter — the MH’s son plays varsity and while sadly, the boys’ team didn’t do so well, the girls won their division and they’re going to State. If you’d told me a year ago that one of the highlights of my winter would be high school basketball, I’d have scoffed like the hipster I thought I was — high school basketball? I didn’t even like high school sports when I was in high school. But the MH wanted to go watch his boy, and I figured if I can get through a 2 hour musical recital to see my 10-year-old friend Sophia sing, then high school basketball should be a cinch. The surprise was that I wound up looking forward to the games. Especially if the girls were playing.
Those girls are good. The first time I saw them play was a few weeks ago — the boys played first, and then the girls — and I have to admit I was a little shocked when everyone stayed to watch the girls game. I’m old enough to remember when that wouldn’t have happened. I’m also old enough to remember when some of those girls, especially the center who is 6’1,” would have been told they were unfeminine freaks who’d never have a boyfriend, not have been celebrated as the kick-ass, high-scoring basketball athletes they are. Even the cheerleaders stuck around and cheered for the girls. The whole thing gave me a lump in my throat — the stands at high school basketball games aren’t filled with the writers and artists of Livingston — this is old Livingston — ranchers and railroaders and people who have lived here a long time. Of course, it helps that the girls rock and that they played a great game. It was fast. It was high-scoring. They have great ball control. But I remember when it didn’t matter how good a girls’ team was, when the men would have all left muttering “who’d want to watch girls play?”
And then, listening to NPR this week, Steve Inskeep was interviewing Drew Gilpin Faust who has just been named president of Harvard, and when she mentioned that her intelligence had been considered a problem when she was a girl, he was incredulous. “Who thought it was a problem?” he asked. “Your family?” She had to explain to him that yes, her family thought it was a problem. That it would have been better if it had been one of her brothers that got the smarts. That they thought it was a waste that Drew was smart, because she was a girl. She was going to be a wife, a proper Virginia society wife. “It’s a man’s world sweetie,” her mother said. “The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.” What surprised me listening to NPR was Steve Inskeep’s incredulity about this — maybe it’s because he’s a guy, but again, I remember clearly when being smart, like being an exceptionally tall and talented athlete, was seen as a handicap for a girl. I’ll never forget one of my mother’s friends, the handsomest, most fun dad we knew saying to her when he thought I was out of earshot one day: “It’s too bad she’s so smart … you know, it’s hard for those smart ones.” “It” of course being the all-important process of finding a husband. Which where I grew up, in circumstances much like Drew Gilpin Faust, in a world where many girls I knew were debutantes, a world in which the mothers started telling us in grammar school which boys were going to inherit which fortunes, a world in which marriage is still, as in an Edith Wharton novel, the most important thing a girl would do. (And depressingly enough, at my 20th reunion, all the smart girls, the ones with the Harvard MBAs, stood around in their linen shift dresses telling me how fulfilling it was being a stay-at-home mom. But that’s another blog topic.) So it was no surprise to me that Drew Gilpin Faust’s parents thought her smarts were a problem, because all these years later I can still hear that man telling my mother that my own smarts were going to be a problem. And it still breaks my heart.
But I lucked out in a way. In contrast to the the debutante/marriage-market aspect of my adolescence I also had a grandmother who told me over and over that I should go to school, get a good job, and make my own money because a woman with her own money got to control her own life. She’d never had that, really — she’d turned down a scholarship to medical school because her father told her she’d be stealing a spot from some man who’d need to support a family. She’d married badly and while she’d inherited some money in her late middle age which freed her up considerably, she wanted me to have more freedom than she did. And as far as she could tell, that meant having your own money.
The MH teases me sometimes for being a feminist and all I have to do is to point to those girls playing basketball to show him that it worked. Feminism gets a bad rap (too often from women), and while we’re still a long way from parity, that doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t been made. It was 25 years ago, when I was in high school, that Title IX went into effect. We were the first class to have co-ed gym, and that was considered something of a scandal (but until the boys got used to playing girls, we won a lot. All it took was running right at the boy with the ball, and he’d get flustered, and you could steal it. Didn’t last long, but it was fun for a while). And now look what’s happened. We live in a world where everyone stays for the girls’ game. We live in a world where not only can women attend Harvard, but one is going to be the president. We live in a world where a woman and a black man are the two most viable presidential candidates for the next race.