Saturday, July 9, 2016

From Ironing to Shooting Hoops

"Are you a women's libber?" he asked in a rather challenging tone. I was a young woman in college in the 1970s. This young man, beer in hand, approached me at a party with what was either a new pick up line or a way to screen out troublesome women. "Absolutely" I replied and he soon faded away to look for more receptive prey.

That was the first time I voiced my identification as a feminist. I had a deeply developed sense of fairness, perhaps a middle child trait as us middles have to fight for what is our due. I didn't have a clear plan for my future back then, but marriage and children were not high on my list. While that wasn't the life I imagined, I didn't know exactly what my alternatives were. The truth is that at that time there weren't many well-charted paths for women except the rather stereotypical ones. I grew up with employment ads in the newspaper that had headings that read "Help wanted female" and "Help wanted male" and the female jobs were not very interesting. It wasn't until 1973 that the Supreme Court ruled that illegal, just two years before I finished college.

"Don't iron while the strike is hot". That was the slogan of the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1969, one of the first big demonstrations of the Women’s Liberation movement. It came on the fiftieth anniversary of women getting the vote. I remember it because I was sitting at the kitchen table watching the protest on our little red portable TV as my mother ironed. "Mommmm...don't iron while the strike is hot," I admonished. "Then whose going to do the ironing?" she shot back as she spritzed my father's white shirt with water.
Those memories came back to me recently as I watched my twelve year old granddaughter shoot baskets. She has just begun to lengthen into a legginess that makes her look just right as she crouches and shoots for the basket. "What sports did you play when you were my age?" she asked.

I loved the innocence of her question even as it made me realize what a sea change it represented. "We didn't really have sports for girls back then," I replied, suddenly feeling very ancient. Title IX was not passed until 1972 barring discrimination in federally funded education programs. Girls might be enrolled in dance or acrobatics outside of school, but in high school the options were cheerleading and the pom pom squad. I found my yearbook online and flipped to Athletics. I quickly confirmed that boys' sports included track, football, swimming, basketball, wrestling, tennis, golf and baseball. At the back was a group photo of the Boys Athletic Association with names of participants listed. The last photo was titled Girls Athletic Association and had two anonymous girls playing tennis, apparently an association so poorly organized and limited that they didn't warrant a group shot or names.

When I was in college I worked in a credit bureau in the summer of 1974. It was my first off-campus job and I liked being part of the work world. While there I learned something about women and credit. I remember a couple whose record was in the files, she was a teacher and her husband a student. Their credit was surely based on her income as he had none, yet it was in his name. When they divorced, their credit information was divided and he retained the credit history. I swore that was never going to happen to me. What I didn't realize was that up until that time the deck would have been stacked against me. Later in 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) changed the way credit-granting decisions were made. 

Prior to the ECOA, credit for a married couple was in the man's name. Women often met with resistance when attempting to establish credit in their own name with unmarried women required to supply a male to cosign for them. The importance of women in making laws such as the ECOA should not be understated. We have Congresswoman Lindy Boggs to thank for adding the provision banning discrimination due to sex or marital status. She added the language and then told the committee "Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I'm sure it was just an oversight that we didn't have 'sex' or 'marital status' included. I've taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee's approval."

My mother had returned to college and graduated as a teacher when I began college. She had her own income for the first time since she had provided the support while my father attended college. I recall she and my dad went to the bank to get a car loan so she could drive to her teaching job each day. They did it on my dad's credit. My mother turned to the bank officer and asked if she would have gotten the loan without my dad. Where did that come from? My sweet ironing mother was not a confrontational person. The bank officer hemmed and hawed as my mother's anger built. She felt patronized by both the bank officer and my dad. She was still furious when she told me about it in our weekly phone call, her fury enhanced no doubt by my father teasing in the background. I liked this side of her. My mother was coming out of the shadows and I was cheering her on.

When I was planning to marry in 1975, I was uneasy. I'd observed how married women were subsumed into their husband's identity. I bristled every time a newly married couple turned to face the wedding attendees and were introduced as Mr and Mrs John Doe, the bride losing even the dignity of a first name. "Not me", I swore even as it seemed that I was the only one who was bothered by that indignity. The idea of changing my name made my stomach churn. I advised my then fiancĂ© that I would be keeping my own name.  He wasn't too sure how he felt about it at first. I walked him through the experience most women faced. "Imagine you were referred to as Mr Jane Doe," I said. I give him credit, he understood it immediately and after that became my staunchest defender.

I printed it on our wedding invitation -"the bride is retaining her maiden name". That raised a few eyebrows. It was one thing to do it, but another to be public about it. While keeping one's name became increasingly common in the 1970s, it then became less so and only now is seeing a resurgence.  As for me, some years later we split up and in time we both remarried. I don't recall it even being a discussion in my current marriage, and as for my former husband, his new wife kept her name also. I took some measure of pride in that. I'd trained him well.

It amazes me to think that when the teenage me sat in the kitchen and watched that 1969 protest, it was only 50 years since women got the vote. Now it is almost fifty years since that protest. Laws passed in the 1970s were important in changing women's lives, my life, making the world conform to the standards of fairness that I perhaps naively expected. By the time I finished college in 1975, the world had slowly begun to change. Young women today would find it ridiculous to have gender segregated want ads, to have credit only available to men or to not have the ability to participate in sports. 

The discrimination today is more subtle, but it is still very present. The expectations of how women "should" behave are certainly reflected in the responses we've witnessed in our political arena when women are considered shrill if they raise their voice. I am dismayed when I hear young women disavow feminism or indicate their belief that we no longer have discrimination or that electing female politicians is irrelevant. I think of that young woman who observed those early injustices and so often swore "not me", whose life was affected for the better by female politicians like Lindy Boggs and I know we are nowhere close to done.

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