I have never been described as a feminist. And I never would have considered myself one. I grew up with a bit of a negative connotation surrounding feminism. I think it was associated with some extreme behavior, that doesn't necessarily match the cause. But in recent years, that has changed quite a bit. I haven't burned any bras yet, but I am noticing more and more the injustices that women face. And I am trying to learn how to combat those injustices for myself and my daughters. When Macie says she likes "Boy Legos" I try to remind her that Legos are for everyone, whether they are "Super Heroes" or "Elf Princesses". And when Riley talks about growing up to be a teacher, I remind her that she could also be an engineer. These are like the kiddy pool issues of feminism. The most basic ideals of equality, and I feel like I am just now learning them, as an adult. I often joke that I am "new to this whole feminist thing" and I need some help learning what I am doing. Even just learning how to recognize the sexist things going on around me, many of which I have grown up believing were acceptable.
Blake is playing baseball this Spring. He has played soccer for a few years, and to JT's utter happiness, has decided to try baseball. (Quick Mommy Brag Moment: He is really good! I shouldn't be surprised, a love of baseball runs in both of our families, but I am still so proud of him.) His first baseball practice was a few weeks ago. JT would have loved to have taken him to his first practice, but he was working late in the ER that night. So I took him to practice, and let the girls play on the toys at the park. (This is basically our lives right now, the girls playing at various parks while Blake is at soccer or baseball. They both decided to take this season off from sports.)
We were greeted by a few of the teammates and their Dads. One of the dads is kind of a tough guy. He has a thick Chicago accent, and when his 7 year old son bragged that he gets to drink beer his dad clapped him on the back and said "What did you expect? He's Irish!" We still don't know if that is true or not. But as the season has gone on, they have turned out to be a really friendly group. Blake joined a few weeks late, so the team had already had a few practices without us. They seemed to be pretty familiar with each other by then. However, I did not know anything else about them or the coach on the first night of practice.
As practice got under way the coach needed help, so I grabbed my glove and got out on the field. The tough guy dad came out to help, along with the coach's teenage son. And the four of us lined the kids up to practice throwing and catching. Blake was doing awesome, especially for his first practice ever, and the team and coach were all impressed with us playing catch. I am not a great baseball player, but I have always been thankful that my Dad taught me the basics, and the techniques. I noticed, a little farther down the field, the coach's son was struggling. He was playing catch with the coach's teenage son, who was growing irritated with how poorly the little brother was doing. At one point the teenager yelled out to the little brother "C'mon you are playing terrible! Quit throwing like a girl!" That is a phrase I have heard a million times. I almost didn't even notice it. In fact, I always took that phrase to mean you are stepping with your throwing arm... a mistake every child makes when they are learning to throw a baseball. But when that boy said it, I did notice, because I am a girl, throwing just as well as tough guy dad, to my son. I glanced around quickly to make sure my daughters were still on the toys and didn't hear him say that. But a few minutes later he said it again. "You are throwing like a girl!" This time it really stung. I realized, that even to a kiddy pool feminist, this was not acceptable. This teenage boy was using the word "girl" as a derogatory term. Name calling. But instead of stupid, or weak, or uncoordinated he chose the word girl. As if there are not plenty of girls that can throw a baseball harder than many boys. This boy was using the word "girl" to shame his little brother, knowing that it is worse to be called a girl than anything else. I was horrified. I hoped that the coach or one of the dads would say something. But no one did. I realized it would have to be me.
When I am in a situation like that, I get all panicked. If JT is around, I will often default to him, explaining "I don't do well with confrontation. I get mad, and then people think I am a real bitch! You say something!" But JT wasn't around. I pictured myself confronting the teenager. But how would I do it? How do you call out someone's kid, right in front of them and the whole team? What would I even say? "It hurts my feelings when you use the word 'girl' as a put-down." Would I get all emotional and cry? Everyone knows that once a girl cries she loses all of her power. Would I try too hard to be tough and end up sounding angry? Or worse, crazy? After all, I am standing next to tough guy dad with a beer drinking 7 year old. What would they think? It is our first practice, would I be embarrassing Blake? What if they think I am a b****?!
With my head spinning, and checking again to make sure my little girls were still on the toys, I resolved to wait for him to say it again. Then I would go over and politely pull the teenager aside and quietly explain why that phrase is so offensive. I would be careful to not humiliate him, and to be discreet, so that the coach and tough dad wouldn't notice. I would be very nice, so that Blake wouldn't be known as the kid with the crazy mom. I would probably even be apologetic about the whole thing. And I would just explain that I have daughters near by, and how it makes them feel.
I took a deep breath, collected myself and before I even realized it, practice was over. The boys were all running off the field, my girls were coming back from the playground, and I had missed my chance. I couldn't tell if I was relieved or disappointed. I was numb.
That night, after I tucked my kids in bed, and finally sat down to collect my thoughts, I realized I was definitely disappointed. Disappointed in myself.
For those of you who don't need the kiddy pool, and are comfortably doing laps in the full length pool, you are probably disappointed as well. And if you are a true feminist, the deep end, high dive, life guard style feminist, you were able to see the million things I missed. You could have taken a red pen to this post and covered the page circling rookie mistakes. But for me, I didn't even realize how many things were wrong with this picture until I began retelling it to JT.
I didn't realize how much sexist commentary was in my head. I was afraid of being confrontational, or coming across like a crazy b****. As I explained the whole scenario to JT I realized that he has never had to worry about someone thinking he is (or calling him) that type of profanity. If JT stands up for himself or for his children, he is just being a strong guy. He isn't afraid of the label he will get. He doesn't need to be. He also doesn't have to worry about his emotions getting in the way, and being brushed off with an excuse like "it's probably just PMS". The entire dialog that went on inside my head had been sexist. It was all concerns that JT has never had to worry about, and fears he has never had. But the internal struggle I felt has been felt by most women. Those same doubts have discouraged many of us from doing things we want to do, and saying things we need to say. And even after all that, I still failed to stand up for myself.
But being brave wasn't the only way that I failed that night. I thought I needed to be an example to my daughters. I was so afraid that they might hear that phrase and realize that, to many people, being a girl is being less than. I was afraid that they would believe that a girl could never throw as well as a boy, and is deserving of that phrase. I was afraid they would doubt themselves and wonder if what they are, girls, was something to be ashamed of. The whole time that I was worrying about my daughters, who were happily giggling on the swings well out of earshot, I was playing catch with my son.
The last person I let down that night was my son. He was the one hearing "you throw like a girl". He was the one subconsciously discovering that girl = less than. He didn't notice that I didn't stick up for girls, because neither did anyone else. I did not even consider the damage it was doing to him, or the beer drinking 7 year old, or the boy being called a girl, or the rest of the team. In reality, boys are the ones most likely to grow up to perpetuate these stereotypes and sexist comments. It isn't just my daughters that need to see a feminist (albeit the kiddy pool novice that I am) role model, and it isn't just women that need to stand up and be the feminist role model. I let my son down that night, and so did every dad on the field.
Since then, I have talked to Blake about it. I have tried to make amends for my failings. But I still feel sick to my stomach that I didn't do anything in that moment. I still feel mad at the weak, scared, degraded woman freaking out in my head that night. But mostly I am sad that I wasn't braver. Some day, I want to swim in the deep end. I want my daughters to run for President, or stay home with their kids if they want, or be whatever they dream. I want Blake to see women as equals, worth fighting for and defending. I know that the best chance they have is if they see the example of a brave woman. And I really want that brave woman to be me.