By Marjorie Worthington
In second grade, I didn’t really like jump rope, which is what most of the girls played at recess. I liked kickball, but the teacher’s aide, Mrs. Ewing, didn’t like girls and didn’t think they should play kickball. She coached the boys and drew up the teams every day. Eventually, as I stood there waiting, she would let me be on the weaker team (she always put the strong players together).
Every day I would stand there, waiting for Mrs. Ewing to add me last and I’d overhear her snide comments about girls and sports. Given my anxious-to-please personality, it’s a wonder I had the temerity to stand there day after day. I think the first few times where the hardest; eventually, she expected me.
I wish I could say that my mad kickball skillz transformed Mrs. Ewing into a staunch supporter of girls’ sports. They didn’t: I wasn’t that good at kickball and her mind was already made up. This was in 1976 and, although I didn’t know it at the time, Title IX had just been passed in 1972. This law mandated that girls be allowed to participate in school athletics. I guess I was the lucky recipient of Mrs. Ewing’s disapproval of Title IX.
At about this time I went through a tomboy phase. I would only wear pants and sneakers and no ribbons in my hair. I think on some level I wanted to distance myself from the part of me that Mrs. Ewing didn’t like—the part that wasn’t supposed to play kickball. The girl part.
Now I have third-grade daughter who is definitely NOT going through a tomboy phase. She wears sparkly sneakers, only recently stopped wearing her tiara to Schnucks, and her room looks like the inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle.
Of course, I want her to choose her own path in life and to be able to decide what colors she wants for her clothes and room. I also don’t want her to think that being “girly” is somehow bad—I never want her to feel the way Mrs. Ewing made me feel. But there is a part of me that worries, with Peggy Orenstein, that my daughter chooses pink and frilly because it is the only choice she sees around her in stores, on TV and in the movies. And I worry that, by choosing the frilly dress, high-heel-shoes path, she will forego the fun, the active—the powerful path.
But I watch her play soccer, volleyball, basketball, get elected class president and write plays and stories for fun, and I see her friends doing the same or similar things. And she does these things unapologetically as a girl: she wears a Hello Kitty dress to play volleyball and has pink soccer cleats!
Maybe, it only now occurs to me, that for her, the feminine path and the powerful path are not two different things at all. Maybe our daughters don’t see a contradiction between being girly and being awesome. Maybe for them, the terms are synonymous.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a long way to go, but I am encouraged that my daughter has already made it further than I did without encountering Mrs. Ewing.
Marjorie Worthington lives in Champaign and has an eight-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy in the Champaign Unit 4 School System.