From the series: Life on Dog Hill
There’s a coaching process called clarity through contrast where the vision for what one really wants can be culled by acknowledging what one doesn’t want. I think that process is inherent in my DNA because I’ve been culling the vision of my wants since I was a young girl. For example, it was clear to me from a young age that I detested gender differences in everything from the chores assigned at home (compared to those assigned to my brother) to the roles and influence demonstrated in religion. Yes, I was a die-hard Gloria Steinem feminist growing up in a gender split environment. What I wanted was a level playing field. I was sadly naive.
When I was a high school senior, I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy. I was a good student, athletic and healthy. My parents were not in a position to pay for my college education so it seemed a perfect solution. When I mentioned my decision to my father he shook his head and told me that the Air Force was no place for a lady. Non-pulsed, I took my request to one of the Alabama State senators who addressed my senior class in 1981. After all, I needed his endorsement.
While I can’t recall the topic of his talk, I will never forget the personal interaction I later experienced with this “good ole boy.” After his speech, he invited students to join him on stage if they had specific questions. Several of my classmates and I responded to the invitation. I patiently waited my turn and then shared my dream with the wise, all-knowing senator. I had been rehearsing my “speech” for days and had it down to a science. As I spoke, his face grew red with agitation and he abruptly interrupted to set the record straight.
“Young lady, I would never endorse you for the Air Force Academy. My votes are saved for strong, young men and unless I’m missing something, you are neither!” he told me before turning his back on me in a huff of indignation.
I’m not kidding. He turned his back on me. As I said, I was naive.
I remember feeling numb as I turned to leave the stage. Numb and humiliated. Behind me, the senator continued to engage with my classmates. Like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs, I scampered away to lick my wounds.
A large chunk of my adult life was spent living in this gender split reality, following the gender expected norms while quietly seething underneath. What really happened is that I became a quiet activist. After all, there were all of those elections where I voted ONLY for women, regardless of party. Then there was the dozen years I spent as a diversity and inclusion practioner for a global company. Even my decision to practice spirituality and not religion is rooted in gender issues that I could never bring myself to accept. My most important activist role, however, is as a parent teaching my sons that all people are equal, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other assigned designators.
When I think back to those early years, I knew that gender discrimination was wrong, just like I knew that race discrimination was wrong. I felt it in my being. Unfortunately, I never had strong, female role models to mentor and coach me along the way; unless you count Wonder Woman, who I watched faithfully every day after school. Which is why I am grateful that in 1987 Congress declared the month of March as National Women’s History Month. My biggest hope is that today’s young women creating visions of their respective futures have plenty of strong role models from which to gain inspiration.
More importantly, I say to all young people: “Believe in your dreams. No matter who you are, where you are from and how you define yourself. Make the future what you know it can be, even if it takes a bit of seething along the way.”
And, for the Alabama good ‘ole boy, this one’s for you. I bet this “lady” four-star general can kick your gender-biased backside with her eyes closed! (Not that I’m still seething or anything…)
For more information, check out the National Women’s History Project. You might also like Sara Benincasa’s article Tell Me Why Women’s History Month Isn’t Six Months a Year and Maya Rodale’s post The Girl Crush with which I completely agree!
Image of Gen. Ann Dunwoody found here.