“Stingray! Stingray!” the girls screamed as sand and gravel pricked across our bare legs in the wind. The playground of our new school had not been planted yet with grass (nor would it ever fully be), so every windy day brought recess misery. We’d huddle together, legs pulled under cotton dresses, until the gusts died down and we could return to our play. We were girls, after all, so we couldn’t wear pants to school.
Gathering itself across the Colorado prairie, the unrelenting wind blew gravel off the playground and straight into our PE area, an asphalt dome circled by fiberglass curtains that were usually left open. Years later the asphalt was covered with fake grass, but until then, running and jumping on blacktop was treacherous. I still have a small, round scar just under my right knee from a large pea of gravel that embedded itself when I fell, bare-legged, one day. My mother had to remove it with tweezers, exposing the white fatty tissue under my rough skin in a perfect little hole.
An earthen schoolyard did offer a couple attractions. Leave it to children to make the best of what they have. We girls spent hours drawing lines in the sand to mark the borders of imaginary houses, then brushing away a palm’s width for a wall, leaving unswept openings for doors. These dream houses would be blown away before the next recess, or, at best, left in faint sweepings we could excavate the next day. Busy little homemakers, we would start again, enlarging the living room or adding an extra bedroom for guests.
We could play hopscotch too, drawing boxes with our fingers right on the sandy ground. We’d hop on one foot to the box with our stone, making sure we held our skirts down as we bent to retrieve it. Even on the playground, we had to be ladies.
When the weather turned cold, we were allowed to wear pants or snowpants over our knitted tights on our way to school, but we had to take them off in the coatroom. Even there, modesty reigned: we couldn’t bend over too far or we would show too much, so we quickly shuffled out of our pants and stuffed them in our cubbies for the day.
Constant vigilance was essential to our female integrity. Hard to imagine today, when undergarments are meant to be seen, but back then, all underwear was supposed to be hidden. Bra straps were especially policed since they implied puberty, and hence, sex. Should the boys catch a glimpse of some unsuspecting girl’s panties (even the word was illicit), they’d break into the familiar taunt: “I see London, I see France, I see someone’s underpants!” Then the embarrassed girl would cry, while the other girls huddled around to comfort her, yelling “Shut up” across the schoolyard at the teasing boys.
Maybe parents complained, because the school eventually allowed us to wear shorts under our dresses. This made swinging on the monkey bars much easier because we didn’t have to worry about a nearby boy’s straying eyes or somehow hold onto our skirts as we somersaulted around the high bar. We had special shorts for under our dresses, very short and stretchy in those early polyester days. Still, shorts weren’t pants.
The fall of 1970, we sixth-graders were bussed to a larger elementary for our last year before junior high because our own school, built less than ten years earlier, was now too small for six grades. The new school too had a no-pants-for-girls policy, but it also had school spirit and pep rally days where students could wear their Mustang mascot sweatshirts. But who wanted to wear them with a skirt? Not to mention we were tired of cold legs while waiting for the bus. The showdown began.
By 1970, women’s liberation had begun to infiltrate even our little western town. Lots of female “firsts” had occurred by then, and the local newspaper was required to integrate job ads—no more “jobs for women” and (higher paid) “jobs for men.” Although I don’t remember watching the news reports, the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in which a live sheep was crowned Miss America and bras were reputedly burned in a trashcan would have made a splash, even where I was growing up.
Somehow these “women’s lib” ideas filtered down to our sixth grade class and inflamed our sense of youthful righteousness at the bare-kneed indignity we’d been suffering all these years. I wouldn’t call it full-fledged feminism—that wouldn’t come for me until 1973 when Bobbie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets—but at least we recognized that our second-class sartorial status was based on our femalehood. Even though the words “feminism” and “gender discrimination” wouldn’t become part of our vocabularies until junior high, high school, or even college, we knew the words “no fair,” and that became our rallying cry as we demanded pants at school for girls.
The administration, however, refused to change the policy until they’d used it as an example of civic engagement. They would reconsider the no-pants rule only if it could be put to a non-binding vote at a school assembly. The principal would run the show and students could testify by raising their hands, standing up, and offering reasons to revise the policy. The assembly would be orderly, they implied, not like those women’s libbers who demanded change in unladylike ways.
The girls thought this whole charade was another discriminatory tactic. Had we voted on boys wearing pants? We also had years of gender conditioning to overcome. We girls weren’t used to speaking up for ourselves. It was kind of embarrassing, really, to have to talk about the whole situation. What could we say? Our legs are cold? We don’t want boys looking up our dresses anymore? We think pants are cute? Nor did we have much of a feminist analysis to make our case. Calling down the patriarchy just wasn’t in our consciousness then. Still, we knew this was our chance; we had to do the best we could.
The day of the assembly, we poured into the gym in neat lines and sat in the folding chairs laid out in precise rows. Only the upper grades would participate, perhaps because the administration feared we’d taint the lower grades with our radical demands. The principal stood at the monitor, waiting for us to take our seats quietly so the debate could begin.
“We’re here to discuss changing a school policy that may no longer reflect the fashions and activities of our times.” No feminist analysis here: he didn’t mention that the rule discriminated against women’s rights, that it had been created out of sexist ideas regarding female decorum, or that the administration itself should have changed it years ago. Looking back, I hope the school regrets not taking more of a stand for girls’ freedom and independence or realized that it had failed to send a message to young people about equality. Mirroring much of national sentiment, maybe they hoped that we’d fail to offer any effective reasons, that the vote would go against us, or that we’d just forget about the whole thing.
When the principal called for testimony, the boys’ hands predictably went up first. Boy after boy stood up to testify to the power of pants—pants were cool, they argued. With pants, you could run fast and jump high. Pants let you move around. They gave you the freedom to be all that you could be. Without pants, you’d be—well, you’d be a girl. In other words, they felt sorry for girls because girls couldn’t be boys.
This was hardly the line of reasoning for which the girls had hoped. I rolled my eyes at these arguments, but since I was in my “I’m not going to dignify this with a response” phase, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I sat with my arms crossed, waiting to see what the administrators would do next. But I should have stood up and said something. I was learning my first feminist lesson: “That’s stupid” can start all kinds of challenges to the status quo.
Finally, a tall, pale girl with nearly white hair who would later become a lawyer stood up and reasoned, “Girls should get to wear pants because it’s not fair to let boys wear them and not let girls if they want to.” Bingo! Exactly! The double standard denied us our civil liberties. All the girls cheered! We didn’t want to be boys, but neither did we want to be second-class citizens.
On a show of hands, the vote passed overwhelmingly and the administration relented, at least in part: girls could wear pants, but not jeans. By next year in junior high, that question would be moot anyway, so we celebrated our first feminist victory with pants of all colors.
Two years later, my eighth grade social studies teacher wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I wanted one of those shirts. The obnoxious boy who sat behind me in class bet me that Bobby Riggs would beat Billie Jean King. I wouldn’t bet him because my parents didn’t allow betting, but I was also still a little hesitant about the possibility of King winning. I didn’t follow tennis or I would have realized her certain victory, but I wanted her to win more than anything. She did win and I should have bet that boy. That was my second feminist lesson: stand up for what you believe in.
While older women were fighting for women’s rights on the streets and in the courts to win public sentiment and shape public policy, my first battles were fought on the playground and in the classroom. Today, my students, like me at the time, think those no-pants-for-girls rules were stupid, and they find those struggles quaint. When I tell them I’m an ancient authority on second-wave feminism, they laugh. But I’m glad they can take wearing pants for granted. Such a small victory, but one that opened worlds.
To my readers: I’d love for you to share this posting with younger people especially so they can see that small struggles add up to large changes! Thanks!