Tag Archives: women’s liberation

Introducing the Friedman Feminist Press Collection

Following are remarks I made last Friday at the opening reception for the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at Colorado State University, the largest collection of books in the Rocky Mountain West published by feminist presses. Providing original sources in feminist/lesbian literature and second-wave feminism, the collection archives multi-genre works by feminist publishers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that brought women and women’s words out into the world.

I want to share these remarks because I hope that the collection will draw students, scholars, and readers to learn more about this important period in second-wave feminist history and its print movement, but also because the collection is dedicated to my friend June Friedman as a legacy to her passionate commitment to the struggle for women’s rights. Thank you to everyone who came to the opening reception last Friday. For further information or to donate to student and scholar outreach and research opportunities for the collection, readers can go to https://advancing.colostate.edu/ffp

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I welcome you all to this dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at CSU’s Morgan Library. It’s no coincidence that we’re dedicating the collection in March because March is Women’s History Month and the Friedman Feminist Press collection has much to do with women’s history, both for the books that are included and for the woman after whom it is named. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit of those histories.

When I was an undergraduate at CSU in the late 1970s, I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Lory student center. It’s been remodeled, but some of you may remember the big room at the bottom of the stairway where students could eat and study, a room that was ringed by metal cubicles that served as the offices for student organizations. I was a member of one of those organizations, The Feminist Group, a student activist group working to challenge the sexism in those early days of what was then called “women’s liberation.” I loved coming down to the office every day to debate and strategize about how we, a small group of women, could bring about social change, not only on campus, but in the world.

I don’t know what year the group started, but I do remember a framed dollar bill on the wall labeled “Won September 20, 1973.” That was the day Billie Jean King played Bobbie Riggs in a tennis match that was billed the Battle of the Sexes. I loved looking at that dollar every time I went into the office because in September 1973, I was a ninth grader in Ms. Fenniman’s social studies class. Notice I said Ms. Fenniman, because she was a feminist who brought the women’s movement into our study of contemporary social issues and often wore a t-shirt with the audacious slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

One day after our class discussed the upcoming Battle of the Sexes, the boy sitting behind me bet me that Bobby Riggs would win. I am ashamed to say that although I hoped King would win, I didn’t know much about tennis or about women athletes. If I had, I would have bet against Riggs, an aging, pompous self-promoting has-been, and for Billie Jean King, one of the premiere women athletes of her time. But instead of betting on King, I told the boy behind me that my parents didn’t allow me to bet, which was true but still a really pathetic excuse. Of course, King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. So every time I saw that dollar bill in the Feminist Group office, I remembered the importance of standing up for my beliefs, whether I thought I could win or not.

As a student group, we did stand up for what we believed in. We published a newsletter, organized women’s film festivals, and wrote guest editorials about campus safety, sexual violence, reproductive rights, gender roles, and the newly flowering field of women’s studies. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Ft Collins, marching to jeers—and some cheers–past the shady bars downtown in the days before Old Town was re-developed. The activism of which I’m most proud was shutting down a campus Playboy Club in Ingersoll Hall, a so-called student tradition that clearly needed challenging in its sexist representation of women’s roles and rights.

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A big part of what I learned by these actions was that in standing up for one’s beliefs, an individual voice became even stronger when raised in unison with others. The group embodied the notion of sisterhood, where mutual support and trust inspired us to do things we wouldn’t have taken on alone. We became friends and activists together as we worked to change the sexism in our lives.

One of my closest friends was an out-of-state student named June Friedman. An agronomy major in the early days of women entering the sciences, June understood how gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings prevented women from achieving their highest goals. With other Feminist Group members and our faculty mentors and role models, June and I worked on what was then called a “chilly climate for women” on campus. As we met in our little office in the basement of the Student Center, we dreamed of a world where women were valued equally with men. We graduated together in 1981 on the soggy field after a rainstorm at Hughes Stadium. And then, a year after we graduated, June’s life was ended by the very kind of violence against which we had marched.

I went on to graduate school, first at CSU for my master’s and then to CU for my PhD. For my dissertation, I decided to examine the books of the early women’s liberation movement, books that had influenced the times in which I had come of age. I focused especially on the development of small-scale feminist presses, publishers that arose in the 60s and 70s because, with the exception of a few high profile spokeswomen like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, few feminist and lesbian books were being published by mainstream publishing houses.

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Now I have to admit that feminism did challenge the very underpinnings of society, so it makes sense from an ideological perspective that feminist books would not be entirely welcomed. That many of the books reflected the lives and perspectives of lesbians made such books even less appealing to male publishers—and the majority of publishers at that time were men.

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But the rejection of feminist books wasn’t just ideological, it was financial as well. Because male publishers weren’t interested in feminist writing, they didn’t believe such books had a viable sales market. They were wrong, of course, and in their place, the feminist/lesbian presses began to create from the outside a growing market segment for women’s books—books that centered on the rights of women to determine their own destinies—books that began to sell decades before Oprah’s book club championed such plots. And as the feminist presses created a market for those books, the mainstream presses began to notice, so that by 1977, the year I started college, a book like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room could become a bestseller for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, particularly in its mass market paperback form.

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But the difference between the feminist and conventional publishers was that the women’s press movement not only pushed the edge of mainstream publishing, but also formed an essential arm of the growing women’s movement, furthering activism committed to the larger political and social changes that have advanced women’s lives. The feminist presses understood that getting women’s words into print and seeing women’s lives reflected in books was liberatory. The slogan of Oakland’s A Woman’s Place Bookstore, the first women’s bookstore in the US, was “A woman’s place is in the world” and Louise Knapp, our speaker today, named her bookstore “Word is Out.” Being “out” in the world meant many things: claiming one’s sexual identity, gaining access in employment, politics, and education, and encouraging young women to think of a future beyond and beside marriage and family. Most of all, getting women out into the world meant making a difference in that world and the books carried in these bookstores helped bring that idea to life.

Similarly, I titled my dissertation Out into the World: The Print Evolution of Feminist Revolution. Here I talked about women who took it upon themselves to buy paper and ink and learn how to run off-set presses and hold women in print conferences and create distribution networks, newsletters, and catalogs and drive vans with cartons of books cross-country and open bookstores to sell the books the feminist presses had produced.

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I talked about books like Woman to Woman, the first all-woman anthology every published, printed by poet Judy Grahn and artist Wendy Cadden as the Free Women’s Press in San Francisco in 1970 on a mimeograph machine with onion-skin pages that sold for $1.50; and books like True-to-Life Adventure Stories published by Diana Press, which started in Baltimore and merged with The Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and run by women who, according to Judy Grahn, cut their hair when it kept getting caught in the press.

I wrote about Cherie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, recovered by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press after the white women’s press that had originally published it went into debt and out of business; and about Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, published by Daughters, Inc. in 1973, which was such a runaway bestseller, Daughters sold the paperback rights in 1977 to Bantam, a corporate publisher who by then had seen the dollar signs, sparking a debate within the feminist print movement about “selling out” and the value of mainstreaming feminist books. Some of those publishers are still with us, while others published just a few influential works, but all of those books circulated within the women’s movement and led to the changes that shape society today.

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In the process of my dissertation research, I collected books published by independent feminist presses. I found them in used bookstores, feminist publications, and a women’s book catalog called Luna Books. It became quite a collection and I realized that others could benefit from access to it. Now, almost twenty years after I finished “Out into the World,” that collection will be “out into the world” here at CSU, along with books contributed by Foula and the GLBT center, as the Friedman Feminist Press Collection in memory of my friend June.

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I can’t think of a more appropriate place for books that evoke the feminist activism June embodied. Like the courageous, generous, and adventurous women who established these presses, June lived her beliefs. She was a feminist who loved nature and books and had a bright future as an agronomist here in Colorado. We miss her dearly.

I hope you all have a chance to visit and read and use and recommend these books in the years to come. Bring your students; assign papers and projects; get other scholars interested; donate to fund outreach and research opportunities; and just come and pick up a book to experience the delightful, controversial, inspirational, and radical words written by feminist authors and published by feminist presses. I hope these books continue to bring women and women’s words out into the world, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be free.

In closing, I’d like to share another memory of June. While we were students here at CSU in the late 70s, June and I organized a women’s book group that met for potlucks in the basement apartments we rented in those days. I only remember two of the books that we read. One was The Women’s Room, which I mentioned earlier, and the other was Monster, a poetry collection by Robin Morgan, a book that seemed to bite right into the side of the patriarchy we opposed. In dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to June, here is an excerpt from Morgan’s poem “Letter to a Sister Underground.” I hope you will take it in the spirit of 1970s feminist social change in which it was written:

 

How to close such a message?

I miss you.

We are all as well as can be expected.

Hope you are fine and

having a wonderful time.

Don’t send a picture postcard when you can.

Stay hidden.

Come back to us.

We’ll join you.

Don’t accept rides from strange men,

and remember that all men are strange as hell.

Think of us sometime, my sister,

Forget us, my friend.

Watch for me when you look in the mirror;

I see you all the time.

Take care of ourselves.

See you soon.

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For June

Dear June,

Tomorrow I’ll have been missing you for 30 years. You would be in your 50s now and we would have celebrated so many important milestones together. Instead, you were taken from us at much too young an age in a way no one should have to bear.

We were students together at Colorado State University in the late 1970s and early 80s, where we joined the CSU Feminist Group to try to make a difference for women on campus. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Fort Collins and shut down a campus Playboy Club. We held Women in Film festivals and published The Feminist Newsletter. You wrote “A Touching Story” about the need for skin-to-skin contact in our lives.

When we graduated in 1981, we found each other on the football field at Hughes Stadium in the midst of hundreds of other graduates to hug and celebrate how far we had come. We stayed in touch during the next year as we began a new phase of our lives in neighboring cities. And then, on June 11, 1982, you were gone.

Thirty years ago, my daughter was only five months old when I turned on the noon news—something I rarely did—and saw the gruesome photos of a young woman’s murder. Although your name wasn’t used, I knew it was you. It took hours to confirm that fear.

I wish I could have been more involved in the investigation from the beginning, but with a newborn baby, I had to depend on others for help. Now I wish I had been the one to ask the questions and I wish fewer mistakes had been made along the way. None of that would have brought you back, but justice might have been served in some small way to offer a healing for those who grieved your loss.

Almost a year after your death, I was in my bedroom while my daughter took a nap when I sensed a strong smell of flowers from a bush outside the window. I’d never smelled it that strong before. And then I felt you there with me, assuring me that you were all right and that it was time for you to leave. I cried because I realized that you had been with me from the beginning, helping me to care for my daughter despite my sorrow and pain.

You had been so excited at her birth, you brought me the flagstone slab you found hiking when you came to see her for the first time. That was so typical of you—supporting others by sharing your life. I carried that stone with me from home to home for years, until I decided it was time for it to stay in one place as I continued on alone. But your memory never faded and when I could face your death again, I began to ask the questions I hadn’t before.

Five years ago, the police returned to your case with new eyes and new methods. They still believe the original suspect is guilty but they haven’t yet been able to find the evidence they need to convict him. Last week I talked with one of the detectives about the possibility for new types of DNA testing to provide the proof necessary for an indictment. A murder case is never closed. We’re still waiting for a breakthrough, but it hasn’t come yet.

I have missed you constantly the last thirty years and will never give up hope for your murderer to be brought to justice. But it’s time to mark your life with something other than your death. We were in a feminist book group together one summer thirty-some years ago; I remember reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Monster by Robin Morgan, books that placed women’s lives at the center rather than the margins of the world. Because you loved women’s writing, I want to dedicate a collection of feminist press-published books to you, my friend, in the Special Collections library at Colorado State University.

These are the books I collected while writing my dissertation on feminist publishing of the 1970s, books that carried forward the work you and I began while students at CSU. I want the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to inspire other young feminists to challenge the limitations they face in their lives as you and I did together more than 30 years ago. The collection is a reminder of how far women have come and a call to continue that activism in these reactionary times.

With these books, I dedicate the memory of our friendship to the joy we felt at the work we did. I will be missing you, June, forever, but I will never forget what a wonderful friend you have been.

Love,

Kayann

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Girls, Intercepted

Even before Winona Ryder produced and starred in the film with Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted was a strikingly honest memoir that exposed the consequences of rejecting traditional female gender roles for white, affluent girls in the late 1960s. In the book, Susanna Kaysen alternates memories of her stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts with analysis of a mental health system that recommended institutionalization for rebellious girls whose families could pay the $60 a day fee, an enormous expense that, as Kaysen ironically notes, could have paid for several college educations.

But Kaysen refuses to go to college, rejecting the upwardly bound expectations of her parents and teachers. Instead, she lives in a Cambridge boarding house, working various jobs without a plan for her future or any particular ambition other than to be a writer. When her self-obsessive thoughts lead to an aspirin overdose, a therapist suggests that she “needs a rest” after a consultation of only thirty minutes (the amount of time is debated in the memoir as an example of the medical profession’s acquiesance in institutionalizing young women from the right kind of families).  He calls a cab and Kaysen checks herself into McLean for what she believes will be a short stay. Instead, she’s there for nearly two years.

One of the debates framed by the memoir is the definition of insanity. Kaysen admits that she knew she wasn’t crazy but instead living in a state of contrariety: “My ambition was to negate. . . . So the opportunity to be incarcerated was just too good to resist. It was a very big No—the biggest No this side of suicide.” At 18, saying No is easier than suggesting an alternative and Kaysen doesn’t yet have the wisdom or role models to find her Yes.

Kaysen is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis given more frequently to women than men and a familiar description of many young women who don’t follow social expectations: instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, or mood; engaging in impulsive acts like shoplifting or spending sprees. BPD can also have a self-damaging side such as self-mutilation or suicide. Still, the diagnosis remains controversial because of its gender bias and because many young women experience these types of symptoms at some point in their adolescence or young adulthood. As a therapist later told Kaysen, “It’s what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.”

One of the delights of Kaysen’s memoir is the inclusion of her hospital records detailing observations by hospital doctors and staff. One admission form notes that Kaysen is “likely to kill self or get pregnant.” Which fate would be worse for an affluent white girl in those pre-women’s liberation days? The note also labels her “promiscuous,” but as Kaysen later writes, “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn [that] label?”

Another debate at the center of the memoir is whether McLean was a refuge or a prison for young women like Kaysen. At that time of countercultural upheaval when attitudes regarding women were changing but social opportunities had not yet met their pace, the options for girls who questioned the status quo were still limited. Trying to live independently of her parents or a husband, Kaysen is confronted with sexist attitudes about women and the lonely struggle to make a living. In McLean, however, she is part of a community of young women who support each other and accept each other’s idiosyncracies within the shelter of a hospital that cares for their every need–except to let them leave the way they are.

Eventually, Kaysen does decide to leave this ensemble of misfit girls in order to pursue her own life, but the admiration and love they’ve provided strengthen her belief in herself. It’s this community of women that makes the memoir so appealing to young women readers, who are drawn to the sisterhood formed within the walls of Kaysen’s imprisonment and the collective antics that fill the time.  They relish its depiction of friendship offered fully and freely, like the young women I saw on campus yesterday, two with arms around the third one sobbing, letting her cry as long as she needed, willing to wait as long as it took. How iconic that image and how important to coming of age for young women today as much as in Kaysen’s time.

My students love Girl, Interrupted. In part they’re fascinated by the story of a girl who refused the script that they themselves are living—college in preparation for a comfortable and interesting life, one they hope will balance work, family, and friends. But they can also see the allure of the hospital as refuge for Kaysen, the appeal of being taken care of while the world’s craziness goes on outside. Still, they know the value of their youthful years and they empathize deeply with Kaysen’s insistence on accounting for each minute she’s lost.

Girl, Interrupted makes me think about my own teenage years and I hope to write more about them someday.  It’s tricky, though, to tell those truths because if they don’t sound trivial, they certainly sound crazy, an admission of behavior somewhere between bad judgment and caution thrown to the winds of wanting more.  If you haven’t read Girl, Interrupted, give it a try and then watch the movie too. You’ll root for these girls and their crazy lives, intercepted until the times can catch up with them.

 

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Girls Wear Pants

“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.

My first day of kindergarten, properly attired

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.

Young Feminists Celebrate their Pants-For-Girls Victory

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!

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