When I was six, my parents told me they were having another kid, and it was a boy.
Of course, I love my brothers—nothing can change that. The three of us have always been close, are equally intelligent, and share the same blonde hair and sense of humor. But as I reached high school, I started to isolate subtle differences in the way that we were treated. When my older brother would go out, my parents didn’t tell him to keep pepper spray on hand. They didn’t tell him not to walk alone at night, and they didn’t tell him to always walk with a friend. They didn’t tell him that certain articles of clothing were too revealing, or that he had to call home before staying over at a friend’s house. None of these rules applied to him, and I soon realized why—because he is a boy. I, on the other hand, had the apparent misfortune of having an elaborate set of guidelines established for me—because I am a girl.
So my question is this: Is it true that on the whole, we feel better relegating women to “safer” roles in sports and society than we do men? I don’t blame my parents for worrying about me; I’m actually certain that most girls and women get the same treatment from their own well-meaning parents and spouses. But why are we made to feel uncomfortable when a woman enters a situation in which a man is totally secure and even respected?
Suzy, the officer in the U.S. Army who spoke to the class, provided insight into perhaps one of the most male-dominated fields in the world: the military. She spoke candidly of her experiences as an American woman in particular, and what resonated with me the most was her response when a male student asked Suzy if her efforts to fit in with the boys—using men’s deodorant, etc.—further handicapped women in the military because she was obscuring her femininity. She replied with a smile, and told the student that she simply did what she had to do to be respected for her actions and not her sex. In order to be respected for what we do, women have to be ready to emulate men so that they see us in a similar light as they see each other. Only then can men see women outside of the safe roles in which they think women should exist. Likely, these are not even conscious distinctions—but centuries of treating women like gentle, breakable creatures has led to these ingrained ideas of how women should be allowed to act.
“Allowed to act”—what a horrible phrase to say. Trollope made mention of the role of women in ancient Olympic games in his “British Sports and Pastimes”, published in 1868. This is what he had to offer: “It was death by law to any of the women who crossed either of the rivers to witness these contests.” Nice! We’ll just be over here, safe in the home, while you guys cross mighty rivers and dominate in the athletic events. Where’s Lysistrata when you need her? As we see later on in Trollope’s work, the only sport that Englishmen felt women could fairly partake in was hunting, because “we cannot perceive that either ladies or clergymen are disturbed by what they find there.” God forbid we disturb the ladies. We see the same theme here as we do in Suzy’s story—and the two take place over a century apart—the theme that society views women as unable to handle the conditions in which men thrive. As Professor LaVaque-Manty pointed out, women were only this year permitted to compete in ski jumping in the Winter Olympic games because people weren’t sure that women’s bodies could handle the sport. Even though men and women alike do agree that changes need to be made, society on the whole is grudgingly reluctant to remove women from relatively “safe” roles in the world.
The fight for true equality is an uphill one, but I have confidence that women will get there someday. Assuming, that is, that we don’t get hurt on the way.