Monday, August 16, 2010

My First Brushes With Sexism

It's an unfair reality, but I think that every woman has dealt with some form of sexism at some point in their lives. (We need to fight for our daughters to have different lives than we have had!) While I'm still in high school, I haven't had that much experience in the world, but I can remember a few sexist encounters from my childhood.

The first time was in kindergarten. My class was coming back to the classroom from the gym, so three boys and I decided to surprise everyone by getting there first and greeting them when they came in. (Later when I worked at a day camp, a camper did this to us, so I figured I was paid back for torturing my teachers like this.) After several minutes, the teachers came into the classroom, frantically looking for the four of us. They yelled at us. A lot. Then one of the boys’ parents who was around admonished us.

“That was a very bad thing the three of you did,” he said, obviously referring to my three male cohorts. “Or should I say the four of you!”

The intimidated five-year-old me didn’t say anything, but I remember thinking, I did the same thing as them. Why shouldn’t I be included in the punishment just because I’m a girl?

The second time was probably the summer I was going into second grade. I was on the bus going to day camp, and one boy, three years older than me and on the basketball team, was the only one I knew. He was wearing a sleeveless basketball jersey.

“If our principal saw you wearing that he’d kill you,” I informed him. After all, I wasn’t allowed to wear anything sleeveless, since that would violate the laws of tzniut (modesty). If I was seen wearing sleeveless, I would get into big trouble. Wouldn’t he get into trouble, too?

“No I wouldn’t,” he replied. “I’m on the basketball team. The principal gave me this jersey.”

That made me extraordinarily confused. If girls can’t wear sleeveless, then doesn’t the same rule apply to boys? I don’t remember if I ever asked anybody about the discrepancy, or if I just absorbed the double standard about the difference of dress for boys and girls.

The last sexist experience I can remember was in fifth or sixth grade. While my elementary school was coed, the boys and girls were separated from fifth grade on, except for Hebrew language class. Our regular teacher was out, so we had a male substitute, a Lower East Side very right-wing rabbi that only taught the boys’ classes. He supervised while we did the work that the teacher left. Since I work extremely fast (the internship I did over the summer actually ran out of work for me), I finished pretty quickly.

“There’s no way you’re done,” he said to me when I told him. “Sit back down and finish.”

“But I’m done,” I said, exasperated.

“No, you’re not,” he said, and I went back to my seat and checked over my very much finished work. A few minutes later, a boy (one of the boys who had participated in my kindergarten escapade) said that he finished his work. The teacher believed him.

I’m glad I can only think of three real encounters (excluding all of the vomit-inducing things I’ve heard in my right-wing high school) of sexism from my childhood, but I’m still upset that such things happened at all. I was always a strong girl; my mom raised me with the mindset that girls can do anything. I remember proclaiming girls’ superiority to boys’ often to my male classmates. Because of my pride in my femininity, I wasn’t terribly affected by my brushes with sexism.

What about the girls who weren’t raised as proud of their gender as I was, though? What about the girls who internalize the sexism they encounter? What about those girls? What happens to them?


  1. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was harassed by a married male co-worker who wanted to have sex with me. He propositioned me just about every day other day, and I turned him down every time. It never occurred to me to complain to my supervisor because the very concept of sexual harassment didn't even exist yet, or, if it did, I had not yet heard of it. Such obnoxious behavior on the part of male co-workers and bosses was just one of the things that female employees were expected to put up with. (The year in question was roughly 1975.) I thank goodness (and the US government) that younger American women don't have to accept sexual harassment as part of the price of employment.

    As for your question "If girls can’t wear sleeveless, then doesn’t the same rule apply to boys?," I've asked a similar question here.

  2. Dang... I'm going to summon my Polish roots and say that teacher was a DUPA! How rude!

  3. Re the sleeves, it's not a double standard at all. Women's bodies have a different effect on men than men's bodies have on women, because that's how Hashem created them. Take the word of a man that a sleeveless woman is a very sexually provocative sight. Tznius comes to create boundaries so such thoughts and desires will not be provoked in the wrong context.

  4. @Danielle - lol.

    @chenyok - I see what you're saying, but it shouldn't be women's responsibility to keep men controlled. Men should be able to keep their minds out of the gutter on their own.