Hard to imagine our ancestors thinking, “How dare we give women the right to vote? Hard to imagine brains who were shocked and awed by this appalling concept. Hard to imagine there was a time when people fought hard to prevent women from voting. Not just a few people either– the majority of folks in America believed it made complete sense to NOT recognize more than half our population in considering political choices. Thankfully, a minority of our society pursued an almost four decade struggle to just make the voting right official.
On August 26, we recognize Women’s Equality Day, in honor of the adoption of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution which allowed ladies the right to vote and little girls the opportunity to grow up believing they could be anyone. First introduced in 1872, this final passage of the suffrage movement took almost 40 years. Forty years is a really long time, and little boys and girls should recognize how hard men and women fought for this amendment. This is our responsibility to show them our history. The first celebration of this day was back in 1971 with the purpose to raise awareness for gender equality and to recognize the work and sacrifice by the early suffragists. Although I grew up believing I could be anything and do anything and travel anywhere, I did not really have a concept of gender inequality until college.
It was during orientation about 24 falls ago, this same week probably, and I sat in a small group of incoming freshmen led by an upperclassmen. The question posed was, “Have you ever felt inferior to someone else based on your gender?” Eager to jump right into the college experience yet nervous to be the first to participate, I waited until a few others shared experiences from various sections of the country. Then, my turn, “No, I’ve always been empowered to make my own choices.” This very poised college senior responded, “Awesome to have felt that way, but our gender is still made to be inferior to men.” Hmmm, OK, I thought, but at least I had never felt that way. And I still don’t. And I hope my daughter or son never do— nor students that I have in class each year.
I was back to school this week for professional development preparing for my 21st year of teaching. The above poster has hung on my classroom wall for most of those two decades, not sure where it came from or how it appeared in my life— but I love it. The message doesn’t apply just to girls, although clearly the original intended audience. The meaning also doesn’t necessarily apply to just “sports” or “sporty people.” The idea of “play” simply means being engaged in something beyond oneself. “If you let me play, I will like myself more. I will have more self confidence. I will suffer less depression. If you let me play, I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me. I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to. I will learn what it means to be strong, if you let me play.”
Coaching soccer in our small town often takes me back to the days when very few girls played in the coed teams. I loved playing with the boys as a little girl at recess, at practice, in the neighborhood; no doubt they made me a tougher, stronger, faster athlete. I was lucky to have coaches in those very early years who encouraged sportsmanship, equality, and team work– regardless of the balance of little girls and boys on the team. However, I felt such pride when I turned 11 and our town introduced the first girls travel soccer team. I remember parents thinking it was a very big deal that our mid sized suburban town could finally boast an ALL GIRLS travel soccer team; there were finally enough of us to break away, and timing was good as those ages of 11, 12, 13 can be tough with coed sports and bodies grow and develop differently.
But I’m fired up for a new school year, helping my new ninth graders to find their high school voices, girls and boys alike, both on paper and out loud. I’m fired up for my first soccer practice of 20 kindergarten and first graders, boys and girls, hammering the field in their tiny cleats and shinguards, unaware of their differences just yet. I’m fired up to let them play.
Thank you to those pioneer voting rights powerhouses like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul. These women are household names in history and remind us of just how hard standing up for oneself can be and has been since the beginning. The best gift we can give children and honor their memories is that of choice. To have choice in what we become after childhood is pretty damn awesome.