Glory Days

“Come in here right now.”

“What did I do?”

“Showing your panties to all the boys in the neighborhood? Do you ever think?”

I guess what I was doing was tantamount to the can-can. The way I saw it, I came home from school, didn’t change my clothes, went out to the backyard to play with my friends. I was on one team with four others, and across the yard were five more. We were playing touch football, and I was doing a kick-off. We were small enough that a big backyard was good enough for a football field. 

“What?”

“You don’t kick straight up in the air like that, not when you’re wearing a skirt! That’s WHY the boys want to play with you. They can see your panties!”

I felt stupid and humiliated. Part of me didn’t believes that was why “all the boys” wanted to play with me. I told her, too, but my mother just scoffed. I believed it was because I was a good athlete and could out-run, out-hit, out-kick all of them. In my possibly benighted perspective, the boys just wanted to win. That’s why I was picked first. But maybe my mother was right.

“Go change. Sooner or later you’re going to learn that boys don’t like girls who play football.”

I went to my room and changed into jeans, but when I went back out, everyone was gone. They all figured they’d be in trouble, too.

***

I don’t dispute that boys want to look at girls’ panties. I learned that to be true. But I still think it’s possible for fourth grade boys to want to play football even if one of the players is a girl. Of course, I don’t really know that for sure. I’ve never been a boy. But there is the thing about women — girls — and sports.

I was lucky that from sixth grade through junior high I had supportive coaches even though I didn’t have a supportive mom. My 8th grade track coach had sent home a permission slip for my mom to sign giving me permission to try out for — and go to — Olympic training camp. My dreams of running middle distances and sprints in the Olympics was shot down when my mother refused, saying that 1) if I ran too fast the boys couldn’t catch me, 2) running would make it impossible for me to have children someday, 3) men didn’t like women who were good at sports. 

The year before, I had run a 57 second quarter mile, on grass, barefoot. My coach and his assistant, both looked at their stopwatches in amazement, Coach Larson, said, “I want to talk to you.” I don’t remember the conversation, something about my time being very fast.

Back then, I ran everywhere. My hero at the time was Wilma Rudolf, Olympic Champion in the middle distances.

When I was in college, 1970/72 at a girl’s school, it wasn’t easy to play a sport. Girls’ sports teams were not well supported and getting a decent season line up wasn’t always easy. It was difficult enough to find two field hockey teams in the same conference, never mind enough for a track meet.

That was pretty much it for me and running. 

***

The Good X, whom I married when I was 30, was a runner, and ran a lot of 10Ks. I’d learned that distances like that on roads were not interesting to me, nor was starting off with a crowd of people wearing numbers, even if there was a T-shirt at the end. I tried. It wasn’t until I was 35 — and had a dog — that I rediscovered the joy of running and found that running on trails was incredible fun.

***

Meanwhile, back when I was in junior high, other women were fighting the good fight. I didn’t even know about it until a couple of years ago when I learned of Bobbi Gibb. In 1966, when I was fourteen and had given up fighting with my mom, a 23 year old woman, Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon, unregistered.

“… Gibb famously hid in the bushes near the starting line in Hopkinton and jumped in the middle of the pack wearing her brother’s shorts and a blue-hooded sweatshirt to disguise herself…The men on the course vowed to protect her if race officials tried to intervene.”

She ran it even though she couldn’t register, and in doing so proved that women had the strength, endurance and will to train for and complete a long race. I have never run a marathon (my dog, Molly, and I walked one), but as a (former) runner I cannot imagine that Bobbi Gibb didn’t LOVE running. She had to have loved running. 

Researching her today I found that she is an artist and was commissioned to create a sculpture of herself at the starting line, in clay, that will be cast in bronze. Of the sculpture she said, “I know how it feels to run from the inside and I know what it is like to run a marathon…I work from the inside out getting the feel. It has to be alive.” (Source)

That’s pure love of running (and love of art).

When Bobbi Gibb ran, women’s track shoes did not exist. She wore a small pair of men’s. As I read that I thought about my own seventh grade track shoes which were, also, a small pair of men’s. I loved them. They were real racing shoes, with the three stripes of Adidas. Were they Adidas? I don’t know…

Bobbi Gibb 1966 Boston Marathon

In 1967, the year after Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to register for and run in the race. As she was racing, the race manager repeatedly attacked her, trying to stop her, to grab her number and to get her out of the race.

***

Lynda Barry Cartoon

I was thinking about all of this in connection with the whole male privilege thing. Not the sports so much, but the list of how I had to be if I wanted a husband. There might be something TO that list since I never did find a permanent love relationship. In fact, whenever I tried, every single time, I felt someone had shaken salt on my tail. Is this because I grew up thinking that boys would only like me if I were, you know, someone else? I’ve felt trapped in every relationship I’ve been in. 

I’m willing to think that it’s just me. There is a lot of dark shit in my background that made forming intimate relationships — even close friendships — fairly difficult. But I also wonder how many women in my generation were brought up with the a litany like that my mom gave me? On the one hand, I was told I could do anything if I put in my best effort and really wanted to. On the other hand, I was told that if I did things I wanted to do, the boys wouldn’t like me. 

***

In 1972, Title IX was passed as an amendment to the Civil Rights law of 1965. It says — innocuously enough, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”— Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (20 U.S. Code § 1681 – Sex)

Basically, it means that anything the boys get, the girls get too. Every dollar that goes into men’s sports must be matched by a dollar going into women’s sports for both secondary and post secondary education.

Wow. 

Sometimes in the early 2000s I saw how much Title IX had changed the world for female collegiate athletes when one of my students — girl soccer player — invited me to attend the Scholar Athletes Awards Banquet at San Diego State . We sat at a big round table — one of many in that banquet room. Seated with us were two petite young runners. I asked them about their sports and when they said, “Track,” I asked what they ran. They smiled at me, really happy to be asked. “Middle distances. I run 400 meters and the 400 meter relay. She runs the 200 meters and the 400 meter hurdles.” I was sitting with the future, and I loved it. At that banquet, the vast majority of scholar/athletes were women. These athletes had both excelled in their sports and maintained a very high grade point average. These women were smart, strong — and beautiful. 

18 thoughts on “Glory Days

  1. Oh, the list of don’ts for the girls of our era: don’t be too smart, too talkative, too athletic, too opinionated, too…like a boy.

    I vividly remember concluding at a very young age that I wasn’t pretty or feminine enough to snag a man (based on the cultural standards of the time), not did I want children (which seemed a prerequisite for marriage), so I became determined to be smart instead and support myself.

    So far, so good!

    What I know: dogs make damn fine companions 🙂

    • I determined the same, I think, by default. 😀 I followed my Aunt Martha who never married and who had a profession. My mom’s life seemed boring and unrewarding in comparison.

  2. I wish you had been able to at least try. That destruction of opportunity was sad. In HS the only sports for girls were volleyball and tennis. Of course I was too short for volleyball and I lacked the desire to play tennis due to the danger of sunburn and sunstroke… I did play tennis once in college (on a date no less) and nearly ended up in the hospital. Now give me a pingpong paddle and I will give you a run for your money! I’m so happy that Title IX has changed the landscape of sports. I love watching women’s basketball – so much more fun than the men’s games….

  3. So I didn’t realize that running prevented a girl from eventually having children. I must be a living miracle then. Who knew? Damn those messages we got. All the prerequisites to being “good enough.” My mother felt that thinness was most important. And being “ladylike” which never made a bit of sense to me. I played with the boys too – kickball was my game. Perfect for street playing. And schoolyard at recess. Title IX made all the difference for the next generation. My daughter went from sport to sport, never knowing how different it could have been. I love the Boston Marathon story. The power of one to start a change. 🙂

    • I think the known fact that women who ran a lot might not menstruate as regularly as those who don’t led to the old wives tale that women who ran couldn’t have children. That’s not to say you’re not a living miracle! 😉 That ladylike thing? I guess there was also, “Act like a man!” Kickball was a blast. I liked it, too. Baseball for feet…

      • Ah yes. That old wives tale. (was it really old wives though. 😉) Yes! Baseball for feet, that’s great. I clearly remember being thrilled when a 5th grade boy told me (obviously shocked) that I was “really good” at kickball – after a game at recess. I developed an unrequited crush.

  4. This was such an informative post. Thank you.
    And your mom … wow. Well, she knew what she knew, as in the fact that she was a product of her time. I’m sorry.

  5. A terrific post that captures the social mores of that time. I had just graduated from college when Title IX was enacted, and was so very happy for the girls who would benefit from it. I was lucky to have had opportunity for competition in the private Quaker high school I attended, and I am certain that that experience gave me grit and persistence. What a shame that so many of us had to find that on our own!

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