In the trunk of her car, my Tante* always has a few key essentials: a spare tire, a jumper cable and a car jack. She usually keeps some winter clothes in the back seat, and nestled behind a pile of biology books lies a pair of hiking boots and a huge pair of overalls. Deeply embedded with car grease and dirt, this blue denim has saved the elegance of silk gowns, cotton dresses and billowing skirts alike. Beneath her overalls, her outfit remains soft and clean until she diagnoses and fixes her car, returning to the road with makeup un-smudged.
This is my history. At three, as I danced in my mismatched socks, my grandmother fixed the bathroom plumbing. At five, while doing a family history project, I learned that my great-grandmother had her master’s degree and was the first certified speech pathologist in Vermont. At seven, as I wrote my first play, my mom shooed my dad away from the bills. At twelve, when I received a 100 on an exam, a male peer exclaimed, “Of course she did well, she’s a girl!” My whole world was run by women; I knew of nothing else.
At eighteen, I was preparing to attend UNH as the fourth female generation in my family, a fact that annoyed me. I yearned to create something new, explore someplace different, and here I was at the same college my family had attended for the last 75 years. My female identity was the last thing on my mind.
My ignorance of persisting sexist attitudes in our society was primarily on a personal level. The #MeToo Movement was relatively fresh in the news and as I began classes in the fall, I streamed Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing when I wasn’t studying. Abortion bans were on the rise and I joined the long list of people who felt disrespected by their country. However, my personal experience with sexism was negligible prior to my arrival at UNH.
My first memorable incident occurred just before an a cappella performance. Soundcheck had gone poorly and the group morale was low. With an hour to spare, my friend Emily* and I took charge, aiming to fix the simple tuning issue. Joe*, a male member of the group, sighed loudly and with drama.
“Calm down,” he said, patting Emily’s shoulder. “You need to breathe.” Joe took a deep breath and indicated that we should follow his lead. My mouth hung open in disbelief. As Emily began to defend her position, Joe cut her off in a high-pitched voice usually reserved for toddlers. “Oh! Oh no, you’re not breathing!”
I was apoplectic.
Afterward, I turned toward Emily. “That was super patronizing, right?” I asked, looking for confirmation.
Despite my family history and my stubborn outspokenness, I still second guess myself each time someone speaks down to me or doubts my ability. Was that really sexist? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I feel compelled to ask for reassurance from other women. Was that actually what I saw?
When I turned to Emily last fall my feelings were confirmed, but often I’m left feeling increasingly uncomfortable and confused when my female friends don’t notice anything wrong. Why don’t I trust myself? I have grown up surrounded by powerful women and I know when I am being dismissed unfairly. After speaking up my entire life, why do I still hesitate?
Therein lies the problem. As much as any other gender, women are socialized to view these small sexist behaviors as normal. This normalization was evident when I spoke to my mother and grandmother about their experiences with sexism at UNH. Initially, they had little to say. “I can’t think of anything,” my mom said. Slowly, stories began to emerge. My mother had always used a fake name when she went out dancing just to be safe, and my grandmother had been denied from the married housing on campus because it was only for married UNH men, and her husband was not attending UNH.
One story in particular stuck with me. My grandmother, who graduated from UNH in 1963 (six years before Princeton or Yale accepted women), spoke about the curfews only female students were expected to follow. “We had curfew 10 p.m. most nights,” she told me. “Maybe one at 11 p.m. [On] weekends [we could stay out until] midnight, [and we were allowed] one 1 a.m. per semester.”
According to the October 1966 Issue of The New Hampshire, a vote was held early in the school year among students on the subject of the curfew. The results of the vote were later voted on by the Faculty Senate. In the April 1967 issue of the newspaper, an article announced that the Senate voted to eradicate all women’s curfews at UNH, and the change officially went into effect in September of 1968.
My gratitude for the changes UNH has made is immense; still, I am exhausted. I’m tired of having to prove myself again and again, and tired of smiling and being agreeable. Curfews and other tangible restrictions may be long gone, but the social ones persist. We must not allow ourselves to be content with “better.” There is still much to fight for.