"Women can't project authority" and six other sexist ideas I don't miss

Some days it's hard to feel optimistic about progress for women's rights when we're still having to fight for reproductive rights, the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. But after watching MAKERS: Women Who Make America on PBS, I've been reflecting on what's changed since I was a girl in the 1970s. It's a lot. Among things I haven't heard since childhood:

  1. "Women can't project authority." This was the rationale for why women couldn't be clergy, elected officials, radio d.j.'s or reporters. The exceptions: women could be d.j.'s on low-ratings shifts if they used a sexpot voice, or they could be reporters if they stuck to light topics, though sports reporting was only for former beauty queens. (Interestingly, I heard the "no authority" line from people who still quaked in their shoes at the mere mention of the nuns who taught them in elementary school.)
  2. "Women are horrible bosses." The flip side of supposed feminine wimpiness was being a ball-busting, hard assed bitch. I heard "never work for a woman" from plenty of men, but especially from women, including "housewives" (as we still said) who didn't have workplace bosses. 
  3. "College is for sons, not daughters." I heard this from time to time, sometimes phrased as "college is a waste for girls." One friend's father didn't want to help pay for her education even though she graduated near the top of our high school class and had plans for a profession. Her brother was never interested in college. He became a welder -- something else that would have been off limits to her. 
  4. "Only boys can slide." I played softball midway through grade school, back when girls leagues were called "powder puff." The boys over on the next diamond were allowed to slide into bases, but the girls weren't. We were told that girls would get hurt, which made eight year old me wonder if our bones were more brittle. There was no other logical explanation.
  5. "No girls allowed." When I went to Catholic school, I wanted to be an altar girl, but it was for boys only. I was a quiet, studious kid who never got into trouble, but boys who misbehaved or got lousy grades could still serve just because they were boys. I hated that. At my nephew's First Communion a few years ago, I teared up when I saw that all the servers were girls. And yes, I know that the priesthood is still the ultimate Boys Club, but this one change meant a lot to me.
  6. "Damn women's libbers!" This is what many men said when women did anything - even small things - to be independent. I particularly remember this line being hurled at someone who was trying to escape domestic violence. As a kid I saw feminists through the lens of the sexist media who painted them as over-the-top and a little scary, but little by little I saw that what they advocated was what I wanted too, and that the opposition was made up of people trying to hold on to the old ways.
  7. "Nurse, secretary, teacher." Those were the options I turned over in my head when my kindergarten teacher asked what we students wanted to be when we grew up. She didn't give any specifics beyond that, but the other girls and I knew this was the list to pick from. I didn't like any of these options, so I said "nurse" just to have an answer. I was glad I wouldn't have to decide on a job for a long time.

Yes, elements of the above beliefs that still linger, but when I tell children how things used to be, they look baffled. "That's crazy!" is the typical response. Just as it never entered my mind that I could be anything but a secretary, nurse or teacher, it's never entered their minds that women can only pick from three jobs. 

For that, I am deeply grateful. 

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