I go to a lot of ceremonies where I’m regularly told that in order to honor my grandmother, I must wear a skirt.
(There are dissenters, but this is a message which comes around regularly.) It dawned on me this morning why this bothers me so much.
In the 60s, when I was in grade school, I lived in suburban Philadelphia. We got snow every winter, 3 or 6 inches at a time. There were plenty of snowplows, so it was usual to go to school when it snowed or at most a day later. Every now and then we would have a snow day, but because it stayed cold, there were still inches of snow on the ground when we went back. The temperature stayed in the low 20s or teens. At that time, in addition to no Iphones and no internet and no computers, and having to research by actually going to the library and looking for books in a card catalogue, we had dress codes. Not only did boys have to wear pants which actually covered their undershorts(nor would it have occurred to them not to), but girls were forbidden to wear pants.
This meant that in sixth grade when I left the house to walk to the busstop, waited for the bus outside, and then got off the bus to wait another twenty minutes in the schoolyard in the snow for the school to open at 8:45 am, I was standing in the snow. In a skirt. And snowboots. There came a winter and a day that was so cold that I put on pants. My mother said that surely the teacher could not get mad in that weather. Mind you, I tested out as the smartest student in the entire elementary school, and was in the top 2% nationwide. I’d never been in trouble in school once and could be relied on to always have the answer, whatever the teacher’s question was. But when the students were let into the school that day, I entered with trepidation, while the boys were exuberant and boisterous with relief at the warmth. Sure enough, the teacher came over to me and started shouting that if I didn’t take off my pants and put on a skirt I would have to go home. She would call my mother. I was in trouble. I was a bad kid. Because I didn’t want to catch pneumonia. This was not a day on which I learned that women honor each other by wearing skirts. This was a day on which I learned that women will punish their own and sell you out and that your appearance is more important to them than anything you know or are likely to ever know or learn. If I’m not mistaken, this was the same teacher who, when I told her that some boys had knocked me over on the playground and got on top of me and shoved snow down my shirt during recess, told me that “boys will be boys” and to get over it and there was nothing she would do about it. So-assault by boys, ok and accepted and expected. Wearing warm clothes by girls, deplorable, punishable, expellable offense. This is why I bristle when anyone tells me to wear a skirt. This is why I look askance at women when they tell me to show respect to older women. Let those older women show some respect for the little girls, and I will. Some of them do, and some will sell you out over and over and over for nothing more than a dress code and a code of silence on the behavior of boys. The message was that there is no protection, there is no understanding, there is no compassion, and you are only here in the end for decoration. This was a public, not a parochial school.