Sunday, 11 December 2011

My first feminism

A memory came back to me today, seemingly at random, of PE in year five. Bearded Mr Swift the Games teacher herded us all outside for a game of rounders (the trick was to endure your turn batting, and then 'field' as far away as you could possibly manage: half a mile away, where the trees began, usually ensured that your catching abilities would never be tested). We were divided into teams - mine was first up to bat. Nasty Sam was first in line. Quiet Julie bowled. Nasty Sam swung his bat, sent the ball a whole ten yards, and charged to first base. (This was long before 'bases' had any naughty connotations.) I retrieved the bat from where he'd flung it on the ground, trudged up to the spot, and prepared to flail madly for ten minutes before being put out of my misery. But wait! Bearded Mr Swift was walking towards Quiet Julie - what was he going to say? "You're bowling it wrong", perhaps? "Let me throw it, just to embarrass Unsporty Hannah even more"? Maybe even, please let it be so, "Don't bother - let's not make Hannah do PE ever again"?

Nope. He was giving her a different ball. A smaller ball. A foam ball.

Now, the preceding paragraph may have hinted at the fact that PE was not my favourite thing in the world. I was active enough - this was before puberty hit and made the idea of any movement in front of anyone while not wearing clothes the size of a rotund peasant's burlap sack unspeakably humiliating - but still, organised games with a class full of hellions was not my idea of a fun way to spend a hot summer's afternoon.

But my nascent feminist consciousness sure as shit wasn't letting that one past.

"Why are you giving her a different ball, Beardy Mr Smith?" I asked.

"This one is for the girls."

Yup. He didn't even try to pretend. There may have been some faintly logical reasons he could have trotted out - "You, personally, could not hit the proverbial cow's bum with a banjo, so a lighter ball might give you a slightly better chance of wheezing to first base before it's retrieved, giving you less excuse to get 'out' as quickly as possible and spend the rest of this class making daisy chains in the shade" would at least have been accurate. But no: he went the Yorkie bar route. THIS BALL IS NOT FOR GIRLS.

In later years, sexism would get dressed up in all kinds of guises. Unequal treatment would be justified by custom ("girls never use that ball"), by religion ("God says girls aren't allowed to use that ball") or by science ("girls just can't use that ball"). But the basic message behind it remained the same.

People never seem to tire of ascribing any kind of gendered behaviour, from lactation to embroidery, to Females' Lower Muscle-to-Fat Ratio. While this is pretty ridiculous when referring to grown adults - ignoring as it does that human beings exist on a continuum, there being far more variation within 'male' and 'female' than between the two; defining gender by genitalia; denying the role of conscious thought; and failing to acknowledge that it's impossible to do anything useful with this information anyway given that there will always be exceptions to your hard and fast rules - but, for fuck's sake, when you're talking about prepubescent children? It's just laughable.

If you were wondering, I organised all the girls in the class to protest this insulting division of PE equipment, and won a settlement where everyone was allowed to choose which ball they would like to use.

I was bowled out before I reached second base.

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