When Was Your First Time?

The first time is something we don’t ever forget.

We may not talk about it with anyone, but it changes us. There’s a loss of innocence, and we carry that with us forever. We keep it secretly to ourselves, never willing to bring it out of the darkness or to share it at all.

But it’s time to be bold and talk about it — about that very first time.

The first time you tasted sexism.

It’s tough right now to be a woman.  You can’t turn on the television or scroll through social media without hearing words that aren’t just words to us, but for many are triggers that make us feel ill, alienated,  and hurting. Misogyny. Sexual assault. Rape culture. We’re learning ad nauseam the dirty details about lines being crossed and bodies being shamed, by word and by deed. Everything we’re talking about has to do with that “ism” that many of us don’t like to use.  We talk about Racism. Anti-Semitism. Ageism, even. But Sexism makes us pause and think twice.

When I was growing up as a little girl, I heard a lot of comments about females. And none of them were good. Women were bad drivers, scatter-brained, gossipers, irrational, overly-emotional, not to be trusted, and they only were interested in spending their husband’s money. With a gender description such as this, it’s amazing that I ever wanted to grow up to be a woman. 

Was it sexism? 

You bet it was. 

But did I know it at the time, or feel it was wrong?  Not really.  That’s how I was raised, and everything I heard in my family was also what I was seeing in movies and television. Like background music in an elevator or a dentist office, you get used to it after awhile and pretty soon you just tune it out. But there was one time I couldn’t tune it out. There was a moment in my life when something was said that made me hear in a new way, made me feel something deep inside, and changed me forever. 

It was the first time I truly understood the ugliness of sexism.

I was pregnant with my first child, and there are no words to describe the joy I felt as I carried a new life inside of me. With every movement within my womb, I felt a newfound pride at being a woman and being able to give life. My husband’s uncle called us one night to congratulate us — I was seven months pregnant, and nervous as hell.  He was a dear man, this uncle, generous and charming, and I loved him.  He was thrilled to hear we were going to be parents and offered us a bit of wisdom.

“You know it’s going to be a boy, don’t you? Our family only has boys,” he told me. 

“And if it’s a girl?” I asked in all innocence. 

He laughed at that thought, and then added, “Well, you know what they do in China?  They kill girls.” 

He laughed again and I felt ill.   

The conversation went on, and I just listened. 

Sickened. 

Not just by his cruel comment, but by my sudden silence. I didn’t have a voice to answer him.  Or to confront him for what he had said. I knew it was racist, but I had a hard time telling myself it was sexist.

I spent most of the night quietly thinking about what this favorite uncle had said to me.   How could I speak up to this when I didn’t fully understand the pain I was experiencing as a woman?  This wasn’t the first time I’d heard something bad said about being female in this world. Why couldn’t I just forget it, and move on? This man was a loving person, and someone I had always respected. He didn’t really mean the comment, I was sure.  So why not just forgive him? But by morning I couldn’t find it in my heart to let this moment go by. 

I spoke to my husband about it, and he laughed and said, “Oh, he was just kidding.” 

Somehow that wasn’t enough. 

“You’re Jewish,” I reminded him. “What if we replaced the word “girl” with “Jew?”  How would you feel?” 

It’s the only time in my life I’ve seen my husband truly speechless.  He understood.  He felt the pain that I’d felt for being treated as less, as inferior, as something without value.  This was the first time sexism became more than just a word in the dictionary. I felt it for the first time. 

But not for the last.

I have a theory about all those nasty, hateful terms with “ism” in them.  When we don’t talk about them, they linger. If we just let them happen, or ignore them, they don’t go away.  How can we find an answer, if we’re unwilling to talk about it with each other? 

There’s a conversation going on right now in our country and for the first time it has captured the attention of television cameras, radio microphones, and every bit of cyberspace of social media.  I know it hurts to keep hearing ugly words, and witnessing hateful attitudes we’ve spent our lifetimes as women experiencing.  But as painful as this might be right now, it’s the only way for this “ism” to get better. 

So that all the little girls to come never have to go through what we’ve gone through.

And all the little boys will never be burdened by such hatred.

23 thoughts on “When Was Your First Time?

  1. I began watching The Donna Reed Show on Hulu, just for nostalgia. I was shocked by the sexism portrayed by Dr. Stone! I never even noticed it growing up, and wanted to “be” Donna Reed, meeting my husband at the door with pearls, heels, and an apron on. Its an eye-opener to see it again.

  2. My first time aware of sexism was at about 7 years of age. My father was upset with my mother and trying to explain herself she started saying, “Well, I just thought…” He interrupted her shouting, “There you go, thinking again!” I couldn’t understand why he got so angry that she was thinking.

  3. Thank you for speaking up. I was a lucky male, growing up in a family where my parents were full partners in business and in life. My three sisters and I had excellent role models. We thought our home was typical. We learned later how wrong we were. My late wife was a feminist, not radical just firm, and to our three daughters was with both a role model and a hero. My hero, too!

  4. Darlene, being a Baby Boomer, I remember the feminist movement and the work that so many women did to promote equality. Unfortunately, equality in the workplace can be legislated but equality in the brains of some people can not. Thank you for sharing your tale – it is incredibly timely. Many women my age have come in contact with sexism. I think my pals and I let it roll off our backs and chalked it up to ignorance. We built our careers and kneed a few neanderthals along the way. The one incident that has irked me probably shouldn’t – I When I got married, I kept my last name. My mother refused to accept that and addressed all letters to me with my husband’s surname. Sigh…

    • Unfortunately, many of us “Baby Boomers” had mothers who helped keep sexism going strong. I don’t blame them, really – That’s the way most women were raised. Internalized oppression can sometimes be the hardest to fight against because it’s not even acknowledged. How can you fight against an enemy when the enemy is within you?

  5. This is a great post for all that has been said in the media lately. I started turning the TV off once again. I grew up in the south and I was around my share of sexism. I was a young girl and did not understand until I was older. Darlene- I understand your pain.

    • Thanks, Alesia – I appreciate our “sisterhood.” And yep, I’ve turned off the tv a LOT in the recent days. Unfortunately, my husband is a cable news fan, and I sometimes find him sneaking on the set in the back bedroom. I guess we DO need to know what’s going on in this world so we can at least try to fight back. I try to do it in these posts, whenever possible.

  6. Yes, indeed, thank you for speaking up. Sexism has always struck me as adding to my stock of evidence that modern society runs on Stone Age ethics.What else can one think? Sexism, after all, is overtly condoned by governments which endorse a policy of higher pay for men than for women though both are doing the same job.Where do social justice and equal opportunities for everybody that should be the basis of a democracy come into this? Nowhere.
    I would add: My mother was no feminist, but her work as a medical doctor commanded her children’s deep respect and admiration. As a general practitioner she never ignored a call for help, even those she had to answer at dead of night, tramping through West Indian bush country lugging a couple of bags with medical equipment.

    • I love this image of your mother quietly going about her business and helping others. I think there are many women who do this. They may not speak out, but in their own way they are living their lives in resistance against those “Stone Age ethics” in the modern society. I will always feel grateful to them for making the paths many of us follow.

  7. It’s so true. I think I really got it when I realized my parents offered to send both of my brothers to college but not me. When asked once at a dinner party “What one thing would you change about how you raised your kids?”, my father responded, ” I made a terrible mistake. I have three kids and I gave the wrong one balls!” I was an adult in my early 30’s by then. I told my dad that was the only compliment he had ever given me and he didn’t even mean it to be. I have two brothers.

    • I seriously relate to this story, Nancy. My mother lost part of the placenta when she was pregnant with me. Very dramatic. Lots of bleeding and a stay in the hospital. They thought she lost the baby. My father once told me, “That was your penis she lost.” He was smiling when he said it, but still…

  8. Ah Darlene, this is just such a painful subject, ohmygod. And this is an EXCELLENT commentary, perfectly and graphically expressed — BRAVO. I’m actually going to send it to a number of people 🙂 (males).

  9. A knife twists in me when I think of my mum and some of what she faced in her life. Her father, a medical doctor practising in a British colony, was an exception for Victorian times when male chauvinism was taking aim at would-be women doctors. He encouraged his daughter to study medicine.
    As a doctor, she worked in Britain, Egypt and Jamaica. I saw her only twice reach critical mass with would-be male humiliators who only succeded in humilating themselves to the astonishment of surrounding males. “Good God! She bashed him!”Otherwise, she went calmly about her work, as you said.
    I think she modelled herself on Dr Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first woman to qualify as a surgeon and the Dean of the medical school of London’s Royal Free Hospital for Women, from which my mother graduated in the 1920s. Dame Louisa was decorated for her brilliant work as a surgeon among the wounded of World War I.
    My mother often spoke of her when she became tense about something. Otherwise she would tell us children: “You must remember, I am only one generation away from those women who wanted to be doctors and had to pretend to be men to do so. They bound down their breasts and put on men’s clothes to get into medical school.”
    I have read accounts of what some 19th century women in Britain went through to gain entry to the medical profession. I think a history of women throughout the world gaining entry to this and other professions would make rivetting reading. I wonder, however, if it would do anything to relieve the cave man insecurites society everywhere still lives by, leading us to find enemies everywhere, not only in women, but in men of other tribes, nations, religions and pretty well everything else.

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