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.
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.