Reading excerpts from Letty Cottin Pogrebin's "Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the '80s" makes me wonder if I grew up alone.
I was 10 years old in 1953. I spent half that year in a tree. Nobody told me it was unfeminine to wear blue jeans, or walk on fence tops, play kick the can, chase alley cats or yell at the top of my lungs.
True, girls like me were called tomboys then, but the best people, in my opinion, were other tomboys. I seem to remember that my mother told me I wasn't really a tomboy, anyway, because a tomboy was a girl who would rather be a boy. And at 10 years old, boys ranked right up there with girls who spent their weekends mooning over movie magazines and trying on makeup . . . who needed 'em?
At the grade school I went to, girls learned to play softball and to climb ropes up to the ceiling. Home economics was half sewing, half sawing, and after school a fellow came in and taught anyone who wanted to know how to melt strips of plastic over a Bunsen burner and make weird sculptures. We were also supposed to learn how to rock and roll in the gym, but nobody showed up except a few girls in turquoise poodle skirts and a little gang of boys huddled together like sheep ready for slaughter.
At summer camp I learned to paddle a canoe down river rapids, swim a mile and beat anyone at backstroke. Nobody raised an eyebrow when I announced that my favorite book was "Call of the Wild" or when I plowed my way through "A Tale of Two Cities" at 12. As far as I know, no boy ever despised me for being smart. No teacher, male or female, ever counseled me to steer clear of math and science; when I went away to college at 16, nobody found me strange because I was considering going to medical school. They found me strange for other reasons -- mainly, as I recall, because I walked in the rain without a raincoat. However, I enjoyed being strange, and soon I found other stranger people like myself and was quite happy.
When I got married, it never occurred to me to quit school or take on all the housework. I watched how toilets were cleaned, sinks were bleached, and dishes were done with scalding water and rubber gloves. This was all new to me.
After graduation, i went to India with the Peace Corps. It was 1964, quite a while before anyone had started talking about sexual stereo-typing, and years before anyone found it necessary to delete certain words from the English language to encourage people to think of women as individuals. In particular, it was before anyone thought of taking the U.S. government to task for favoring the employment of men. And if there ever was an opportunity for the government to discriminate against women because of lack of physical, mental or emotional stamina, the Peace Corps provided it. The demands made on volunteers were greater than those most people ever face, except in wartime. oWe were expected to cheerfully survive sunstroke, dysentery, rabies shots and cockroaches that measured three inches long minus their antennae; to travel, if need be, in the luggage racks of third-class trains; and to bicycle to work when only mad dogs and Englishmen were up and about. We were expected to be able to give a speech, extemporaneously, a half-hour after deplaning, to learn a new language if we'd been taught the wrong one, and to go into chicken farming if our skills in teaching college-level biology were most regretfully not required.
If the American government really had thought that women weren't up to it, in those days before liberation, it probably would have said so. But it didn't. In fact, the government went out of its way to find equally difficult assignments for single women and men, and bent over backward to treat married people as individuals. Nobody demanded this; it was simple Peace Corps policy.
Even when I insisted on having my first baby at a cockroach-infested hospital where Indian women went only as a last resort, under the care of an obstetrician known to the college community as "The Knife" because he performed so many unnecessary Caesareans, the Peace Corps decided to trust my judgment (God knows why) and not interfere.
Everything proceeded as I knew it would. When I held my baby in my arms, medical school suddenly seemed very much like someone else's idea. But then, India has a way of skewing your perspective, of suggesting, ever so gently, that you might consider questioning all those certainites you arrived with. Having grown up in a world where, for example, all colors can be adequately represented by the Crayola box of 64, what are you to make of a field of young rice plants an hour before sunset? When you come from a place where all smells are very faint and can be described as either pleasant or foul, how should you react to the sharp scent of roses, saffron, diesel oil, incense and open sewers? My two years of service were over; I went home and rethought my life.
Now, 15 years later, divorced and remarried, I spend much of my time at home, reading, thinking, writing, baking pies and raising children. My mother gave up sending me feminist literature long ago. My high school friends find me amusingly old-fashioned. My father has decided I'm impossible because I will not entertain his theory that men and women are identical except for plumbing. My brother sends me "The Woman's Dress for Success Book," and my sisters-in-law think I'd be better off with a subscription to Ms. magazine. I used to be confused by all this, but after reading about how to grow up free in the '80s I think I've finally figured it out. There's been a lot of tampering with history lately by people who ought to know better. bI grew up free in the '50s. I may not have been typical, but I didn't grow up alone.