Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Sign of the Times, Then and Now

This article from yesterday’s Star Tribune about a girls-only engineering class in a Twin Cities suburban high school got me thinking back to the end of 7th grade.

It was 1972. My classmates and I were just finishing a year of home economics for girls and shop for boys; in 8th grade, both of these (as well as art) were half-year electives. I wanted to take art, but I also wanted to take shop instead of home ec. I’d already sewed a stuffed frog and made some food, and that seemed like enough, so what I wanted to do in the next year was construct a wooden sign that had my family’s last name on it.

That was the major project of 8th-grade shop. I can still remember the signs made by older boys I knew: the face of the sign was about 4” tall, maybe 24” wide, with zig-zag ends. The wood was stained a medium brown and the sign was attached to a pointed black upright, maybe a 1x1 or 2x2, that was stuck into the ground. Your last name was stenciled on in white lettering, all capital letters, and then the whole thing was varnished for weather-proofing.

I really wanted to make one because my family (as you may know if you read this blog regularly) has only daughters. We would never have one of these signs.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I requested — or maybe had my mother request, thanks, Mom! — a spot in the shop class instead of home ec. But I was told no, girls weren’t allowed to do that. We questioned it, but didn’t fight it in any major way, as I recall. (It's weird how hazy and inexact these memories are.)

I think the school changed that policy a year or so after, maybe because of my request, maybe because they got the memo that they were discriminating on the basis of gender and inviting lawsuits.

The Star Tribune article got me thinking, though: What if I had been allowed to take the class, and was the only girl in it? I think one of my friends (who was from an all-girl family, too) may have also asked to take the class, but even if there had been two of us… what would it have been like?

There’s no way to know, obviously, but I’m pretty sure I never considered this question at the time. I wonder what effect it would have had on my life and worldview if I had taken the class and been subjected to overt sexism from either the teacher or my classmates? Or even just the subtle undermining that can happen, and is avoided in the girls-only class described by the Star Tribune?

Thanks to this teacher in 2016 for organizing the class and giving it a try. We're all better off when everyone knows how to solve their own problems and make their own stuff.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I remember seventh or eighth grade (so 1969 or 1970): boys in shop, girls in home ec. And I realize now that no one even thought about the division. It was just the way things were. I also remember the shop teacher talking to the class about “girls” and sex in ways that today would get a teacher fired (I hope).