This talk was delivered by Dean of Teaching & Learning and Stuart Chair of the English Department Elizabeth Roach at a Wednesday evening Chapel service on October 4, 2017.
As I wrote and revised and edited this talk, I was keenly aware that tragedy in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas brought suffering and grief to boys and girls, men and women of untold numbers of families. In tragedy, we look for the small and large daily miracles of solidarity, courage, teamwork, and sacrifice. I dedicate this talk on gender to the men and women who fought so nobly and collaboratively against the destructive imprint of both a hurricane and mass murderer.
I grew up with four amazing sisters and parents who empowered us every single day of our lives. I never once questioned my abilities as a scholar or as an athlete. In fact, if anything, I believed that girls were far superior to boys and that the world was in full alignment with that viewpoint. I really had no idea—at all—that there were historical and cultural complications to this perspective.
I know that this seems terribly naive, but to understand my perspective (and ignorance), you have to understand how I grew up. My identity and sense of self were shaped by my parents who celebrated us as girls, who believed in us and supported us, and instilled in us confidence and a sense of endless possibility. My mother—who never had a career beyond motherhood—was one of the strongest women I've ever known. My father was an early feminist. He made us breakfast, changed diapers, and cleaned the house during an era when men just did not do these things. He always and immediately responded to people who said, "Oh, you poor man" when they heard he had five daughters with "Are you kidding—I'm the luckiest man in the world." I was always baffled by those people—after all, I believed that it was incredibly cool that we were a family of five sisters, and I internalized early on that my father was, indeed, the "luckiest man in the world" because he had five daughters. My father was also an extraordinary athlete. He played football and hockey and still holds high school records in track and field. He captained the hockey team at Cornell and was one of the first five athletes inducted into his high school athletic hall of fame. Since my older sister was not as interested in sports, my father and I spent endless hours together centered around sports. Every Sunday afternoon, we watched football together; by the time I was seven years old, I knew all the rules and positions in football as well as how to correctly throw a perfect spiral. I also wanted desperately to be a wide receiver—actually, I still desperately want to be a wide receiver (Patrick Moffitt, I'm waiting for the call!). My father drove me to my 5:00 am figure skating practices and drove me home at 11:00 pm after my night figure skating sessions. It was the most natural thing in the world that I was an athlete and that my father never questioned my place in the world as an athlete.
Perhaps because two of the sports I participated in—skating and tennis—girls and boys were regarded more or less equally, I never thought twice about my capabilities and place in these sports. After all, I frequently beat boys in tennis and could outskate most boys as well. I spent weekends playing touch football with both boys and girls on a neighbor's lawn. In fact, Mr. Roach and I realized—many years later, after we were married—that we played in these touch footballs games together (how crazy is that?). After these games, we often ended up in my friend's driveway shooting baskets and playing horse, another game where I could demonstrate my superiority over boys.
As you can see, sports gave me confidence and, at the time, a place in the world where I felt legitimately equal to boys. I also gained tremendous confidence in myself as a scholar with wonderful teachers throughout my elementary school years and at an all-girls middle school. My parents, too, supported my intensity as a student; I loved to engage them in conversations about how I might become a lawyer like one grandfather or even a judge like my other grandfather. They believed that I could achieve anything, so I believed that I could achieve anything.
When it was time for me to go to high school, my dream of attending my father's high school actually became a reality. Nichols School—which had been an all-boys school since 1892—magically (it seemed to me) went coed in 1973, the fall of my freshman year. I could now actually follow in my father's footsteps and perhaps find my name, some day, on the gym wall where his name, "Lane Montesano," stood out in gold letters on the plaques citing various athletic achievements and records or find my photograph, some day, on the wall of the skating rink where all the photographs of alumni who captained their college hockey teams were prominently mounted.
I was, to say the least, excited and full of expectation. So, when that fall, there was a whirlwind of media around an event called "The Battle of the Sexes," I absorbed this frenzy with a kind of bemused curiosity. Of course Billie Jean King was going to beat Bobby Riggs. She was one of the greatest tennis players and athletes of all time. I don't know if you can appreciate exactly how big this event was; it literally took over the national conversation. Bobby Riggs, a former number one player, had proclaimed that women's tennis was so inferior that he, at the age of 55, could beat any professional women's tennis player. Billie Jean King, after much urging, took the bait and defeated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She won $100,000 for her victory, which was in itself an important statement since women's tennis at the time had just recently at the US Open earlier that year—thanks to Billie Jean King—won equal prize money to men. Just as importantly, her dominant win addressed a larger societal statement about women's sports and the equal respect they deserved. If you want to know more about this event and Billie Jean King, you should watch ESPN's 30 for 30 on King and her life and legacy. Now, over 40 years later, there is a renewed focus on the Battle of the Sexes and this moment in history with a new movie just released, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs, and a play that our very own Olivia McGiff has been working on.
At the time, even though I had heard the phrase "male chauvinist pig" and even though I watched Billie Jean King, wearing a ridiculous Cleopatra costume, carried into the Houston Astrodome on a platform by bare-chested muscle men and Bobby Riggs, wearing a sugar daddy jacket, on a rickshaw pulled by models in very little clothing, I didn't fully understand the larger implications of this event. I had no lens through which to interpret and process what should have been blatant messages about how men and women were viewed. I could only see the spectacle of the event and laugh at how ludicrous it was to even consider that Bobby Riggs had a chance of winning. It simply enacted the narrative about men and women that I had always believed.
How did I miss what was actually going on? I can think of two possible explanations: I was either so incredibly naive and ignorant that I missed the blatant messaging all around me or my sense of self was so securely and deeply embedded that I never questioned my identity as a girl. Both explanations are simultaneously problematic and great at the same time. The combination of ignorance and deep confidence allowed me to keep developing as a student and an athlete, blissfully unaware, but it also set me up for a rude awakening in the fall of my senior year.
When that moment came, I was blindsided.
We had had an epic undefeated field hockey season, and at lunch before our final game against our most difficult opponent, we made an announcement urging everyone to support us (yep, we used to do exactly the same thing you all do at lunch!). We lost the game 1-0 in overtime, and we were devastated. At lunch the next day, two boys—both close friends of mine—stood up to make an announcement. I still remember exactly what they said: "So, Mark," began one boy, "did you know that we have the most amazing field hockey team at this school? Did you know that they are undefeated, the best team in the school?" Mark then said, "Bob, wait. Didn't you hear? The field hockey team lost yesterday?" "What?" said Bob, "Not the great, undefeated field hockey team? How could they lose?" The sarcastic banter continued for what seemed like an eternity as I slowly processed that instead of honoring us or commiserating with us, these two boys were actually mocking us. I remember feeling dazed as I walked to my next class, as if I had just been punched hard in the gut, and I must have looked like it too, since my teacher asked me if something was wrong. I looked at Mark on the other side of the harkness table and blurted out, "How could you do that to us?" He laughed and said, "Come on, have a sense of humor. You don't mean to tell me that your field hockey game really means anything. I mean, really, it's just girls' field hockey—it's not like our soccer games, which actually are important."
That was it. That was my moment of awakening. That was the moment my worldview changed.
I know that it sounds silly, even ridiculous, to put this kind of weight on this moment. But it actually shifted the foundation of how I defined myself. It was the beginning of understanding my identity in another way, in a larger context of gender.
Some of you know my obsession with Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer whose novels brutally and honestly depict lives of women who are controlled and objectified by men and who have complicated friendships with women. In an interview published in the NYTImes in 2014, Rachel Donadio asked Ferrante, "What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work?" Ferrante's answer is difficult to fully unpack:"That even if we're constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn't do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved." At first glance, this statement seems like a dark vision of our lives as women. She warns us never to lower our guard, that we can't, in essence, trust anyone and that our achievements are fragile and constantly in danger. But, I read her assertion a bit differently. She's warning women that we need to stay aware, that we need to be highly vigilant of all the forces and attitudes—both overt and covert—that threaten our progress. Implicitly, she references how historically and culturally women have been oppressed and degraded, how women have been objectified and sexualized, how women have been demeaned and diminished. In many ways, the progress and equality we now seem to enjoy can also be dangerous because it can make us complacent; it can make us not see the subtle things that we, as a society, do to keep women down. The overt oppression is easier to see and respond to, while the more hidden or veiled sexism is far more dangerous and insidious. Furthermore, we can—as both men and women—actually contribute to the sexist narrative, unknowingly, unconsciously, unintentionally. Ferrante's warning, therefore, is an urgent plea for us all to recognize these threats to our achievements so that we don't lose what we've worked so hard to gain. We can't become complicit in the oppression we've fought against for centuries.
So, we need to be careful about the implicit messages we send—all the time. And as a small all-residential boarding school, we have to be particularly careful, creative, and collaborative. Of course, just as with sexism, we need to be aware of subtle coding and messaging about race, religion, and homophobia. St. Andrew's, instead, should be a laboratory to think openly and intentionally about these subtle issues, a place to do and enact this important work of equality.
We have to be intentional about the ways we apply the lessons of history of marginalization and oppression and see how current conversations move inexorably towards old and discredited ideas. We look for men, who are leaders, to be ambitious and aggressive. But if women are ambitious and aggressive, we characterize them as shrill, dangerous, and malignant, because as Sheryl Sandberg argues in Lean In, we judge women through old stereotypes: "that women are supposed to be caregivers, caring, communal." She continues: " Journalist Shankar Vedantam once cataloged the derogatory descriptions of some of the world's first female leaders. England's Margaret Thatcher was called "Atilla the Hen." Golda Meir, Israel's first prime minister was "the only man in the cabinet." President Richard Nixon called Indira Gandhi, India's first prime minister "the old witch." And Angela Merkel, the current chancellor of Germany has been dubbed "the iron frau." The response to the first female nominated by a major political party to be president in America? 'Lock her up!" It's a way for us to fall back into the way things used to be, a demand or insistence for women to be quiet, submissive, silent, and subservient.
This coded language is everywhere. For example, it's there when we talk about women and our appearance. Women, truth be told, actually do not dress for men in cultures where equality is a cultural norm and expectation, and therefore attempts to control, regulate, and restrain dress are really expressions of a desire to control and desexualize women—in doing so, these attempts simultaneously make girls and women more aware of and ashamed of their bodies, sexualizing and objectifying them by the focus on their bodies. These attempts participate in the historical narrative that girls' and women's bodies should be covered, that girls and women are somehow responsible for not distracting boys and men, that their bodies are objects. We're also feeding the cultural obsession of judging girls by their bodies and calling attention to what is "appropriate" in terms of how much skin they are showing. Men of course never face these questions about the implication, morality, or destabilizing and distracting effects of their dress. The way girls dress should never be viewed as a commentary or a referendum on girls' bodies or their characters. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, "Never, ever link [a girl's] appearance with morality. . . Because clothes have absolutely nothing to do with morality."
Because sports was my locus of so much of my identity, I've always been particularly aware of how we, at St. Andrew's, message the equality between girls' and boys' athletics—just ask Mr. Roach how much I pestered him about a scoreboard on the field hockey and girls' soccer field the last few years! It certainly goes without saying that we all need to support and respect every team at this school—and I think, for the most part, we do a really good job of that. But here is another example that is subtle, unconscious, and, on the surface, not that important. Every time I watch field hockey, I'm surrounded by fans who say, "I just don't understand this game" and "There are so many whistles and stops of play" and "The rules don't make any sense." If you happen to be the unfortunate person standing next to me, you have probably been the victim of one of my rants on this subject. Field hockey is a sport that requires great finesse and skill; it is probably one of the most difficult sports to play as a result and takes many years to develop to a level where players do not foul as much. So, yes there are more whistles and stops in play, but it's actually pretty easy to learn the basic rules and the strategy involved in the game. Rather than dismiss the game, I encourage everyone to learn the rules. If I can learn all the rules of football at age 7, everyone can learn the rules of field hockey. If you can enjoy and appreciate football games with all the whistles and stops in play, you can enjoy field hockey games as well. Rather than diminish the athletes and the sport by dismissing the game as frustrating, appreciate the skill and finesse of the athletes. In doing so, we show respect and give equal legitimacy to our female athletes. After all, no one stops watching football because there are so many whistles and stops of play!
Many years ago, boys significantly outnumbered girls at St. Andrew's and often voted in blocks to prevent girls from being elected to leadership positions. The school rightly needed to address that block voting and decided that each leadership position would be held by a boy and a girl. I'd like to believe that we no longer need this paradigm because boys would not vote for girls—I believe you all are more enlightened than that. Instead, we retain this approach to leadership because we believe in a paradigm of collaboration. Interestingly, what initially began as a way to give girls equal access to leadership has evolved into a model of girls and boys collaborating in deep and important ways. In fact, the most effective leadership occurs when girls and boys work together with unqualified respect. We see this in the classroom as well. Everyday, girls and boys have the opportunity to learn together, to understand and appreciate how different minds work and think, how girls and boys who collaborate and approach learning as an opportunity to build partnerships actually make each other smarter and more successful.
I've certainly experienced this in my own life and career. Tad and I had been dating for about a year when Mark and Bob awakened me to the real world, and although I knew that he was different from the other boys I had dated, I don't think that I had consciously defined in what ways he was different. Instead, I think that I intuitively knew that his respect for and support of me aligned precisely with my parents' respect for, belief in, and support of me: a given, without question, struggle, complication, or even conversation. But after Mark and Bob had rocked my world, I saw how unusual Tad was. Yes, even as a teenager, he was incredibly enlightened, wise, kind, and secure enough not to be threatened by strong girls. There is no doubt that I suffered a setback in my confidence and my sense of self after that experience, but because of his unwavering respect for me as a scholar and an athlete, Tad helped me regain that confidence. Our partnership was vital then and has continued to be throughout our lives as parents and our careers at St. Andrew's. But I've also developed really important partnerships with other amazing, secure, enlightened, men on the faculty and staff over the years at St. Andrew's. Without these partnerships between men and women on the faculty, St. Andrew's wouldn't be as strong as it is today. So, practicing partnerships and investing in relationships of mutual respect are central to this school as a laboratory of learning for both students and faculty. You will need this mindset and these skills in college and beyond. Just look at how many men in the media have been fired recently because they don't know how to talk to or work with women.
We are, in fact, surrounded by issues and examples of sexism everywhere. The presidential election last fall is a template for both overt as well as covert sexism. It laid bare the misogyny and lechery of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; it also reinforced how difficult it still is for women to be ambitious, successful, and powerful. Ferrante, it turns out, was prescient when she wrote in 2014 that "we can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved."
So, yes, these are incredibly important and relevant issues in your lives today. When artists feel the need to return to and reenact historical moments such as The Battle of the Sexes, it comes from, I think, not a desire to remind us how much progress we've made but out of a cultural urgency to tell us how tenuous that progress is. Your enlightened attitudes will be central to your lives in college and in the workplace and in your families. You will need to be vigilant about eliminating the poison and pollution (both overt and subtle) of the past and setting a new paradigm of mutual respect and collaboration between men and women. There was a reason for the language of war in "The Battle of the Sexes." And although we need to keep fighting for equality, I'd like to reframe this warfare. We need to partner instead of combat. We need to move from the "Battle of the Sexes" to the "Alliance of the Sexes." In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's words, "We should all be feminists." Because that's the only way we can win this war.