Not a Boy

Nancy Jane doing AikidoI sucked at being a girl back in the day. I never did figure out how to dress, how to flirt, or when to scream at concerts. About the only thing I did right was read Nancy Drew books.

Most of the things I wanted to do – have adventures and be in the band and run things – were coded as male. But despite my failure at being girly and my passion for more “manly” things, I never wanted to be a boy.

I wanted to be a girl who got to do those things.

It was always clear to me that the rules that dictated which activities/clothes/behavior were male and which were female were arbitrary and capricious, and that there was no true reason I couldn’t do the ones I wanted to regardless of how they were defined.

This lies at the heart of my feminism, but I would have felt this way – and acted on that feeling – even if I hadn’t come of age along with second wave feminism. I thought the doors should be opened for all women, but even if they weren’t, I planned to demand that at least some of them be opened for me.

I have this memory from high school of my world history teacher asking several of us girls what we wanted to do when we grew up. I said I wanted to be a lawyer. He said, “You’ll just be a housewife like everyone else.”

Every time I thought about quitting law school (and since I hated law school, that was pretty much every day), I remembered that. I wasn’t going to give that sadistic asshole – or any of the other men who said something similar to me – the satisfaction.

(The idea of law as male is probably a generational thing. These days about half of law students are women. But my class was ten percent women, and that was the largest group of women they’d ever had.)

When I was coming of age, things were shifting due to feminism. But there were still many things that women were not allowed to do, like become an astronaut or be a fighting soldier.

Then there were the things that women could do so long as they promised to do them like men and not rock the boat. Not just law, but marching band when I was in college, not to mention martial arts training.

Most places let in a small number of women even before my time, and for a long time those limits worked to keep women from doing much boat rocking. Even in the Seventies, when women were knocking down walls, we mostly promised we’d follow the manly guidelines.

Except, of course, we were lying. We didn’t know we were lying (or at least, I don’t think I knew I was), but we were. Women in law or engineering or science – and definitely women in the Senate or the State Department or on the Supreme Court – change things a lot.

So, of course, do women in the martial arts. Women martial artists are at the heart of the Empowerment Self Defense teacher training I just took. Many of us who have spent years training are coming to understand that we need to share what we’ve learned with other women instead of simply being satisfied with being on the path.

I like being a woman. I’m happy with the body I was born with. Well, OK, I’d prefer it if it had a little less tendency to arthritis and allergies, but it’s fine with me that it’s a female body. I didn’t want to be a boy and I don’t want to be a man.

I have a lot of respect for trans and nonbinary folk. They’re taking gender issues to a new level, one that I think will benefit us all in the long run. There is much more to humanity than the traditional division into male and female and I hope the future will give us all those ways of being. I appreciate what they do, the risks they take, the dangers they face.

But despite the ways things are changing, there are still a lot of people out there still shouting “no girls allowed” and trying to frighten women back into their places.

I’m a woman, and I’ve got just one word for those people.




Not a Boy — 7 Comments

  1. Those of us of a certain age will have a lot of stories about that “No Girls Allowed!” rule you ran into everywhere. In my case, anent martial arts, it was fencing. I was a natural–dance trained, left-handed, extremely fast reflexes (rough childhoods will do that to you) so within one year I was beating the big guys, though I was built like a pile of sticks. But because I was a female, I could only stick to foil, maybe epee. No saber for women, no no no!

    The fencing instructor asked if I wanted to try for the junior Olympics, which I bet had very few women in those days. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to fence, it was just that men didn’t want them to. (I did my student year in Europe instead, studying history, and when I got back, I had to get a job and didn’t have the time for the amount of practice it would have taken.)

    In later years, I discovered the SFWA Musketeers, loosely organized by Elizabeth Moon, who had gone into the military, another mostly male preserve back then. It was full of female fencers, including Laura Underwood, who did manage to go on in competition fencing, and did very well. We met at many cons and had fencing bouts. It was terrific.

  2. Being “like a boy” rather than “not a boy” boiled down to one thing when I was a kid: wearing pants. I went to a school where kids could wear anything–meaning the girls could wear jeans or slacks or (as I did when I was small) corduroy jumpsuits from which I had to be unbuttoned, embarrassingly, every time I went to the Girls’ Room. I had moments–mostly on special occasions–when I was happy to wear the dressiest dress my mother would permit (I had no natural flair for cloths as a kid; my mother dressed me nicely, but I faunched after the more elaborate girl clothes because Lace! Petticoats!). But mostly, pants meant freedom to hang upside down on the jungle gym or to climb a tree. Pants meant not siphoning off some part of my attention to making sure my underwear wasn’t showing, making sure my knees weren’t scabby, and so forth.

    I was never interested in gym class–I was much happier being allowed to wander off and think about stuff or read a book. Basically, I lack a drive to win, or perhaps a belief that I can win at competitions. But there was a decade in my middle years where I discovered stage combat, which was cooperative and had narrative, and suddenly–for that decade or so–I discovered the power and grace of my own physicality. And even there, there were things were “girls can’t” would come into play. Like, lose a fight or die on stage. In terms of plot and characterization, killing a female fighter makes her opponent look irredeemable–only a little worse than wantonly killing a puppy. So one learned to make the most of being wounded, or being clever enough to escape, or being kissed at the end of the fight. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but would it have hurt to give me one little death scene?

  3. I envy you being able to wear anything to school. We could only wear pants when it was colder than 40 degrees outside, which, given that I grew up outside Houston, was mostly never. And I was in no way a jock, either. I didn’t take up martial arts until I was 30, but when I did, it was like coming home. When I was in school, I expressed myself more through debate and band, I think.

    • Oh, the stupidity of dress codes! which, my age mates and I were disgusted to learn, were dropped the very fall AFTER we graduated from high school, with a closet full of crap we’d never wear again. (Since my family had zero budget for clothes, I took over my brother’s clothes that he didn’t want, and I wore flip-flops to college rather than those hated school shoes.)

      • When I lived in a dorm my freshman year in college, we women had to be in by designated hours. The men had no such requirements. Those got dropped later. I had nightmares for years that I had once again signed a nine-month dorm contract and was stuck in such restricted quarters.

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