1956, Miami Springs, Florida, USA I wanted to be a patrol girl!
I was a fifth grader when I watched as the girls and boys from the sixth grade who’d been selected to be “safety patrols” got to leave class ten minutes before school was out to take up their posts. The adults had chosen these students as trusted individuals ready to take on serious responsibilities. Only sixth graders were chosen. I wanted to be a patrol girl next year when I was a sixth grader!
What was a “patrol girl” in 1956?
In 1920, the AAA-sponsored School Safety Patrol program — children protecting classmates from traffic dangers — was established and later expanded nationwide. AAA also introduced traffic safety education into elementary and junior high schools, and pioneered driver education in high schools. AAA’s Responsible Driving textbook, first published in the 1930s as Sportsmanlike Driving, has become the most widely used book in its field.1
As the program standardized, a pledge was added: “I pledge to report for duty on time, perform my duties faithfully, strive to prevent accidents, always setting a good example myself, obey my teachers and officers of the patrol, report dangerous student practices, strive to earn the respect of followers.”2
Initially, only boys could become safety patrols, but this changed over time. Starting in the late 1940s, girls seem to have been added on a community-by-community basis. In Davenport, Iowa, a school principal is quoted in the local paper The Daily Times (May 20, 1952): “We have found that the girls seem to take more interest in their duties,” said Sister Edigna, principal of the St. Joseph School. “They remain at their post and they don’t play while on duty.”
The Sister said that the girls have only one complaint: “When meetings are held for the school patrols, the boys dominate the sessions.”
1986, Nsukka, Nigeria: Chimiamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer and feminist, was born in 1977 on a different continent. She experienced a similar rejection for the same reason–she was female. Ms. Adichie described her experience of wanting to be the “class monitor” while in primary school. She tells us about her nine year old self, “I was full of ambition [to be the monitor]”.
Her teacher had told the class that the student with the highest score on a particular test would be the class monitor. Adichi scored the highest, but her teacher assumed it was obvious that the position of class monitor would only be given to a boy. That was 1986 and Adichi wrote about that rejection in her short book We Should All Be Feminists written in 2012.
The continued rejection and negation of the leadership skills of girls and women is a cornerstone of any patriarchal culture. And it starts early! It is clear who benefits and who is harmed by limiting the ambitions, expectations, and possibilities for girls.
I clearly remember that Mother agreed that disallowing girls to be on the safety patrol was unfair. She did what she could to console me. Yet, we could not change the situation. I have no memory of my father’s reaction–this is telling in itself.
A decade later, as a young adult, I learned from my mother that my father had said to her, “If we have only enough money to send one of our kids to college it should be Karl because he’s a boy.” Instead of confronting him directly on his sexist statement, she said to him, “Let’s just take it one-at-a-time.” I’d always done well in school, including taking advanced classes. I assumed I’d be going to college. I was not aware of my father’s attitude. Karl was not a good student. We learned later he experienced dsylexia, a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading. Karl’s dsylexia went unacknowledged throughout his schooling during the 1950s and 1960s.
Karl was an intelligent young man and a talented athlete. However, the unacknowledged learning disability was misinterpreted by the adults in his life. After high school he was sent to military school for a year in an effort to get him “to apply himself” and “learn some discipline”. After that year, basketball scholarships enabled Karl to attend college. Karl and I were close, but I, too, had no awareness of why he could not spell or read. It was a mystery. I’m writing about these two situations to acknowledge some of the debilitating, yet invisible, fractures creating ongoing stresses on our family.
Exploring South Florida as a Family of Six
However, in the mid 1950s we were a family looking to the future. The six of us had many family outings–from picking strawberries in the vast fields of Homestead, south of Miami, to numerous trips to Crandon Park with its zoo, sandy beach, vintage lighthouse and, best of all–the carousel. To get to Crandon Park we would cross a long causeway to reach the park located on a barrier island called Key Biscayne–that long and curving drive over the ocean waves was an adventure itself.
I can still picture the brightly painted carousel located along the beach. We each picked a favorite horse. The carousel started moving with the unique sound of calliope music filling the air. We rode our horses around stretching to reach for the prize of a brass ring.
Seeing ourselves on a “big screen”
All these photos were taken by my dad. He took hundreds of slides! He wanted to keep our family memories alive. Dad used only Kodachrome slide film which continued to be popular through the 1960s and into the 1970s. My curiosity about this film revealed this comment “Kodachrome slides have a particular look, with rich, deep colors and sharp, clean details. But the colors had subtlety, looking bright and vivid without being garish.”3 All these photos were stored for decades by my mother and my sister Marsha.
We could relive our family adventures through dad’s photos. All of our day trips, dance recitals, school plays, athletic events or scouting trips created a strong bond. Using a carousel slide projector and a blank wall as the screen, we’d pop popcorn, then drizzle it with butter and watch our family slide show together. Often laughing at our own antics.
At the same time, parents are only one influence on their children and cannot protect them from everything all the time. About this time a young girl in our neighborhood was sexually molested by a boy not much older than she was. This violation of the girl traumatized her. The adults were ignorant of how to cope with the violation of trust. Secrets and silence made the situation worse.
Within a year or so the family of the boy moved from the neighborhood. The girl child was still feeling distressed and isolated by that experience and the silence surrounding it.
This all happened in the late 1950s during the time I was coming of age as a young adult. The social forces of strict sex roles and of male domination have not lessened!
A strong feminist, Andrea Dworkin, reminds us “Systems of power are capable of reorganizing themselves, and the fact that things look different does not mean that the hierarchy has changed.” We must take responsibility to protect all our young people from the dire consequences of woman-hating.
I woke today remembering this Marge Piercy poem I first knew in the mid 1970s. Piercy uses poetic language to express outrage at the multiple social forces pressing down on girls and women. Her words, her images, remain potent.
A Work of Artifice
The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.
Marge Piercy, 1970
The unwillingness and inability of patriarchal institutions to nurture and protect girls in childhood, and to treat adult human females respectfully has not changed. The intense backlash against self-determination for girls has become a tsunami! Self-harm and self mutilation is now a common thread on internet sites frequented by girls.
“Artful trickery”, that is artifice, continues to deceive. “Artful trickery” causes us to internalize oppression, to accept all the negative images and values about girls and women. Multiple social forces groom girl to accept, as natural, all the roadblocks used to “keep her in her place”. This was a central part of my own childhood and of my contemporaries in the U.S. We were not encouraged, or emboldened, or directed to seek our full potential.
Without the grassroots growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement I would not be writing this. I would not be the woman I am! My life has been enriched by knowing of all the women and girls, both past and present, willing to challenge patriarchal forces including male-centered academia, businesses, religions, governments, and sciences.
Today, women who advocate for women, especially those of us who are lesbians, are the target of much hate speech from all who oppose us! We are insulted, threatened, deplatformed, silenced in other ways, and even legally prosecuted for our advocacy of our sex and for our advocacy of women’s sex-based legal rights. Our crime: we advocate for women and girls!
Is this the world you want to live in? Is this the legacy you want to leave for future generations? Please consider how your concern for girls and women can make a difference. What action, what difficult conversation, what risk, what voice can you offer? Working together we can succeed! As Susan B. Anthony said in her last public words, “Failure is impossible”.
4 Andrea Dworkin, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women (1997)
5 Felice Schragenheim and Lily Wust took this photo using a self-timer not knowing that hours later Felice would be arrested by the German Gestapo and they would never see each other again. Interviewed in 2001, the 89-year-old Lily Wust recalled:
“It was the tenderest love you could imagine…. I was fairly experienced with men, but with Felice I reached a far deeper under-standing of sex than ever before….There was an immediate attraction, and we flirted outrageously…. I began to feel alive as I never had before….She was my other half, literally my reflection, my mirror image, and for the first time I found love aesthetically beautiful, and so tender….Twice since she left, I’ve felt her breath, and a warm presence next to me. I dream that we will meet again – I live in hope.”
Learn more about Felice who was a Jewish resistance fighter during World War II when she met Lily Wust. After realizing they loved each other, Lily left her German husband to marry Felice. Information and photos here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felice_Schragenheim