In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro ran as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. She wasn’t the first woman to run for vice president or even president, but she was the first vice-presidential candidate for a major party and maybe the first who had a real chance at winning. I was 16, and while my mom, a women’s libber, campaigned hard for Ferraro and her running mate, Walter Mondale, I was proving to my friends that I could be a proper lady. I hadn’t yet internalized the lessons of gender equality. Turns out, maybe I never did.
It was the summer after my sophomore year of high school and I was on a Spanish emersion program in Segovia, Spain. I went with my best friends, Karyn and Robin, and 40 other American kids.
Karyn and I had been best friends since first grade. She had straight blonde hair and long legs; I had curly dark hair and short legs. She liked fashion; I liked sports. We thought we were so different, we used the CoverGirl mascara commercial as our motto: “We’re opposites, right down to our lashes.”
Around mid-summer, Robin felt sick, and a doctor came to our room to examine her. The doctor reached for her with a hideous, pimply rash all over his arm.
I screamed, “What is that?” He didn’t speak English, but he seemed to understand.
When the doctor left, Karyn said, “God, Andrea, you’re so uncouth.” And for an hour I argued that I wasn’t that barbaric, that I had some manners.
Karyn said, “I bet you can’t be a lady for a day.”
At 16, I agreed with my friends that there was a certain way females should act — like a lady. So I took the challenge.
Karyn drew up the rules:
- No cussing
- No farting
- No pulling out a wedgie
- 15 chews before swallowing
- Shoulders back
- Bra straps in
- Speak only when spoken to…
And a list of 46 other things I could and could not do.
The next morning, I woke up early as not to be in an unseemly rush and put on my one white cotton sundress. I strolled down to breakfast standing tall, looking straight ahead. I felt proud and pretty. I wished I were wearing a corset. I greeted each classmate using the formal instead of the familiar (“¿Como esta señor? ¿Como esta usted señorita?”). Students asked what was going on.
I carried my books at my chest, rather than the more manly way of holding books, slung at my side. In class, I sat up straight. I raised my hand to excuse myself to the lady’s room.
By lunch, the entire school had placed bets with Karyn. Thirty people against, seven for, and one abstention. Pesetas were laid on the line.
When I accidentally rested my elbows on the table, three people pointed and shouted, “That’s not ladylike!”
I politely said, “Excuse me,” and took my elbows off the table.
Before I even took a bite of beans, I felt a fart coming on. I sat for a while wondering how Queen Elizabeth farted. I leaned over, pretending to look for something in my purse. I prayed it wouldn’t ricochet off the wooden bench and reverberate throughout the room. I smiled while I let it out very slowly, silently. Then I pretended I smelled something and looked around to see what it could be.
On the way to siesta, I mistakenly chewed a piece of bubble gum — a mistake because I chewed like a cow, according to Robbie Gannet, and he was on my side.
Karyn said, “Listen, I’m the judge here.”
And that’s when being a lady started to grate. Sure I liked a good competition. And sure I liked being the star player, but I didn’t like the world’s scrutiny.
In the safety of my room, I took off the sandals that tore into my sore, swollen feet. I just wanted to lie down. But there were chores to be done. The rules stated that a lady would keep a clean house, so I scrubbed out the sink, shined the mirror, and swept the floor.
I didn’t say a word at dinner. I had stopped talking hours before, sure that if I said anything, it would come out crude, like being a lady sucks ass.
Karyn must have sensed I was unhappy. She whispered, “You’re almost done.”
But not soon enough. I didn’t use a knife to cut my Spanish tortilla, which is basically an omelet, so soft it can be cut with a spoon. As I took my first bite, everyone sitting across from me started yelling. I wanted to yell back: “Nobody uses a knife on tortilla, motherfuckers!” Instead, I reached across three people and picked up the biggest piece of tortilla with my bare hands and bit into it like a pizza.
Now everyone was screaming. Karyn stood up. “Stop,” she said. “The bet’s off.”
And that was that. I didn’t lose. But I didn’t win either.
Thirty-two years later, we have a woman nominee again, this time in position to become President of the United States. I am totally partial. Like my mother, I’ve spent my life in pursuit of gender equality. In college, I took women’s studies classes and learned why words such as fireman and stewardess have been replaced by firefighter and flight attendant. I learned that women are bound by impossible double standards, like how we’re expected to be sluts and virgins at the same time. I learned that “lady” connotes much more than just female. And while I learned that stereotypical feminine gender expressions such as caring about how we look and expressing emotion are not less cool or less valuable than stereotypical masculine gender expressions, I also learned that society values masculine qualities more.
Right out of college, I created a cross-country bicycle tour called the Reproductive Freedom Ride. Ten women and one man rode 3,500 miles to show the world that women can and will control our bodies. And then I came out as a lesbian, and for the last 25 years, I’ve worked in various organizations to raise the minimum wage; to keep abortions safe and legal; to empower women and girls; to empower myself.
Last month, I watched both conventions, cringing through the Republicans'. I felt a little lighter during the Democratic Convention, but when Hillary finally took the podium, I was anxious. I wanted to love her. Of course, I’d seen her speak before, but this time I wanted her to be everything.
She stepped onto the stage and I stood up. First, I noticed her outfit—a sharp, white pantsuit. I thought: She looks so boxy. Can she even raise her arms? Why are her boobs so low? Has she gained weight? Why doesn’t her hair move when she moves? Too much spray. Too stiff.
When she spoke, she sounded shrill. Bitchy even. These were criticisms that had been fired against Clinton. I agreed with them.
And then she thanked Bernie Sanders. The camera turned to him, slumped in his seat. He looked smug. He didn’t even smile. I thought, Bernie is so ugly. He looks like a haggard, bitter, old frog. I’d noticed Bernie’s looks before, but I didn’t care. I only cared with Hillary.
As she went on, I checked myself when I judged Hillary for her looks or style, anything other than her substance. “Stop. Stop,” I said out loud when I slipped into expecting her to be a lady.
I loved her passion. Her voice smoothed out and rang solid. I loved hearing about her commitment to service for 45 years. I loved her brain.
After her speech, I posted on Facebook that I support Hillary because she’s so smart. And then I wondered if I’d ever lauded a male nominee’s intelligence. I don’t think so. Not when Bill Clinton was a nominee or Barack Obama — two of the smartest men in the world. Of course, no one praised George W., but for the most part, smart is a given for a man, especially one running for president.
Sexism is in deep. And is more dangerous than I thought. Sexism doesn’t just lead to superficial expectations for women; it sets up a diminished expectation of who women are inside. Of the 53 things I could or could not do the summer I took the lady challenge, being smart was not one of them. When society values high heels over high IQ in women, that’s a problem.
Since 1984, I’ve tried to unlearn what I know to be false. But even I — a career feminist, a lesbian even — am still hung up on women playing at being ladies. When I think of a firefighter I imagine a big, handsome man. I care about my presidential nominee’s outfit, if she’s a woman. I expect men to be smarter.