My globe, my world: though the struggle never ends, the dream must never die

globeThis is my globe.

It holds pride of place in my living room, not because it’s special (you can buy it for less than $75.00), nor even because it reminds me that, as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus says, “there is a world elsewhere.”

Instead, its prominence reminds me of my own world—who I am and where I came from, and how far I’ve been able to drag myself away from all of that.

When I was almost nine, my family moved to a three-bedroom, split-level house in the suburbs. Among other things, my mother bought a globe for my brother and she placed it atop the bookcase in his bedroom.

I loved that globe, though I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was “the world elsewhere” and its possibilities: the hopefulness of youth at a time when things did seem possible. This was the mid-1960s, after all: a half-century—and a world—ago.

I asked my mother if I could have a globe, too, and this was her response:

“No. Globes are not for girls.”

In a way, then, the globe also represents my loss of innocence and my initiation into the “real world” that awaited me.

There were to be other things that were “not for girls” and I can still rhyme them off without effort. Here are the ones that mattered most:

  1. Books (I lived with my parents for 20 years and they never once bought me a book, though they bought many for my brother)
  2. Desks and a place to do your homework (my mother outfitted my brother’s bedroom with a desk and chair, a bookcase, a reading chair and lamp; by contrast, she furnished my room with a vanity, a large oval mirror, a chest of drawers, and a slipper chair and matching curtains that depicted a scene from the ballet, The Sleeping Beauty)
  3. Newspapers
  4. Freedom
  5. Travel (a definite no-no for women)
  6. Driving
  7. Independence
  8. Respect
  9. Money and investments
  10. And, finally, the one that ties it all together: Education.

Of course, my mother required high grades and achievement in public and high school (my father didn’t care what I did academically) and they expected me to go to university. How else would I find a suitable husband? But, for some reason, they didn’t expect to pay tuition for a girl.

What they also didn’t expect was that I would want to learn, to achieve, and to accomplish something. That, as well, was “not for girls.”

Long ago, I came to terms with the fact that you can’t fault your parents for not being ahead of their time. And there is ample evidence to suggest that my parents, both born in Canada, were not out of step with the rest of their country. After all, it was not that long ago (1982, in fact) that her fellow Members of Parliament laughed when Margaret Mitchell rose in the House of Commons to speak out about battered women and domestic violence. The University of Toronto didn’t lift its quota on women in medical school until 1968. And Hart House did not allow women to become members until 1972.

The attitudes that prohibited women from full participation were explicit and common in the days of my childhood. When I was in Junior High School (now called Middle School), the girls lobbied to be allowed to wear pants to school. I had a particular interest in this, since I played the cello in the school orchestra. One afternoon, during the course of this fight, my music teacher cornered me on my way to a class and asked if I was in favour of this “thing.”

“Yes, of course,” I told him. And he responded, “Then you’re not a lady!”

I didn’t bother to tell him that being a lady was not one of my aspirations. But being a good cello player was.

I have other wonderful memories of my school days, of which these are but a few:

  • having to take “home economics” instead of shop in Junior High
  • having to embroider gingham aprons and knit baby booties at the age of 12
  • having to cook for and serve the boys after their shop class
  • having to write tests on how to keep a home for a man
  • being told that I typed “too quickly,” while my brother, whose typing speed was slower than mine, was entered in a typing contest a few years earlier
  • being laughed at by one of my high school teachers for reading a biography of Vincent van Gogh
  • having my Grade 12 history teacher pull my nose and tell me that I was “cute”
  • having my guidance counsellor push me to go to a community college rather than university
  • in a third-year university Greek course on the Iliad, having the professor ask me if I was studying Classics because I was interested in the subject or because I wanted to be “a cultured lady”

Of course, these things didn’t just happen to me. They happened to most women, both at school and at home. I have a friend, now a history professor, whose grandmother was enraged when her granddaughter received a scholarship to pursue a Master’s Degree.

“If it weren’t for that [the scholarship],” she said, “she’d have to ask her father and he would say no.”

Overcoming these pervasive attitudes took courage (of which I had some), but also money (of which I had none of my own). And the Ontario government showed its true colours when it refused to give me a student loan because, they said, my parents could afford my tuition. Little did they care that I no longer lived with my parents nor that they had refused to pay it.

I’m often stopped on the street by the young people who work for the “Because I am a Girl” campaign, a global initiative to end gender inequality. They ask me if I’m aware that there are places in the world where women aren’t treated equally. I just say yes, I am. But what I want to tell them is that it’s not so different here. It just looks different. And, yes, it’s better now than it was when I was young. But it’s not all better and some things might even be worse.

After my parents were gone, my brother and I spent months cleaning out their house, moving from room to room, sorting through many decades of detritus. One day, he walked into his old bedroom to find me there, spinning that globe.

“I always wanted one of these,” I said, wistfully.

“Then buy one,” he replied, exhibiting the insightfulness for which he is known. But, when I looked up, I saw something in his eyes that belied his legendary cluelessness.

“I know,” he said.

One of my mother’s greatest criticisms of me, outside of my being “too independent,” was that I lived in a “fantasy world.” If by a fantasy world she meant a world in which women and men are valued equally and are equally encouraged to reach their potential, then she was correct. And although we are nowhere near living in a place like that, “ ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.” And a better one.

Over to you, next generation.