Because I never played sports, because I went with my feminist mother to 1970s rallies and women’s groups, because I attended a fancy-pants college on financial aid and wanted to believe that the world was fair and meritocratic, and because I was naïve and narcissistic, I hadn’t thought about how or if Title IX affected me. Now I know, after a lifetime of working different jobs, jockeying for promotions that resulted only in title changes, winning races and earning titles, and being a writer and author, how much titles matter, and how much Title IX mattered.
Title I. Learning to Hate Yourself
Watch me, she says, and performs a handstand, a back walkover, an effortless slide to the ground in a split. See how good I am? Watch me, she says.
My niece Eva competes in gymnastics and horseback riding. She likes to win. When she finished seventh place in a horse show, and someone asked if she was going to display her ribbon, Eva said no. When asked why not she said, “Then it will just hang on the wall and mock me.” Eva is eight years old.
Title II. Pushing Ahead
A row of ballerinas, white tights elephant-saggy around twiggy ankles, stiff pink tutus haloing tiny torsos. The final curtain call, the balletic bow, a quarter turn to the left, a silent pointed-toe parade off stage.
Except that, according to my mother, I thought this was too slow. So I shoved the girl in front of me.
Title III. At the Races
Before the gun, gathering on the line, stretching, striding out, warming up.
What are you going to run?
I want to do the best I can.
I’ll be happy just to finish.
I don’t care about my time.
I’m going to beat the first woman.
I’m going to kick your ass.
I’m going to win.
Title IV. Pretty and Pageant-Ready
Eva rides Saddle Seat. Extravagant trots, front legs striking up and out, tails held high, round and round and round the arena. Eva’s mother buys custom-tailored outfits that last a season, nineteenth-century men’s suits — button-down shirts, ties, vests, long coats, top hats — worn by little girls with Jon-Benet makeup. Eva will lose points if her clothes, hair and makeup are not right.
The horse, too, must look good. If he doesn’t carry his tail high enough, it may be “set,” nicked in a surgical procedure. Hooves are allowed to grow overlong, and often they are fitted with padded shoes. Many Saddle Seat horses never go outside; they spend all their time working in arenas and standing in stalls. Pretty, pageant-ready horses in high heels.
Saddle Seat shows grew out of the plantations of the American South.
Out of California in the 1980s another horse sport was born. In a Ride and Tie race, two people take turns running and riding a horse over rough terrain, 20 to 40 miles of trail, leapfrogging, passing the horse back and forth like a baton. We run, we ride. We wear tights. We wear ripped T-shirts and bicycle helmets. We wear running shorts and racing singlets that sometimes hail from different decades. We sweat and get dirty, fall down, fall off. The horses sweat and get dirty.
In this sport, two-women teams sometimes finish first, using strength and skill and strategy to beat all the men. I like to beat men. I also like to beat other women. I like to win. (How does this make me sound?)
Title V. Body Battles
Before the coach started telling girls they needed to lose weight, I quit my high school gymnastics team. But when I got to college and didn’t feel smart enough, I starved myself into looking athletic, although I wasn’t. The boys said I had a great body, as I picked at my cottage cheese, drank gallons of Tab and had cigarettes for dessert.
Détente is the best I can do. I would not say that I am now, at 50 years, 20 a runner, at peace with my body, but I might concede that hostilities have lessened.
Eva is little-girl skinny. She told her mother to hide a box of cookies so they wouldn’t tempt her.
Title VI. What I Do Not Say
In my house I have a “Shrine to Me,” my awards on flagrant display, shown off like a cabinet of fine China, like a mantle of family photos, like a collection of turtle figurines. I like to race. I like to collect markers of my achievement. I say that my shrine is ironic. But do you see? I like to win. I do not say this. Racing means that if I win, you lose. I might say I want to win, but I cannot I say that I want you to lose, even though this is what I mean. So I try not to say nothing.
Title VII. Ruth’s Legs
The legs are movie-star beautiful, the Platonic form of the female lower limb. We met before a race; I looked at her legs, I looked at mine, bowed, bruised, scarred, and decided I would not like her, decided that I wanted to go home. I could not win against those legs.
A few miles before the finish I saw Ruth and her legs, I passed them, and came in well ahead. We became friends. I would like to think that would have happened even if she beat me, but I’m not sure.
Title VIII. Watch Me
During the first six miles of a 50K race I ran with a guy, chatting about nothing, warming up. Then I dropped him. The next day he sent me an email; he wished he could have kept up with me, he offered congratulations on my win.
I had to win, I said. I mean, I was wearing a skirt and all.
He said, I ran behind you for six miles and never noticed you were wearing a skirt. He said, you’re a tough runner.
Part of me was disappointed he didn’t notice the skirt.
Title IX. Both/And
The college students I teach don’t believe me when I tell them that until the eighties, it was thought dangerous for women to run marathons. They think we have always been allowed to play hockey, to pole vault, to be on Little League teams, to beat men. When I tell them that I have run 50-mile races, 100-mile races, they often think I am crazy. But they rarely think about the fact that I am a woman.
It took me 30 years to become an athlete. I was an intellectual in college, and I believed those two titles, Athlete and Intellectual, were mutually exclusive. The arena of competition was the dining hall — who could eat the least; who could say the meanest, cattiest things about other people; who could be effortlessly beautiful, never admitting that she cared about how she looked.
After college I started working in publishing and saw other women bonk their heads against the glass ceiling. A guy whose suit coats were soft and whose hair was well-cut and who mispronounced the few words he knew got promoted over me. Still, I didn’t call myself a feminist.
And so, when I dropped the F-bomb in class, when recently I asked my students if they considered themselves feminists, and only two people said they did, and both of them were men, and what I heard when I asked what they thought feminism meant was bra-burning and feminazis and strident, angry, bitter women who can’t find men, I tried to be tolerant, and tried to get them to see the contradictions in what they thought and what they thought they thought.
What was hard for me, when I started running, was that I was competing against other women. What I learned was that if I wanted to win, I would have to be able to admit that. And I began to see that the fierce, mean part of myself, the angry little knot that came from never believing I was good enough, that wellspring of willful non-eating and snarky dining hall comments, could be deployed in more useful ways.
By not playing team sports as a child I missed out on something important. I wonder how my character, my interactions with other women, would have been differently shaped.
When my niece Eva grows older I want her to be able to say that she wants to kick the asses of other girls, that she wants to beat the men. I want Eva to be able to say: I want to win and I want the women that she is competing against to be able to hear it and to reply with those same words. And then, after the race, I want these girls, these women, no matter who wins, to go out and have a beer together instead of nursing silent hurts and offering unmeant compliments.
I want Eva to know that being strong may wear better than shiny top hats, that she can’t let the scale be the barometer of her happiness, that aggressiveness should be directed toward a goal rather than other people, that smart is attractive, that life can be both/and rather than either/or. I will hope that by the time she is my age remedies like Title IX are vestigial.
Originally Published in On The Issues Magazine