The past few weeks have been particularly discouraging for anyone who follows politics and believes in reasoned discourse. Hoping the local news here in town might be more to my liking, I sat down to read The Wellesley Townsman for the first time in months. The International Day of the Girl was coming up on the 11th of October; maybe there’d be interesting coverage of girls in the area. There was. But whether the front-page story on the girls’ softball team was encouraging or not remains a dilemma.
The headline read, “A Level Playing Field”, followed by the subhead, “Sixth grader’s frustrated letter lands her in influential company.” The story went on to recount how, as a fifth grader, Emily Willrich had written to the Townsman about her frustrations with the differences between town sports’ opportunities for girls and boys. There were excellent facilities available to the boys’ baseball team–a well maintained field complete with brick dugouts, night-lights, a scoreboard, and even an announcer. The girls’ softball team was relegated to a scruffy field where the lights didn’t work and at times umpires never showed up. Emily’s letter reached the President of nearby Simmons College, who invited her to be a special guest at a college=sponsored event, “How Women Become Political”. Emily, now in sixth grade, had a chance to meet and talk with Gloria Steinem and several prominent female politicians, including Massachusetts’ gubernatorial candidate, Martha Coakley.
My first reaction was, “Wow, what a great example of feminist progress and ‘girl power!” Forty years ago girls weren’t allowed to play Little League, and there certainly weren’t any town wide girls’ softball teams when I was growing up in Mystic, Connecticut. The closest I managed to get to a town playing field was as the semi-official score keeper for the boys’ baseball team my father coached. I learned to be a baseball watcher, not a baseball player. ‘Everyone knew’ sports were more important for boys.
Reading the article a second time, I questioned my initial response. A 5th grader had to raise the issue? In the second decade of the 21st century? Where were the adults? What about Title IX and the guarantee of equality? But Title IX covers only programs sponsored by educational institutions receiving federal funds. It doesn’t address town teams. Maybe my delight was misplaced, maybe being appalled was more on target. A young girl challenging unfairness with confidence is wonderful; it might not have happened in the years before feminism’s empowering messages took hold. But old gendered assumptions remaining so deeply embedded that no one in this upscale town seemed concerned about the inequitable sports facilities is, indeed, appalling. The news story presented the proverbial half-full/half-empty glass: ‘how far we’ve come; but how far we have to go’.
The Townsmen article concluded by reporting that Emily’s mother didn’t know if her daughter’s passion for fairness might lead to a career in politics. “We’re excited to find out. Nothing she does would surprise us.”
I, for one, hope Emily will pour at least some of her passion into politics. We need her. These discouraging weeks of Congressional malfunction have highlighted the critical importance of women in political office, not simply for women, but for the entire nation. Women in the U.S. Senate have authored most of the major bills passed this session. Female Senators are credited with the initial steps resulting in the compromise that has finally reopened the government. Women are consistently more bipartisan than their male counterparts in their approach to legislation. And studies repeatedly indicate that women—regardless of their political affiliation–tend to sponsor and vote for laws that support families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.
So, we come to another half-full/ half-empty dilemma. Currently only 20 of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate are women–an all time high. As far as progress for women and girls goes, it will be a long time before we can discard the metaphor of the half-full/ half-empty glass . Personally, I prefer the energizing half-full perspective; but I never forget the empty half of the glass. It’s a constant reminder of work unfinished.