The second day of seventh grade, the students of my new junior high were having a sit-in in the library over open campus. There were about 40 of them on the floor between the stacks, and I immediately joined them, thinking, "This is the school for me."
I was a little radical -- it was 1970 after all -- and I had just moved from Placerville (formerly known as Hangtown) to Davis (formerly known as Davisville). On former names alone, you could probably guess that a place ending in "ville" would be a kinder environment for a free-thinker than one beginning with "hang."
The junior high students wanted open campus at lunch so that they could go to restaurants other than the cafeteria, such as Taco Bell, which was a couple of blocks away. (Twenty miles east in Sacramento, the Taco Bell there was voted best Mexican food for several years, according to my sister, who lives there.) In small towns, you get excited over the small things.
In Placerville, rebelling students would have received a stiff penalty -- I got sent to the office in sixth grade for not signing my elementary school's version of a loyalty oath. But Davis, a university town, was influenced by the campus's liberal atmosphere, and consequently, the students triumphed. Taco Bell picked up a few extra customers, and the girl leading the sit-in became a human rights lawyer.
In Placerville, my father taught junior college in the temporary buildings at the fairgrounds. Junior college was suspect there because it was considered "higher learning." In Davis, junior college was chopped liver. Just about everyone's parents were employed by UC Davis. The town was so intellectual that all the streets running east/west were named after universities. Growing up there familiarized one with Antioch, Bucknell, and Fordham; Villanova, Brown (my street), and Cornell -- knowing the names was one less barrier to attending.
In Placerville, my father had a student who came in one day, and her front teeth had been knocked out by her boyfriend. This girl, one of ten siblings, had a younger brother in my grade who liked me and demonstrated this similarly, by knocking me down on the playground. Placerville wasn't a lot different than Dogpatch when it came to claiming a girlfriend. I kissed my first boy in seventh grade. I remember asking boys to dance, but even Davis proved conservative on this front. I stumbled into a discussion on "Women's Lib" during English. Being pro-Women's Liberation -- the previous name for the feminist movement (before that the women were "suffragettes," I think because they suffered) -- was still taboo.
The English teacher allowed us to have a debate on Women's Lib, and so my newfound feminist friend Sally and I recorded all sorts of statistics to bolster our argument that women should have equality with men, but it came down to the other side -- a cheerleader and her friends -- claiming that women's brains weren't as big as men's; that if women were equal, men wouldn't open doors for them anymore (only an idiot would trade money for chivalry); that children needed their moms more than their dads. Sally and I lost the debate and suffered the derision of our classmates.
When I tried that summer to get a job at the local Baskin-Robbins, the owner told me that women's wrists weren't strong enough to scoop ice cream, and he refused to hire me. The positive side to all this is that being on the forefront of a movement means that you're there at the inception. At age 12 I helped start the Women's Center on the UCD campus and got to meet Betty Friedan, the mother of Women's Lib, who told my mother, "We're doing this so that she [meaning me] won't have to fight these issues when she's our age." And here I am, their age, and the world is better for women.
My sister, seven years younger than me, is a civil engineer. (I majored in theater.) I know many women scientists just a few years younger than me and a couple my age or older. Thirty-One Flavors has to hire women these days. And so, I want to know, where are all those people from my junior high who used to taunt me and call me "Miss Women's Lib"? Now that the world has gone the way I predicted, why aren't they writing me to apologize? Where's Javier Teeferteller, who used to yell in the hallways, "Jennifer Ball doesn't shave her legs"? Where's Gretchen Kubiack, who asked me in the swimming pool when was I was going to start shaving under my arms. I hadn't even started my periods yet. I had one hair under one arm. I was an unintentional radical.
I was so oblivious that I assumed most thought the way I did. I never burned a bra, but then I rarely wear one. In my eighth grade, all the girls were required to take a semester of home ec. The boys took a quarter of apartment living. Originally the boys had to take a semester, but one of them threw a coffeecake into the dryer, and that was the end of the boys' requirement. My parents let me cut home ec, and, instead, the school finally allowed me to host Susan B. Anthony Day, where speakers from the UCD Women's Center came and discussed equal rights while threatened teenagers yelled at them. It was the most exciting thing since the sit-in.
Davis was not an apathetic town. I spoke at Career Day recently for local seventh and eighth graders. It took a lot of asking questions and hyperactivity on my part to get the students to participate in their own education for that hour. I missed my junior high -- teens take their rights for granted these days and don't realize that in this climate of paranoia (not so dissimilar from the 1970s), those freedoms (privacy, for example) will erode if acquiescence takes the place of action.
Placerville still has the dummy hanging outside Hangman's Tree tavern on Main Street, but they got rid of the noose that formed the O in the word "Police" on the city's police cars (both decisions, I believe, prompted by tourism). Clearly money and chivalry can coexist; but girls, don't expect to get either by simply sitting around.