I feel like I was born a feminist, but I remember the exact moment when I realized that being a girl meant something different than being a boy.
I was about two or three years old and living in a weathered house in western Michigan. There was something that needed fixing, as there always is, and my dad had brought a few guys over to the house to help. I can’t remember if they were friends or uncles or guys from the nearby Air Force base where he was stationed. Either way, they were all in our hot, musty basement trying to make something work that was broken.
I walked down the stairs and stepped through the door at the bottom. I was wearing shorts, but no shirt, which I’d bet I often did around the house as a toddler. My dad turned around and said, “Lindsay, go upstairs and put a shirt on.” I’m sure he was kind about it and probably said a few other things at the same time, but I don’t remember those other words. I looked around at the guys, noticing that they weren’t wearing shirts, and asked my dad why I had to wear one when no one else was. He told me, “Because you’re a girl.”
That tiny phrase struck me like a ton of bricks. My dad was probably just trying to get me to cover up in front of these other grown men, who may well have been strangers, and that seems like responsible parenting. I’m sure he wanted to quickly offer an explanation he thought I could understand and was hoping I wouldn’t throw a tantrum. (I was an intensely stubborn child. Unbelievable, I know.)
But the statement didn’t quell my confusion. It caused so much more. It was the first time I remember thinking about what it meant to be a girl—that it actually meant something at all. Before that, the fact that I was a girl seemed as insignificant as the color of my eyes. It was something that was real, but not pertinent. In that moment, though, I realized it meant I had a different set of rules. I didn’t know what they were yet, but I’d learned that they were out there. It was confusing and it seared a great big question mark in my brain.
My dad raised two strong daughters by having high and varied expectations of us and demonstrating that equality is a daily practice, one that he lived. Despite that, the short, off-handed phrase he muttered to my toddler-self awakened my now constant struggle against the pressures and assumptions that come with being a girl. I didn’t know then all the other things society would tell me I had to do and not do. The list seems endless. To be honest, I’m still figuring that out. And, by figuring that out, I mean I’m forging my armor and crafting my battle plans.