The day my inner feminist was born

Raleigh, by James Willamor / Creative Commons license

When I was about 15, I went to my first TeenPact camp in Raleigh. If you were homeschooled and a huge dork like me, active in debate circles, you were aware of TeenPact. TeenPact is a super-conservative camp that indoctrinates teens to become libertarian warriors, trained to infiltrate the government from the ground up. I participated because I was really “into” politics at the time, but after my first day at camp, I began to feel that something was terribly wrong with these people.

If you had the misfortune of being born female and wanted to attend this camp, you had to learn the rules first. Most important of all: You had to follow a Victorian-era dress code, which mandated that you had to be dressed in “business professional attire” for the duration of the camp. Except that their definition of “business professional” meant skirts well below the knee without any slits and all shirts baggy and well below the tantalizing elbow. (You can even read this ridiculous dress code here. They’re apparently still going strong. My favorite line from the Code is on shirts girls can wear, which outlaws any “tight” fabrics, requesting that “no shape [should be] too obvious.” Pretend you are not a girl! Breasts are SINFUL!)

The kicker is that girls are not allowed to wear pants–even pantsuits or trousers. Silly woman! Pants are for men! You can imagine how difficult this was to find any “business professional attire” to meet these standards, especially since I wasn’t one of the homeschoolers who made my own clothes.

On top of this stifling dress code, all of the speakers at all of the events were male. Also, if you were a girl, you were not allowed to lead a committee; only boy interns were allowed to lead committee meetings. Boy interns led all the discussions while the girls participated when spoken to. (Weirdly enough, however, girls were allowed to “run” for office. This struck me as a big contradiction in terms, but whatever.)

When I arrived, I was quickly made aware of the Dress Code Police, a militia of girl interns who ran around armed with needles and safety pins, scanning to make sure all of the girls were very modest and not violating any of the seemingly innumerable dress code rules. I showed up in a floor-length black skirt, which I thought was very safe. It hits the floor! It’s black! Totally unappealing in every way! But I was wrong.

Not half an hour after my arrival, I was taken by the elbow by a girl I’d barely met and pushed into the nearest bathroom. This girl intern looked me in the eye explained to me that my skirt was violating dress code. “Wait, how? It hits the floor!” I protested. She spun me around and pointed to the five-inch slit in the back of the skirt. The back! Apparently, the backs of my knees were a “stumbling block” to my young male colleagues. So, the slit had to be remedied. If you are a woman, you are well aware that to wear a floor-length skirt, slits are essential for movement. You cannot walk more than a half a mincing step if you have no slit. But TeenPact doesn’t care about that! She swiftly jabbed some pins into the back of my skirt and told me I was appropriate now.

My feelings were a little hurt, but I decided not to mind it. I hobbled along for the rest of the day and dutifully attended my committee meetings. My group, led by the cute boy intern, was going to take a field trip to sit in on the real House meeting. We were running behind schedule, probably because some girl was dressing like a tramp, showing a sliver of knee or something. Our committee leaders told us we needed to book it, because we were going to be late.

So, we set off for the House of Representatives. The boys in their pantsuits were striding ahead. We delicate ladies were trailing behind, because none of us could move quickly, as all of our slits had been taken away from us. We minced and shuffled along, trying not to rip our pinned skirts. The boy leader, yards ahead of us, suddenly turned around and shouted at us, “GIRLS! Hurry up! We are going to be late!”

That was it. My AWAKENING. I stopped dead in my tracks. I looked straight at him and shouted back, “YOU try to walk in a skirt that’s all pinned up!” He paused and then looked at us, a group of homely penguins. He even seemed to think for a moment. It wasn’t a great comeback, I know, but I was 15. And the clouds had opened.

This silly story is the first moment that I started thinking for myself and stopped being ashamed of having been born a girl. So, watch out TeenPact. You may have unknowingly birthed a whole army of late-blooming feminists.

(This post is for Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, who I think will know what I am talking about…)