by Sarah Kishpaugh
I knew I was a feminist in 6th grade when I staged a walkout on the playground. It was 1988 and there were all these discussions about the Equal Rights Amendment. I would hear my parents arguing over it at dinner—my mom was for it, whatever “it” was, and my dad brushed it off like a menacing fly on his neck.
I was a star child athlete, full of natural fire to compete and win. I was coachable and excelled in gymnastics or soccer or anything my parents put me in. I had strong butt muscles and thick thighs; even the few black kids at our public school respected me because I was a fast runner. When I hit puberty all that changed. A lot of the boys who I had once considered to be shrimpy and weak caught up and beat me. That was okay with me so long as they still let me play.
By 6th grade, it wasn’t cool for girls to play sports during recess so we all hung out on the wall and gossiped about who had Espirit pants and who had Liz Claiborne. There was this boy Josh who had moved up to our northern suburb of Seattle from California. He was blond and tan and had older brothers and a hot mom. I was sure he had been in movies or was a surfer. I asked him to “go with me” in a note that said, “Who do you like better, me or Lisa?” and he wrote back and said, “You, but don’t tell anyone.” So we had a secret romance for a year.
Josh was sexually advanced—one of those boys who’d made out with his older baby sitter, and knew words I didn’t, like “69.” He would make that face at me when no one was looking where you put your forefinger and middle finger in front of your mouth in a ‘V’ sign. He’d whisper, “Sit on my face,” and play footsies with me under the tables at library time.
I lived one block from the elementary school. Josh knew my parents were gone in the morning. Once, he stormed my house with a gang of other pimply 6th grade boys from the neighborhood. My best friend Erin and I were just hanging out watching cartoons when they busted in the door and went straight for my room. They rummaged through my drawers until they found my underwear drawer. Josh pulled out a pair of red Jockeys, size large for my butt. He stuffed them in his backpack and ran out the door. I chased him but he was faster than me, which made me mad.
The next morning before school, I saw my underwear strung up the top of the flagpole. The principal called all the parents and the boys and Erin and me were busted big-time. My teacher, a man named Dwight Coil, pulled me aside and said, “You know, this never would have happened if you hadn’t egged those boys on.” Something ignited inside. A layer of early-onset puberty sensitivity was peeled from my skin and I no longer cared if Josh thought I was the prettiest or coolest girl. At recess I tried to take him down, pulling at his pants leg until he fell into a puddle. When one of his lackeys read a report in front of class, I nudged everyone that the kid had a hard on and we all laughed.
After that, the boys decided girls couldn’t play soccer or football or basketball at recess. “You don’t even like it,” one of Josh’s lackeys told me when I lined up to get picked for a team. I was a clutch right forward; I could score. But they skipped me over so I made a weird hissing sound like a mixture between a cat and a snake and went back to the wall to gossip with the girls. There, we developed a plan. Just like the protesters I was watching on TV in support of this mysterious “ERA”, we would make posters and hold a demonstration. Every 6th grade girl (and with any luck, younger sisters in 5th and 4th) would tuck our long hair under baseball caps and dress in jeans and a dark t-shirt. We’d make signs and march through the field at recess.
The word spread just as fast as news that the pair of flagpole-flying red undies were mine. I couldn’t believe it the next day when all the girls showed up with their hair tucked under ball caps wearing jeans and a dark t-shirt. This was solidarity! We stashed our signs in a secret spot behind the garbage cans on the left wing of the building. At recess we pulled them out, lined up and marched, chanting, “Sex! Sex! Sex Discrimination!”
The boys stopped what they were doing and stood there with their mouths gaping. The teachers came out. The mean old recess duty clucked her tongue. But I remember the other one, younger and fit, nodding and smiling. Many boys called me a feminist that day; a few spat the word in disgust, but most admired our strategic outcry for respect. I went home that night and let the word “feminist” roll around in my head. I can still hear the rhythm of the limerick we chanted today; it replays in my mind like a b-roll on repeat every time I think our work is done, or when I read the news about rape and torture.