I grew up in a culture steeped in sexism, but like most girls I didn’t notice. I dutifully studied the names of all the presidents never consciously noticing they were all men. I was also unaware that the money I carried in my pocket and the stamps I collected were all engraved with images of famous men. It was an era in which girls were told they could become teachers, nurses or secretaries. Boys were told could become doctors, lawyers, or anything else they wanted be. Things in my home seemed fair and balanced, at least until my brother was born and my parents reunited after a long separation. After all a boy needs a father. A girl will get married. A boy will carry on the family name.
In my thirties I started to take note of the disparate treatment of men and women. I would go to the local post office eager to buy a stamp featuring the image of a woman, but never found one. At dinner parties I would point out that there were ten official US holidays, but not a single one honored the contributions of a woman. I would religiously complain that the coins I collected as a child were all imprinted with images of men, images that were imprinting my psyche. Although I gave lip service to the differential treatment of men and women in some of our symbols and icons, it wasn’t until much later that I realized the depth of the problem and the impact gender disparity had not only my self-esteem but the self-esteem of all women. How could we be what we could not see? Looking back the fact that we women accomplished anything spoke to our determination and resilience.
It was the 2008 Presidential Election that drove home how pervasive and deep sexism was in my country. A group of four male Democratic leaders urged Hillary Clinton to drop out of the Democratic Primary early and yield to Obama. Four old white men telling the only woman in history who had a legitimate chance to be president to step aside. I was outraged. Sexism was no less prevalent on the street where anti-Clinton forces carried posters that read, “Iron my shirt but don’t run my country.” I was similarly outraged when Obama supporters showed the same antithesis toward Sarah Palin displaying the painted face of Sarah Palin on a portraits of nude women around the country. Something was fundamentally wrong with how we saw women in this country and at that moment I was committed to fostering change. I was not sure how I was going to do it but I knew I had to do something. I wanted to do something that could permanently change the American psyche. I wanted to try to change the subtle, insidious sexism that permeated our culture. I wanted to change our culture not for me but for the next generation of girls, our collective daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters. We might tell girls they can do anything, but our nation’s symbols and icons tell a different story.
I’ve often wondered what would happen if the gender roles were reversed. Would fathers allow their sons to handle money that was only graced with female imagery, lick stamps with pictures of women, peer up exclusively at statues of women, and in million insidious ways see their collective history erased. I doubt it. Why should women?
In March 2010 I founded EVE, a not-for-profit committed to creating Equal Visibility Everywhere for women. EVE’s focus is achieving gender parity in the symbols and icons of the United States. EVE is working to change the face of National Statuary Hall, our nation’s monuments and memorials, currency, stamps, historical markers, Google Doodles, and parade balloons. I believe we can change America’s deep seated attitude toward women by changing the symbols that bombard our collective subconscious. It is a slow and tedious process since it involves changing the face of America one symbol at a time.