He came up to me with tears in his eyes. “I am so sorry,” he began. The problem was that I didn’t know this man. In fact, I had no earthly idea what he was talking about.
I was surrounded by people asking questions following my presentation to the local Rotary Club – but he didn’t seem to care. It was right before Christmas; familiar holiday music played softly through the sound system of the private dinner club and at every corner, Christmas trees were lit with bright, glittering lights. The Christmas cheer didn’t seem to affect him either. Looking at him, I felt a pang of pity – his white hair tussled and tears welling up in his blue eyes. I didn’t know who he was, but that didn’t really matter: he was somebody’s father; somebody’s grandfather. I took his hand and said, “It’s alright. There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
He insisted that there was. He began to tell me that he was an alumnus of my southern, liberal arts college. His father had been an alumnus there, too. Politely, I interrupted, talking about what a wonderful educational institution it was – trying anything to make him feel better. He interrupted me again and what he said made my blood run cold: “Me and my daddy – we did everything we could to stop women from being accepted as students.”
In the South, there are many secrets hidden right behind closed doors. When I was a child, I went to a private school that was founded in order to ensure that wealthy families’ children would not have to attend desegregated schools. The secrets followed me through my university-level education, as well. The main building of my college was built through slave labor. African Americans were finally admitted to study in 1964. While a few exceptions were made for women “day students” through the college’s history, it was only in 1975 that the Board determined to extend enrollment to women as policy.
There is sort of a quiet sexism that exists in the South. Come election time, you will see Republican women walking door-to-door, campaigning for male candidates. Every Christmas, the wife of your Southern Baptist Church deacon will send you a hand-written Christmas card or bake you a holiday bread on behalf of her husband. (Note: Women are typically restricted from being elected deacons.) However, over the last week, this sexism came to light and boiled over into a national scandal.
The man at the heart of the scandal is Republican South Carolina State Senator Tom Corbin. He won the District 5 Senate seat in 2012, where he represents sections of Greenville and Spartanburg counties. (I live in Spartanburg.) While at a dinner with his fellow Republicans, he turned to the sole woman senator in South Carolina (also a Republican) and said bluntly, “Well, you know God created man first. Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.” The comment went viral. Senator Corbin now says that he is sorry; that his joke with a colleague was misconstrued into sexism. In fact, he is trying to convince his constituents that his women senator colleague is “trying to make me out to be a woman-hater.” However, most women aren’t buying it: it was just the verbal evidence that we needed to legitimize many of our suspicions of sexism.
I am an only child. I was born to two doting parents, who never once made my gender an issue. Growing up, I played with bugs just as much as I played with Barbies. I was told that whatever I dreamed, I could achieve. Therefore, the first time that I became personally aware of institutional sexism – in the form of a repentant, older, crying man – I didn’t know what to do.
That December day, he stood in front of me – expectant of my forgiveness on behalf of all of the women who he had been negatively impacted. It was my senior year of college. I was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society as a junior. I was on track to graduate with summa cum laude honors. I spoke two foreign languages fluently, and could hold basic conversations in three more. The idea that he had once wanted to bar me from studying; that he once believed that I could not handle the academic intensity of a man – disgusted me. I swallowed, holding back my anger. I thanked him for sharing with me his story and I told him that I was very happy that he had changed his mind. I told him that I was grateful to be studying where I was and that many other women were also doing well at that institution.
This time, I will not be holding back my anger. And I encourage women in South Carolina, women in the South, and women throughout the United States to write Senator Corbin (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell him that you are disappointed in his statements regarding us women. Then, I encourage you to respectfully tell him how you are proving him wrong. Women are not “lesser cuts of meat.”