When I entered college in 1974, Duke University was academically strong but had yet to establish a national reputation. This was pre–basketball fame, and while the school was hot below the Mason-Dixon Line, to the insular New Englanders in my high school it was as appealing as Mongolia. Told I was headed for North Carolina, one friend asked—in thick, nearly unintelligible Boston-speak—“Why do you want to spend the next four years with people whose accents make them sound dumb?” The answer: By age 17, I’d already moved seven times and was itchy at having spent three years in one place. Time to swap my L.L.Bean boots for flip-flops!
What I didn’t know was that socially, Duke was still pure 1950s. Male visitors were announced over the dorm’s PA system as “callers,” and women hot-rollered their hair for class. The pressure to look constantly gorgeous was so intense that a campus belle on my floor refused to leave the shower until she was fully mascaraed!
So I should have been better prepared the year I tried to breach the status quo. Not beautiful (or coordinated) enough to become a cheerleader, I decided to try out instead for Blue Devil mascot, the character who whips up the crowd in a horned mask and blue cape. I don’t recall the specifics of the encounter, only that whomever I was sent to see about making that dream come true was dumbfounded to find a woman walking through the door. Though perfectly polite, she clearly thought I’d beamed in from Mars. Blue Devil mascot was a man’s job, she explained, and always had been; I didn’t need to apply. I slunk back to my dorm and buried my humiliation deep in my brain—where it stayed until I read our profile of Jill Abramson (page 94), the first woman to head the New York Times, and my experience came rushing back.
While Abramson summited Everest and I was defeated by a mere anthill, her success made me feel vindicated. Big leapers take little leapers along with them; in my mind, I’m on top of the mountain with her (only I’m wearing that silly Blue Devil costume with the horns!).
In 2012 some say it’s archaic to cheerlead for women who reach the top. I disagree. As long as the world still defines some things as men’s work, firsts are important, and at Morewe’re inspired by them.
Tell me: Have you ever tried to become a “first” of any kind? Post your story at more.com.
Click here to read Lesley's February 2012 Editor's Letter.
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