Crossing the Line: One Woman’s Feminist Journey

By Mary Roberts

My foot lands solidly on the half-court line. Zing! A confusing mix of joy and fear fills the space between my ribs. Joy, because I was free to cross that line, and fear, because it felt like I was committing a crime.  Running hard and fast with elbows akimbo, adrenaline propelled me into the fray of girls under the basket trying to score on us.

Mary Roberts writes to say, “Wake up, people!” Learn more about Mary…

“Tweet, tweet!” The ref calls a foul on me. I look toward the bench at my coach who stands there, shaking her head. We weren’t supposed to try to foul out, but being short and lacking defensive skills, I was willing to sacrifice myself. The other team was in the paint, ready to score. I just made sure I didn’t foul their best free-throw shooter.

It was 1966 and we were playing six-on-six girls’ high school basketball. Only a couple of players per team could cross the mid-court line without incurring penalties. I felt sorry for my teammates who had to come to a screeching halt before they tumbled over the line into forbidden territory. I fought hard to keep my position as “roving guard,” terrified that I would be imprisoned behind a thick black line if I didn’t play well.

“Was I more delicate than my twin brother?”

In 1958, the Office of Civil Rights started phasing out six-on-six girls’ basketball, finally accepting that women and girls can sprint up and down a full basketball court without losing a uterus or lapsing into a coma. It took 37 years.

My brothers, on the other hand, crisscrossed the floor with abandon, unfettered by sexist rules, devised by ignorant men, medical and otherwise. Was I more delicate than my twin brother? Was I unknowingly causing irreparable damage to my baby-making parts when I flew down the court, ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat if it meant that a basket wouldn’t be scored? If I wasn’t already a ‘feminist,’ I surely would be one by the end of the 1966 girls’ basketball season.

I was one of six kids in my family—three boys and three girls.  We all attended Catholic school where the nuns ran the place like soft-spoken Gestapo but whenever a priest entered their sanctum, it was all bows and “yes, father, no father, and your will be done, father.” Even at 10-years-old, it confused me. Why was all the power concentrated in these men when, clearly, the nuns knew how to run a school and ensure their charges were not sent into the world as idiots?

I never understood what the priests did, except say Mass on Sunday mornings and listen to people spill their guts in the confessional on Saturdays. The Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s they offered in return for my stutter-riddled admission of bad behavior didn’t help me, but whenever my 8th grade teacher, Sister Ann Patricia, kindly asked me how I was doing, she poked a few more holes in the walls I had built up at a young age.

Mom had a steady job as a social worker and Dad worked inconsistently as a salesman, but the burden of six kids and childhood emotional wounds or character flaws or whatever we call them today, was too much for him and Mom became the de facto head of house.

“How could I not be a feminist?”

I joined the National Organization of Women in 1972 and marched for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet, I stumbled too many times making my way in the world, and settled for a marriage I shouldn’t have. My dream was to become the head of a women’s fitness publishing empire. My magazine, Healthword Magazine, a regional health and fitness publication covering the Front Range of Colorado, lasted three years. I want to blame my ex, but I didn’t fight hard enough to keep it. I gave up.

I still rail against the gender pay gap, the lessening of reproductive rights, the lack of women in powerful positions, both in business, science and legislative bodies. I call out men whose language and attitudes betray an insidious and deeply-held belief that women are inherently less than men. It’s the demons of yesteryear that trip me up, that too many times make my decisions for me or want me to cling to the fallacy that I don’t have the ability to rise, once again.

Women growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s experienced a struggle of proportions that young women today don’t understand but are still in the thick of, whether or not they acknowledge it. We have much to do and a long way to go. The goal is not to be in the boardrooms and the halls of government, or to see how much money and power we can amass—a male-dominated view of the world.

The goal is to shift the paradigm of what we mean by liberty and justice for all and how to achieve it. The goal is that no one is denigrated or considered “less-than” because of economics, gender, race, etc. The goal is to make decisions based on “the good of all” and not just a few.

For me, the goal is that all women can fly across that half-court line with joy, flexing their muscles and minds, the winds of change and the work of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers at their back.