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Dear Young Folks
by Cyndia Cole (from GSWS Acts series)
52 years ago, when I was 18 years old in 1968, despite my settler, white-skinned, middle class, cis-gender, born in the USA privilege; because I was a woman, I could not attend Princeton University though I wanted to and was qualified in all other ways.
I could not pursue studies and a career in science, technology, engineering or math even though I loved and excelled in these subjects.
Because I was a woman, I could not wear comfortable clothing that allowed freedom of movement to school or to work, to church or to parties.
I could not travel alone with the expectation of safety on planes, trains, subways, buses, bicycles or on foot especially to unknown places or at night.
Because I was a woman, I could not ask anyone out on a date or even for a dance. I could not rebuff sexual attention from any male without being ridiculed as ‘frigid.” I could not accept sexual attention from any male without being shamed as a “slut” or “whore.”
As a woman, I could not expect to have the knowledge, means or social/medical support to experience any aspect of my sexuality with consent, pleasure, respect or safety and without force, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, condemnation, ostracism and guilt. I certainly could not raise a child alone or with another woman.
50 years ago, when I was 20 years old in 1970, I ran away to Canada with a man I was advised to marry to help him stay alive and out of prison and I did. As a married woman I tried to keep my maiden name but did not succeed.
Because I was married and a woman it was very unlikely that I could ever get the same work as a man, let alone a career or profession. But if I did, I could never expect to be paid the same as that man. I could not expect to ever have a woman boss or to be the boss of male employees.
Because I was a married woman, I could not be considered on my own merits. I could not apply for a job, a student visa or landed immigrant status unless my husband got these first on his own merits. I could not sign a lease, get a loan or a mortgage unless my husband signed for it.
As a married woman I could not get a divorce unless I proved my husband guilty of some very serious wrong doing even if he also wanted a divorce. If he didn’t want the divorce, I would be crucified for my wrong doings, real or imagined, and he would emerge blameless.
44 years ago, when I was 26 years old in 1976, because I was a woman, I could not kiss a woman without knowing that I might lose my job, my apartment and my entire network of social support including family, friends, neighbours, academic mentors and even heterosexual feminists.
If I displayed any affection towards a woman, if I “looked like” a lesbian or if I simply seemed unresponsive or angry towards sexual attention from men in any public place, I might lose my physical safety and be attacked.
As a lesbian-feminist woman I could not expect support or solidarity from other women when I spoke out about anything, especially about experiences of sexual abuse, harassment or rape. Though when I did receive their support, it changed everything.
Fifty years ago, it was hard to imagine that our Proposal for a Women’s Studies Program at SFU could grow into today’s GSWS, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Department at Simon Fraser University. Every student, teacher, research participant, project, paper, publication and event that has followed fills me with gratitude, awe and pride.
We were ordinary women and people of diverse backgrounds, identities and sexualities. We wanted to make lives worth living, lives of happiness. Everything we risked and challenged and fought for was worth it. We were ordinary women who wanted to change our lives. We believed we could and we did. So can you!
With love and confidence in your futures,