6 lessons on the dignity of women from the Harvard women’s soccer team

The Harvard women’s soccer team letter to the men who crudely objectified them has important lessons our daughters need to hear.

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This weekend my 11-year-old daughter beat me in Horse. You know that one? Horse is a basketball game in which each player tries to sink the same shot. Each miss earns you a letter; spell h-o-r-s-e and you’re out. It hurts me to admit this, but not only did she win, she’s still four inches shorter than I am, and I was using a smaller basketball.

But that’s the kind of loss an athlete understands. In sports, someone goes home the winner and someone doesn’t. But sometimes, for a woman, being skilled and playing hard won’t win her respect. Sometimes she’ll be judged on how she looks—even when physical appearance is the last thing that matters.

I’d like my daughter and her two younger sisters, all of them athletes of one kind or another, to know that their actions and abilities matter most, but the news is telling a different story. A “scouting report” created by the Harvard men’s soccer team, which evaluated and rated the 2012 Harvard women’s soccer team recruits in vulgar, sexual terms, was jarringly out-of-bounds. What about their success as female athletes warranted such a degenerate response?

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But it’s not that these women are talented athletes that made them targets. It’s simply that they are women, which puts them at risk for this kind of “locker room talk.” In this and so many arenas, women are undermined by the prevailing sense that their sexual attractiveness is the most important metric by which their worth is gauged.

I’d like to equip my girls to recover from (because it seems likely that they may someday be objects of this kind of talk), fend off, and speak out against misogyny, just like the Harvard women’s soccer team recently did in a letter in The Crimson, the campus paper. You should definitely read the whole thing; it’s worth every single word. But as far as my daughters are concerned, I’ve pulled out the six best lessons about the dignity of women that are especially important for them, and all girls, to hear:

1.”We are not anonymous … we have decided to speak for ourselves.”

Don’t be voiceless. The more we allow ourselves to be non-persons, nameless women, the more likely we will continue to be objects to those men in the world who are disposed to think of us only as the sum of our physical parts.

2. “The sad reality is that we have come to expect this kind of behavior from so many men, that it is so ‘normal’ to us we often decide it is not worth our time or effort to dwell on.”

Arm yourself with a mantra, girls. “This is not normal.” Every time you are catcalled or told to smile or treated as a creature whose main purpose is to please someone else, say to yourself (better yet, say it out loud): “This is not normal.” And it’s not normal, but it is common. Remember this, common is not the same as acceptable.

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3. “We do not pity ourselves … More than anything, we are frustrated.”

Unless things change drastically and immediately, today’s girls are already inheriting a world in which many women experience physical or emotional pain at the hands of some men. I pray that we can live in a world with less oppression and more grace, but until then, I want my girls to know that they are allowed to hurt. They are allowed to cry, because that’s not weakness, that’s acknowledging that something wrong has happened and that you are human. But when the tears stop, skip the pity. We women are amazing creatures. We are as powerful and smart, as talented and capable as men. We are as human as men. We need to spend our energy on encouraging each other, not pitying each other. Ache, then speak out. Hurt, then help each other to heal. Be sad and angry and frustrated, then act. It’s in acting on behalf of our better natures that we bring about a better world for ourselves and future generations of women.

4. “We feel hopeless because men who are supposed to be our brothers degrade us like this … yet in it we feel blessed to know many men who do not and would never participate in this behavior out of respect for us—out of respect for women.”

Brothers are the men in your life who see you as you are, not as they want you to be. They do not see the “use” of you (as a sex object, as the butt of a vulgar joke) but the value of you. They are the men who advocate for you, alongside you, with you. Learn to recognize your brothers.

5. “We know what it’s like to get knocked down … We know as teammates that we rise to the occasion, that we are stronger together, and that we will not tolerate anything less than respect for women that we care for more than ourselves.”

It sometimes feels like there are limited spots for women in sports, in business, in science, in politics, in technology. It feels like we need to be both for each other, and out for ourselves. But that’s not the case. Don’t let someone else’s rules decide the game you’ll play. We are a team and the field is large. There’s room for all women to excel and achieve if we continually help each other up. In a Christian community, we are called to advocate for each other as a team. We are called to be a sacred family, which means that all lives are not just equal, but also that those who are able must lift those who are struggling.

6. “To the men of Harvard Soccer and any future men who may lay claim to our bodies and choose to objectify us as sexual objects, in the words of one of us, we say together: ‘I can offer you my forgiveness, which is—and forever will be—the only part of me that you can ever claim as yours.'”

Girls, if things stay as they are, you’ll devote more time than you can imagine to declaring ownership of your own body. You own yourself, but you’ll often have to remind other people that that is true. Give freely of yourself, love your neighbor, let your actions be witness to your faith, don’t be afraid to live with an open heart and a generous nature—but guard against those who would take from you what you don’t want them to have, not just your body, but your dignity. If we proclaim our self-ownership unceasingly, with the voices of our brothers supporting ours, it will be that much harder for anyone to make objects and items of us.

I can’t promise my girls that they’ll go through their lives without being the unwitting object of sexual derision and objectification. But Brooke, Kelsey, Alika, Emily, Lauren, and Haley—the six members of the Harvard Women’s Soccer recruiting class of 2012—have emerged as advocates who aim to change that.


Nicole Leigh Shaw
Nicole Leigh Shaw
Nicole Leigh Shaw, a former newspaper journalist, has been moving through all the metamorphic stages of the modern writer, except "tortured novelist." Soon she'll emerge as a butterfly or a vlogger. She writes for ScaryMommy.com, Momtastic.com and others, and has contributed to five anthologies, including the New York Times' bestseller "I Just Want to Pee Alone." She has four kids, two dogs and one husband.

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