By Qin Sun Stubis
Girls grow up confidently these days, knowing they can do almost anything and everything boys do. They can scale mountains and become astronauts. They can design machines and become sea captains. And some day, one of them shall become the first female President of the United States.
But Emma Nutt lived in a different era. It was a time when women did not compete with men for jobs. Instead, they were taught to take care of household chores and groomed to become stay-at-home mothers. And, they learned to obey rules and their men.
Then Emma broke a taboo. She challenged America by becoming the first female telephone operator. And, she excelled. When her company realized how well she could do her job, it would soon hire many more other women. It all happened in Boston in 1878.
It was a story of an ordinary woman showing our nation her courage by stepping into the male job world, setting a milestone in gender equality and women’s rights. Now her daring feat is imprinted on our September calendar as National Emma Nutt Day.
As a girl growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, I could have used Emma Nutt as a role model. Though I didn’t need to have my feet bound and mouth covered when I laughed, I was bound and gagged by many of our old cultural beliefs against girls.
In theory, I was taught by Mao, women were capable of holding up half of the sky, and men and women were equal; in reality, I was given a very clear message that girls were not important and valued. My paternal grandmother often hugged my boy cousin and rewarded him with candies while casting cold stares at me and making comments such as “Girls are only raised for other families.” I saw my mother cry when she was being bullied for not having any boys.
It was hard to grow up with confidence when I felt being a girl was a defect and I had to face rejection by my own extended family. “Mom,” my younger sister, Min, once comforted my mother when she was just five years old. “I’ll have a boy for you when I grow up.”
Thanks to many “Emmas” who have risen to challenges and faced prejudices, girls in America today don’t have to live like second-class citizens. They attend school, learn special skills and work side by side with men, whether on land, on the water, or in space.
Finally, we can feel great to be women in America and around the world. From Asia to Latin America, from the South Pacific to Northern Ireland, more and more girls can now grow and excel with confidence and pride, not just on Emma Nutt Day, but every day.
Qin is a longtime columnist at The Santa Monica Star (reprinted with permission)