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Girls Aren't Good At Math

Rita Richardson

Posted on April 30 2019

I just finished reading an amazing book called Educated by Tara Westover.  She tells her story of being raised on a mountain by survivalist parents who don’t allow her to go to school because that’s not necessary for girls (not to mention public school is part of the government plot to control our lives!)

Throughout all the craziness (and there’s a LOT of craziness!) Tara manages to figure a way around her family, graduate with honors from college and ultimately a PhD from Cambridge.  (No spoiler alert---this is all on the back cover.  The best parts of the book aren’t about her accomplishments---they are about her journey which is nothing short of miraculous).

I would never claim to understand the life Tara endured.  My upbringing was conservative but not crazy (no one was burying fuel tanks in the backyard for the “end of days” or frantically canning a 10-year supply of peaches because there would be no food supply).  But I do understand about the idea that a girl’s future was limited---not by ability but by expectations.

Unlike Educated, my mom believed that education was critical.  When I was 16 and wanted a part-time job for spending money my mom said “no” because “school is your job”.   Everything was peripheral to getting good grades except for music.  Playing an instrument was mandatory and my secondary education.

In a small farm town of 400 there wasn’t a lot to occupy our time, so sports, basketball, to be exact, took on a vital role bringing the community together.  I decided I wanted to try out to be a cheerleader (Title IX had just passed so the opportunity to play a "real" sport hadn’t quite reached our remote little world, so it was either cheerleader or nothing). 

My mom was less than thrilled when I announced I was trying out, but she didn’t say “no”.  The only requirement was if I dropped off the honor roll then I would have to quit cheerleading.  School work had always come fairly easy, but this was going to be very different.  This required a new set of skills that I wasn’t sure I possessed.

I practiced cartwheels and herky jumps in our yard until I thought my legs would buckle.  Somehow, I made it.  It was the first thing in my life that I had wanted so badly and was scared that I wouldn’t get.  At the time it was a huge accomplishment (no disrespect to any of the other potential cheerleaders but in a class of 27 it wasn’t quite the nail-biting experience of an Olympic trial!)  To me, it was life-changing because I learned that if I really wanted something and I worked hard I might just get it. 

Since being a career cheerleader wasn’t an option for me, I redirected my interest to fashion.  I wanted to be a fashion buyer in a big department store in New York City.  I had no real idea what was involved.  I’m guessing that I’d probably seen an old movie, I’m picturing Doris Day, where she was a buyer at Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.  She wore great clothes, had the perfect eye for picking fabulous designs and lived in a huge apartment overlooking Central Park.   

I knew this career was going to require a college degree before anyone turned me loose in New York City so that became the next step.

I settled on the University of Illinois.  I was familiar with it, my sister and brother had gone there so I thought it would be good for me, too.  I never gave one thought about if it was a good school for fashion. 

Looking back to my college visit, the guide was exceedingly proud of the engineering campus and almost giddy with the underground library that was built 2 stories below ground so as not to disturb the Morrow Plots—the oldest experimental corn field in the country.  Fashion was not on their radar.

But I plowed ahead. ;-)  I was determined to get the degree I needed in order to get started on my exciting and glamorous life as a fashion buyer.

Each semester I laid out my courses and set off to review them with my advisor.  She was stern and unyielding---which always made me wonder, but never have the nerve to ask,  "WHY did you choose to work with people let alone young students trying to find their way?"

I’d go to Ms. B’s office to discuss my schedule and she’d begin with a heavy sigh and I’d take a deep breath counting to ten.  This was our routine.  We would start and end every meeting the same way:  both of us dissatisfied and annoyed.

I was studying for a degree in Retail and Marketing of Textiles and Apparel.   My major had its roots in HomeEc, and the old guard had no intention of helping it evolve to the business world where it belonged.  So, there would be requirements of Sewing, Tailoring and Pattern-making and I wasn’t interested in any of those courses. 

In hindsight, I would have benefited from the knowledge those classes gave but it was the insistence that this group in academia new best and these types of classes were ALL that we needed.

The people, mostly, if not all women, that had studied fashion at U of I didn’t expect to have opportunities to run apparel companies so what was the point of filling their head with finance, accounting and business management?    This is what the students were told, and this is what they believed. 

The world was changing for women but not fast enough in some places.  The change wasn’t constant either.  Sometimes you could run full-speed into opportunities and then there were times when someone would hit the brakes.  You’d either have to push through or wait for change to catch up to your dreams.

I did a little pushing, but I did a lot more waiting.  I never took the sewing class and Ms B suggested I change my major.   I did not.   I did change my advisor, though. 

I’m confident that there have been more than a few people throughout my education and career who have had low expectations for me.  I don’t spend much time thinking about them—except when I need a boost to overcome a difficult time and prove them wrong.   I do believe that looking back on each accomplishment as a stepping stone (even if it’s just making the cheerleading squad) is what builds the road to success.  Success creates expectations.

When I started my fashion journey, I had no idea what the possibilities were.  Every job and every experience in those jobs has led to me where I am today.

I’ve started two companies.  My new company, FashionXFaith is so much about who I am and what I hope to be.  If I can use whatever talents and abilities God gave me to create cute girls clothing that helps young girls reach their potential,  I will feel successful.  

I’m so thankful for all of those that have helped me, taught me and showed me that I’m only limited by my own dreams. 

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