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Why I Won’t Call the First Woman to Referee for the NFL a ‘Female Referee’

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Art Credit: Theresa Cassagne/The New York Times/Redux

The NFL announced the addition of nine new full-time referees to its roster earlier this month. This is nothing surprising—the surprise is that one of these refs is a woman. Sarah Thomas, a 41-year-old mother of three, will be the first female in history to hold the title of full-time NFL official, a milestone that she seems largely unconcerned with. In fact, she recently told an interviewer, “That’s not why I set out to do this, to break a gender barrier of any sort. I just did it because I loved officiating.” And while that sentiment acknowledges that there is, in fact, a gender barrier, she went so far as to remark in 2013 that she didn’t “feel that it’s been harder for me because I’m a female.”

Am I the only one who feels a slow clap coming on? Not just because this news combines two of my favorite pastimes, football and girl power, but because Thomas' nonchalant attitude about the whole thing just might make her the poster child for a post-feminist era.

Thomas' assertion that her history-making job appointment was not hindered in any way by the fact that she is a woman echoes an idea that many women in my generation have been taught from a young age: We can do anything. Our womanhood is not a handicap or an excuse or a sentence to any kind of preordained life.

The fact that Thomas started officiating football games twenty years ago certainly seems to indicate that this is a truth she believes. Her willingness to pursue what she loves, regardless of the lack of precedent or the obstacles that may exist, strikes me as such a pure form of passion. I'd love to see future generations inherit that same confidence and take on that attitude. Oh, there are no other women doing this? Not a problem. The players might not treat me the same way they treat the other referees? Don’t care. Someone thinks I’m doing this as a lark, to get attention? Not the case. Why am I doing this, you ask? Because I love it, and because I can do anything.

The thing is, as long as we’re still making a big deal about women achieving things typically reserved for men, we’re essentially congratulating these women for overcoming the handicap that we supposedly don’t believe exists. I hope one day it won't be a big-enough deal for us to call out “female CEOs” instead of just CEOs or a “female referee” instead of just a referee—because right now when we do that, we reinforce not just the trailblazing awesomeness of the accomplishment but also its unexpectedness. And in admitting that the accomplishment is unexpected, it’s like we’re asking rather than saying: “I can do anything?” Which, to be fair, is an honest question sometimes.

I’ve never really identified myself as a feminist mostly because I associated the term with negative stereotypes that didn’t resonate with me. When I look at the basic definition of feminism, which is that women are entitled to the same rights as men, it’s actually an ideal that feels like part of my very DNA. Of course I believe that women are entitled to equal rights. Of course I believe I can do anything. I’ve just been fortunate enough to live a life that, thus far, has proven me right. Like Thomas, I’ve always felt the freedom to pursue any work, any activity, and any interest that I desired, without any fear that my gender might be an obstacle. I’ve never identified myself as a feminist because I’ve never had to. I’ve always been free to just be myself.

I know, obviously, that it hasn’t always been this way, and that for some women, it still isn’t. The percentage of women in fields such as tech or engineering and the wage gap that still exists across all industries certainly indicate that many women would not share Thomas' experience in gender equality.  But whether she wants to admit it or not, it’s thanks to women like Thomas—who pursue unexpected accomplishments with their heads down and their hearts full—that this kind of freedom can grow. It’s not easy to be the first, to be the only. I’m grateful for women who have the courage to do it anyway.

And I think the most fitting display of that gratitude is simply to hold Thomas to the same standard that she is apparently holding herself to: elite. Not because she’s a woman or a poster child or a trailblazer, but because it’s the NFL. She made it to the big leagues, and in her line of work it doesn’t get more elite than that, no matter who you are.

So congrats, Sarah, and thank you. I promise never to refer to you as a “female referee.” I promise to get just as angry when you make an unfavorable call against the 49ers as I would at any other official in the league. This is the only brand of feminism that I know—the one where we commit to being true to ourselves. Where we watch football—or officiate it—because we love it, and because we can do anything.