July 9, 2016 by Julia
I only really began to think about feminist issues after becoming a parent.
Children have a way of forcing you to deal with The Profound Questions of Life, usually while you’re driving or trying to get them to sleep. About a year ago Fiona asked me in the car, “Mommy, why do girls and ladies have to have it so much harder than boys?!?” and my jaw dropped. Oh jeez, I thought – she’s only eight and she’s already figured it out? And then I thought – wait a minute, I think that! I think that? I didn’t even know I thought that. But I do.
To buy time, I asked her why she thought so. She said it was because of all the things that have to happen to women’s bodies. She’d recently learned about menstruation, and obviously knows that women carry the babies and give birth. It all sounds pretty overwhelming. Which it is. When I first got my period at age twelve, I was like: you have GOT to be KIDDING me. Is this for real? It was like the worst thing ever. Basically you feel physically sick and depressed, but you can’t get out of school or enjoy any of the benefits of actual sickness. Yeah. And good luck getting sympathy – it’s just part of life as a woman, and you might as well get used to it sooner rather than later.
So I tried to describe to Fiona the good things, the joyful privilege of feeling your child grow inside your own belly. I told her what I think is enjoyable about being a woman, but it was a struggle to think of anything that men can’t also enjoy. I would say something like, “Women usually find it easier to express their feelings and talk about things…?” and then backtrack when Fiona said, incredulously, “Are you saying Daddy doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings?” Gulp. No, that wasn’t what I was saying. You win, Fiona. Women have it harder, and not just for physical reasons. Cue feminist musings.
So women have it harder: How do I examine this with a positive attitude and then action, rather than bitterness? It’s a complex problem. Actually, I’ve been writing about it on-and-off for the past year, but have struggled to organize my thoughts and figure out what’s most important to me. I have many pages of random observations and feelings on the subject: I want to know how to answer my daughter the next time she is struggling with our lot in womanhood. I want to raise my son so that he does not take it for granted that a woman will do his dirty, boring work for him. I want him to understand how consent works, and what respect for girls and women looks like. I want to share my struggles with my husband and ask him for what I need. I don’t want to carry the burden of trying to be pretty and thin all the time, or the shame of feeling like I have failed in that regard. I put all of these pages away for a while, overwhelmed by the problem, and recently came back to them, to find that there was more sense in them than I’d originally thought. Feminism is worth thinking about.
Fiona’s question clearly stuck with me. Parenting both a boy and a girl has opened my eyes to the more subtle gender inequalities, as well.
Fiona and Jack were seemingly born with stereotypical gender traits, no matter what we expected or encouraged – although we would have loved and supported them no differently if this were not the case. From the time she could sit up, Fiona loved baby dolls, and she still acts out stories with her dolls, or has dance parties with her friends, or draws expressive people with pencil. Jack started with vehicles and has graduated to dinosaurs, nerf guns, cartoon zombies, and sharks. Jack kicked twice as hard inside my belly as his sister did, and if his life were a film, it would be an action thriller, while Fiona’s would be a drama. Fiona’s emotions reverberate around the house; Jack bounces off the walls in a more literal sense.
Of course there are times when they are not following gender-specific norms, which is when I first recognized how early the double standard gets internalized.
Fiona’s favorite color has always been blue, and no one has ever given her grief about it. If a little girl hangs out in the Star Wars/Superhero/Lego/Fantasy/Nerf Guns aisles, we applaud and proudly declare that she’s tough, she loves to build, she doesn’t scare easily, she’s heroic, she can hold her own with the boys, etc. But if a little boy checks out Barbie dolls or – anything pink, really – people start to get uncomfortable. Which makes me wonder…how long before Fiona thinks there’s something inferior with the stuff she’s always wanted to play with? Oh, wait. She already thinks that, because she warns Jack all the time if he’s spotted something in a store that’s “for girls.” I believe she is trying to protect him from ridicule more than anything. She knows what the other kids will say if he picks out a pink ball with flowers on it. Which is where most of us well-meaning but often misguided adults are coming from, too.
Then there are Halloween parties at school. Girls can dress as anything age-appropriate – anything! – and will even earn respect for wearing a “boy’s” superhero costume or soldier’s uniform or doctor’s lab coat. Now imagine if your young son wanted to wear a fairy or princess costume. Even as a liberal, I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to let him wear it to school, knowing how other kids and even adults might ridicule him.
Over and over again, I see that it’s not only cool but admirable for Fiona to show an interest in “boyish” activities. But for Jack to engage in “girlish” activities is, for some reason, still taboo. Things have not changed since I was kid. They might even be worse, because there are hardly any non-gender-specific toys left. Even when I was a kid, girls wore the “tomboy” badge with pride. If you could climb trees, run fast, and didn’t mind getting dirty, you sure as heck wanted everyone to know it. I don’t remember boys boasting about any girlish qualities they may have developed.
When we talk about empowering girls, we are usually talking about encouraging them to aspire to heights that were historically reserved for men. Which is obviously a great goal, and a topic worthy of national discussion. We’ve made great strides in that regard. But while men’s traditional roles continue to be glorified for both men and women, women’s traditional roles and interests are still considered less important – basically, a step down for boys.
Our culture doesn’t like to see boys lowering themselves from their birthright as the dominant gender. It sounds harsh, but what other reason would there be? Why can’t boys and girls both aspire to any roles that interest them? What is so wrong with women’s traditional roles in society, that both genders are expected to reach away from them if they want to be admired?
I think part of it the nature of traditional “women’s work.” Not many want to do it. It’s difficult, messy, often boring, and won’t earn you fame or much money. In America, we like to leave that kind of thing to others while we reach for the stars.
But when we show boys that it is shameful for them to take on historically feminine roles, even in play, even in dress-up, and in their youngest years, the boys surely interpret that as disrespect toward female roles…and then, towards females themselves (a frightening thought, especially as they enter adolescence). The girls, witnessing this, can’t help but breath in the shame like secondhand smoke.
What can I do as a parent about this?
From a practical parenting standpoint, this means that I should not embarrass Jack for trying on a tutu when I admire Fiona for dressing like a cowboy or pirate. When we play with toys or act out stories, I have to watch out for my own negative gender sterotyping – it can creep in so easily. I want to defend “girliness” as something positive, and make sure I correct either of them when they use it as a disparaging term for either gender. I will continue to remind them that anyone can like ANY color – there are no colors that belong solely to boys or girls. The kids and I have talked about how girl “stuff” is just as cool as boy stuff, and I hope that it has left an impression on them.
I’ve lately been owning up to the fact that I like certain shades of pink. Velvety roses and pearlescent peaches and vibrant, rich fuschias. I’ve never quite been into fashion or makeup or princesses or romance novels, but I do remember gradually learning to hide the feminine interests that might make people take me less seriously. I wonder how much my rejection of those typically girly interests has to do with my actual self. I find myself now reclaiming some of those things.
I don’t want Jack or Fiona to devalue the typically feminine qualities of gentleness, tenderness toward children, capacity for emotional intimacy, skill in homemaking or serving others. The world can always use more men and women who cultivate such qualities in their lives. In many ways, it’s a more difficult path than searching for power, heroics, recognition or money – but it can be deeply rewarding in a quieter way. I want my son and daughter to know that we need both sides – loud and quiet, powerful and gentle – to be good people. I don’t mean that one or the other is solely masculine or feminine. I mean that both ways of being are valuable to our society and our personal happiness.
From “The Day We Saw the Sun Come Up” by Alice Goudey. Illustrated by Adrienne Adams. 1961
And both genders have valuable roles to play in the continuing saga of achieving cultural freedom and respect for women. I am grateful to learn from my son and daughter during this process. We are teaching each other, really.
Next up: Feminism and Women’s Work.