Last month, my six-year-old daughter and I planned elaborate football-themed snacks and snuggled in for the Super Bowl. As we waited for kickoff, she watched George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush parade across the field.
“Why is everyone clapping?” she asked, between chews of her football-shaped pretzel.
“Because that’s a former president.”
“She was president?” my daughter asked, pointing to Barbara Bush.
“No, she was the first lady. He was president.”
“Has there ever been a lady president?”
“No,” I said.
She watched as the Bushes continued their trip across the field, as two teams of men waited in the wings to begin the game, and she started to cry. “So, I guess boys really are better than girls.”
I put down my own pretzel and took a breath. “No, that’s not true. Girls can do anything boys can.”
In my head I was thinking, Except play in the Super Bowl or win a presidential election. So, I blurted out, “They can do more. They can grow babies. Men can’t do that.”
I immediately regretted saying it. I mean, it’s true and all. Men can’t gestate a fetus. But diminishing men doesn’t empower women. I could have told her then that men can produce sperm and women can’t. I didn’t want to get into the equation of reproduction quite yet. I just wanted her to go back to enjoying her pretzel, feeling limitless.
“Men do important things too,” I said and attempted to bring the conversation back to what an individual, regardless of their reproductive organs, can accomplish: “So can women. Girls can be presidents,” I said. “Women have been presidents and queens and prime ministers in other countries. There will be a woman president here in your lifetime.”
“Ok,” she said, wiping away a tear and reaching for her pretzel.
I’m not sure she believed me. I’m not sure I believed me. I certainly hope time won’t prove me a liar.
I am the mother of girls. I cannot speak to the challenges of raising boys in modern America. I admit my bias, but I believe it’s possible to lift women, to lift girls, without oppressing men or boys. Collective rising is the goal.
But sometimes, it’s just so damn hard. I can tell her again and again that gender doesn’t matter. Her father and I constantly correct her when she says “Boys like certain things” or “Girls like certain colors.”
Sometimes I feel like a scratched record: Boys can like pink. Girls can like blue. Girls can love super heroes. Boys can love dolls.
She’s getting these ideas of gender somewhere. It’s just as much a topic of conversation on the playground now as it was when I was little, but playground banter comes from the bigger world beyond:
Class supply lists sometimes ask girls to bring in one item and boys to bring in another. WTF does it matter who has a penis and who has a vagina? Divide the list by last names, for goodness sake. It creates a division before the school year even begins. Scissors are no better or worse than glue, but it sends a message: Girls are this. Boys are that.
They hear this message again and again. It’s the football games where the men take the field and the woman cheer them on. It’s the presidential elections where a woman didn’t win, yet again. (I promise to stay out of politics. This is just a general observation that only men have held claim to the title of POTUS).
I can tell her she’s smart and hardworking and kind. I can tell her she can be anything. I hope that things will change.
But she still lives in the world I do. While I want her to feel limitless, sometimes I must explain that we push the limits. So, I tell her that a woman has never been president. I tell her that women did not always have the right the vote. But women can vote now. Women can be president now. It is possible. It will happen. It could be her.
I promise that while I empower my daughter, I will do my best not to diminish your son. Equality in government, in business, in school yards and homes is the goal. But make no mistake about it, if there an imbalance of power, it is in his favor, not hers.
I’m often shocked when sexism rears its ugly head. A piece I wrote was recently syndicated on The Good Men Project. As the name suggests, the site celebrates Good Men and changing the sometimes stifling concepts of masculinity. The story was about how my feminist husband has empowered me and empowers our girls. It ended by urging parents to raise their boys to be feminists because it lifts women for generations. The comments were filled with women writing “YES!” or the equivalent. A male commenter wrote “I’d never raise my son to be a feminist.” Other men liked the hell out of his comment in solidarity.
I wanted to write back “So you’re going to raise him to think he’s better than his sister? Better than his mother? Better than his future wife?”
I didn’t because I make a point not to poke trolls. Another woman took on the fight, but the whole thing left me feeling disappointed. If you can’t find men who support equality for women reading the Good Men Project, where are they?
My hope is that they exists in abundance in our children’s generation. When someone tells my daughter she can’t do something because she’s a girl, I hope your son will stand beside her while she proves the asshole wrong. I will continue to lift her up as high as I possibly can. I would love for you both to join me.