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How do we teach our daughters about being women?

Categories: Push my Button

5 comments

Reading this NY Times piece on last week’s 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (the one that gave women the right to vote) stopped me in my tracks. Ninety years, really? Is that all? And had it been that long? It seems like another world, doesn’t it? Floor-length skirts, bustles, corsets. Not voting. So much has changed.

But has it?

I’m a child of the 70’s. That was Women’s Lib time. Bra-burning time. I was dimly aware of all that, but not from my mother. She was wearing cat’s-eye glasses and taping little swoops of her dark brown hair to her temples at night with pink tape to create curls the next day. Instead I learned about the feminist movement from reading contraband copies of my older brother’s Mad Magazine. I’m still a little miffed that Mom wasn’t out there marching with signs.

We take our mothers with us to the births of our own children. I’m more like my mother in this than I wish to be. At 7 I wanted to be a hippie, but I still ended up following many of my mother’s size-six footsteps.

I was embarrassed and chagrined to notice, when attending a particular Buddhist meditation sangha for the first time this week, my surprise that the leader was a woman. After all, this is 2010! 40-plus years after bra-burning and Women’s Lib! 90 years after women’s suffrage! Why am I still entrenched in Mad Men-style gender roles?

I don’t think I’m alone in this. When people look at women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi they say, “Look how far we’ve come! Women in places of power!” My thought when hearing that (despite my own, identical, reaction) is Why is this a big deal at all? Other countries seem far more blase about their women leaders. India had Indira Gandhi. The Phillipines had Corazon Aquino. Even England had Margaret Thatcher.

What are we teaching our daughters about being women? When we ourselves have reactions like mine from the other evening, doesn’t that filter through to our children? Sweetie, you can be anything you want when you grow up. Maybe even President! How many of us have said well-meaning words like those to our daughters, words that really send the message that being “anything” is really hard, that it’s not enough to just be who we are regardless of our genitalia.

I don’t have an answer for this. I don’t really know what messages I am sending my daughters and how those messages will affect them in twenty or thirty years. It’s my hope that things are slowly changing and that we are giving our daughters tools that will allow them to feel their own empowerment, but I’m saddened by what I see around me: the sexualization of younger and younger girls in clothing stores and advertising; the pressure my new fifth-grader feels to have a “boyfriend” like many of her classmates do, even though she thinks of boys as friends; the hope people attach to the few visible women we see in places of power. We have so many examples of powerful women throughout history (Boudicca, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great…), but who are our role models? Real Housewives of New Jersey. Really? Is that all we have to offer ourselves?

What do you see occurring in your family? Do you think your daughters are taking on your views on gender roles? Where do you think women in this country will be in twenty years? Are we truly ready for a woman President, and would that make a difference for us?



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5 comments so far...

  • Well, first of all, I am raising my kids in a strong-woman-centric home. They don’t have a dad, so I don’t have much choice in that matter, but I make it a point to show them all the different types of contributions I make. My business partners are also all women. The doctors I choose for them and me will always be women if I can help it. I also happen to be good at stuff people usually think of as guy stuff - like fixing things and doing the “big jobs” around the house. So I think my kids will take it for granted that their gender won’t limit what they can do.

    Not sure if I would want my kids to be president, but in any case, they won’t have that option based on current laws. So I won’t be pushing that idea. No point rubbing salt in the wound.

    My focus is to encourage my kids to search themselves to understand what they really want to contribute. And I make sure they understand that hard work is the key to most material choices.

    But I think we have to be careful about breaking down the traditional feminine roles, too. There is nothing wrong with being a nurturer. There’s nothing wrong with being more skillful at aesthetics than at mechanics. There is certainly nothing wrong with favoring a polite, well-chosen and well-spoken word over a cacophany of aggressive words.

    I also think that in reality, women today have more substantive choices than men. And I feel it’s important to let girls see the positives of what is out there. It is very sad to focus on a few, mostly material areas where women are short-changed. If you think waitresses should not make less than waiters, then give your waitresses a bigger tip! Scringe on services provided by males rather than those provided by females. That’s your choice! And tell your daughters why you are doing it. But be positive about it. I truly believe I’m better off being female, and I hope my daughters grow up to feel the same way.

    SKL  |  September 1st, 2010 at 8:43 pm

  • I should add: we don’t watch TV, because it very rarely has a positive message for girls.

    The sexualization of young girls is indeed a concern. You can’t do as much with your life if you switch your focus away from school / self-development / community involvement at too early an age. I think moms need to frequently encourage their daughters to understand and demonstrate self-respect. I cannot accept the popular attitude that in order for women to be “free,” they need to be able to have casual sex early and often, and the right to kill their offspring. If I respect myself, I respect my body, I value the ability to bear children, and I value whatever my body produces. Fact is, most females want to be moms eventually, so we should support the desire to be responsible wives/moms at some point in the future. This in no way suggests that girls can’t grow up to be presidents, astronauts, etc.

    SKL  |  September 1st, 2010 at 8:58 pm

  • When I was pregnant, I always said that if I had a girl, she’d be a Tom Boy, because I’m just not that girly myself….but that is totally her choice and what she finds interesting. So far she has decided that if mommy has a purse she should also have a purse. But I also showed up to daycare today to pick her up and find her playing with a toy drill….a boy’s toy as the daycare provider pointed out…. I was thrilled and pointed out that girls can use power tools too.

    What I want to instill in my daughter is balance. That being a woman is about choices and honoring all women for the various roles that they play in society. A woman president is no more or less important and valued as a woman then a stay-at-home mom dedicated to her children and her community, or a woman working away in an office, quietly running the business while the guys ‘think’ they are, or a woman taking charge and running her own business.

    I want what is best for my daughter as a person….whatever she wants and in whatever niche she finds herself comfortable in.

    MamaLisa  |  September 1st, 2010 at 10:32 pm

  • Well, my daughter is only vaguely aware that she is, in fact, a she. She uses pro-nouns correctly these days (except for when she’s excited and calls me, “DADDY! DA…MOMMY!!”), but they don’t have distinct meaning for/to her.

    Personally, I was born in the 70’s but really came of age in the early 90’s. I found bra-burning just plain silly; hairy armpits and the spelling of “womyn” mildly offensive.

    I admire the suffragettes for so much of what they did and what they set in motion, but to me, they were one of a kind. We don’t make women like them these days - or people in general for that matter. But I don’t think that even they would applaud bra-burning hippies or screaming feminists.

    I think that many of them were on about true equality and most women seem determined to not achieve that.

    My lessons to my daughter will be simple: You can accomplish anything you want and set your mind to. You may have occasion to use your vagina to do so; I strongly recommend against that course of action if you ever want to be taken seriously by anyone, ever again. Use your wits, your wiles, your brains, you willpower.

    Not everyone makes it to the top no matter what gender they are. True equality only comes when you give it your all and do the job. Period.

    Phe  |  September 7th, 2010 at 9:20 am

  • I work on clearing up whatever bias she’s hearing from others. When she was a road crew and the woman driving the Cat she said “but mommy! girls can’t do that only boys!” I tried to remain calm and show her that obviously that wasn’t true because look, there was a woman driving one. And as these things come up in real life, I make those the examples of you can do whatever you want.
    I’ll acknowledge her observations that more men seem to do certain things than women; it is a truth, but whenever I have an example (from friends, or books, TV if I have to) of a woman doing that thing, I’ll bring it up. I hope through that she gets the idea she truly can do whatever she wants, and it doesn’t have to be becoming President.
    On a somewhat related note, I’m torn over “The Closer” (not a show we watch together, way too young for that) where Brenda is being told she has to become Chief if offered because the other women expect her to. Because I do believe, that should still be a choice; not everyone wants the top-floor corner office and why are you shown as a disappointment to your gender for not aspiring to it?

    Mich  |  September 7th, 2010 at 12:04 pm

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