*Obligatory Structure Apology: This post covers the surface of two or three gender-related issues but doesn’t delve deeply into any of them. It flits from surface to surface without looking back and is more on the scatterbrained side of things than I hope my usual writings are. But consider it a free-write exercise or a stream-of-consciousness editorial. Faulkner got famous with that style.*
So, I wanna talk about The Gender Thing. Yes, capitalized. And it might get uncomfortable for you. It might even get uncomfortable for me. That’s okay. You can leave any time you want. I won’t mind. Promise. But if you decide to stay, put on your seatbelts and your thinking caps.
First and foremost, I have realized that the older I get, the more feminist I become. I’m not sure if this is a result of increased awareness, of some sort of defiant personal statement about my own situation in life, or just because feminism (or rather, gender equality, as I prefer to call it) actually does make more sense than any other alternative. Whatever the reason, as I have aged, my beliefs about women’s place in this world and how they ought to be treated have changed pretty dramatically. The world has come a long way too, even just since I’ve been alive, but not as far as it could come, and not as far as I have come.
Growing up, I actually had no concept of male dominance or gender inequality, or even gender roles. Mom and Dad both cooked. They both cleaned. They both mowed the lawn. They both drove the car. And they both worked full time. I do not have a single memory of my dad sitting on his butt while my mom did “women’s work,” nor do I remember my mom putting off yard work or car maintenance “until Dad got home.” When something needed to be done (with a few exceptions that I assumed – and rightly so, I think – were the result of procrastination/apathy more than gender-role assignment), whoever was around and able to do it, did it.
Parents make lots of mistakes raising their children, and my parents made plenty, I’m sure. (And I’m not just talking about the obvious injustices of not letting me go to the movies alone with my seventh-grade boyfriend, or revoked privileges when I broke a rule.) But one thing I had no idea my parents were doing right was The Gender Thing. Sometimes my dad made final decisions, and sometimes my mom made final decisions, and sometimes they both made final decisions. But nobody kept score (that I knew of), and neither one acted superior to the other.
My dad is ridiculously artistic, so he is the one who experimented on my hair when I was a kid. He gave me haircuts (using Scotch tape to adhere my bangs to my forehead and cutting straight across underneath the tape; early ’90s genius); he curled my hair using pink foam rollers; he braided it in tiny braids for me to sleep on overnight (I found out as a young adult that more well-off kids actually had plug-in devices to achieve the same effect); and he styled it into numerous variations of ponytails and pigtails. Once, on school picture day in fourth grade, he even gave me Farrah-Fawcett-feathered bangs. I was too young to appreciate it, and so were my classmates; I got made fun of mercilessly that day.
Growing up, though, I always got weird looks when people complimented me on what my mom had done with my hair and I told them it was my dad’s work. I wish I had understood then what I do now and been able to tell them, “There’s no such thing as a gender role at our house.” But I didn’t, so I just shrugged off their incredulous looks and instead replied, “Yeah. My dad is pretty cool.”
My parents told me the same thing all parents tell their kids when they’re young: You can be anything you want to be when you grow up. Yes, all parents say this to their children. Unfortunately, I don’t think all parents really mean it. But that’s a different blog post. My parents, however, totally meant it. And they never said anything to me about the limitations I might encounter because of my gender. Until I was about fifteen, my only career aspiration was veterinary science. But if, as a child, I had told my parents that what I wanted to do with my life was get a bachelor’s degree, work as an editor, buy a house at the age of 25, and stay unmarried, I am about 93% sure their response would’ve been: “Cool.” Because my parents believe in supporting my decisions. (Or at least, if they don’t believe that, they do a darn good job of pretending they do. Come to think of it, they are both skilled actors…)
Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t believe that people can be or do whatever they want, and I have encountered some harsh instances of gender inequality in my life, most of them coming in the form of sexual harassment. For whatever reason, we live in a world ruled by men (you can’t argue that; it’s sociological fact); and, unfortunately, they often rule it with their penises.
From the time little boys are taught to pee standing up, they learn early on that their penises are powerful devices, able to be used for whatever purposes they can dream up. It’s why boys have peeing contests. It’s why the four-year-old I babysit once peed all over his bedroom. It’s why a young child a friend of mine used to babysit stood at the top of the stairwell in his family’s house and peed down to the bottom of it. It’s why men lord it over women that they can pee anywhere they want, any time they want, and we can’t. And it’s also why there’s so much phallic-shaped art in the world. Men get a kick out of drawing attention to their penises and what they can do.
Contrarily, women are told that, because we have vaginas and because they sometimes bleed, that makes us unequal. After all, how can a woman who has wonky hormones once every month possibly be a good leader? Interesting logic, considering that male leader after male leader after male leader (including at least two beloved presidents of the United States) has proven that his hormonal tendencies are even more irregular – and often more frequent – than the average woman’s. At least with women, we can track it on the calendar and predict when hormones are going to get a little out of whack. With men, you never know.
It might be because a pretty girl makes eye contact from across the street. It might be because the wind blows a skirt up for a fraction of a second. It might be because a bra strap is showing (or at least, that’s what church camp said). Or heck, it might be because a guy stares at a blade of grass for too long and randomly springs an erection that has no discernible explanation. How often do men get erections? Healthy men, aged 25-50? At least once a day. I guarantee it.
Anyway, my point actually has nothing to do with who is better equipped to function in any given capacity, because people are equipped by natural or learned skills that have absolutely nothing to do with gender. So let’s not get further sidetracked by discussions of periods and erections. I guess my point is that this is a messed-up, completely broken world, and I’m pretty angry about the fact that I’ve experienced more than my fair share (if there is such a thing as a “fair share”) of sexual brokenness because of guys who thought they deserved to treat me and my body however they pleased, simply because my body exists, and because their penises communicated a desire to their brains.
And, honestly, I have wished in the past for those certain males to have something painful happen to their man parts. But that wouldn’t solve the larger problem, and anyway, in the interest of telling both sides of the story, there have been other instances when I’ve found myself in problematic situations and have made my own mistakes that I have had to take responsibility for. So I’m not pointing fingers at men or at women specifically.
I am pointing fingers at the world in general. I don’t understand why it’s 2013 and the majority of women still earn lower salaries than men. Or why certain healthcare policies exclude or ignore women’s needs. Or why women compete with other women in any capacity other than pure athletics. Or why men still rape women (even their wives). Or why women still get cat-called or otherwise inappropriately addressed in public. I don’t understand it at all. And it makes me sad, and it makes me so angry.
But I’m grateful for the way I was raised as it regards gender roles (or the lack thereof, rather). And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be an aunt to a little girl whom I hope to teach early and often the truth about gender, and how that truth differs from what the world may try to tell her.
In some ways, feminism has been really good for this world, and in other ways it has simply made things more ridiculous, more difficult, more complicated. But my friend Karly articulated it well several days ago in a co-ed discussion about stay-at-home mothers. Feminism was originally about fighting for the right to choose, rather than the right to judge. If every person in this world was truly created equal, and if every person was truly created in the image of God, then terms like gender role, misogyny, chauvinism, feminism, and sexism shouldn’t even exist.