I’m in my mid-forties, but my parents are not baby-boomers. They were born in the mid-1930’s, and missed that generation by at least a dozen years. My mother was in her late 30’s by the time she gave birth to me in 1971 and then my sister in 1972 (she’d already had my three older brothers in the sixties).
What I’m getting at with these numbers is that they were not particularly progressive in their thinking. My mother completely missed the Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Lib movement. She was too busy raising her kids to pay attention to any of that. And as my sister and I grew up in the 1970’s and early 80’s, she naturally assumed that we would get married and have kids, just like she did. She never wanted anything else in her life, and she assumed we didn’t, either. Luckily, the culture we grew up in was starting to change, and we soaked up the idea that as girls, we had more options and basically could do whatever boys could do. I seem to remember having a t-shirt that said, “Whatever boys can do, girls can do better!” We didn’t necessarily feel hemmed in by traditional roles.
When we announced to mom that we wanted to go to college, she was totally surprised and unprepared to assist us. It was all foreign to her; we were the first in our family to graduate high school, never mind have ambitions to go to college. We did most of the college thing by ourselves, not because our mom didn’t want to help, but because she just didn’t know how.
When Lilly was born eight years ago, I breathed a big sigh of relief: I didn’t have to worry about her doubting her abilities or ambitions because of her gender. This is the age of girl power, right? And I would be there every step of the way to support her and her dreams. I worried more that her spina bifida would sap her confidence in herself and make her believe she couldn’t do certain things.
Imagine my surprise at how wrong I was!
A few nights ago, my husband and I watched an NBC report on a new study showing how girls, starting at about age 6, believe that boys are smarter than they are. Apparently, up until age 5, girls will consistently choose their own gender when asked who is smarter. But in one year, that outcome changes dramatically. When shown a picture of a man and a woman and asked to point to who they think is smarter, the girls, aged 6 and up, always chose the man. Always. (The boys, no matter what age, always chose their own gender).
This was a bit alarming, and puzzling, too. How does that still happen?! I started to wonder if Lilly would do the same in that experiment. Nah, I thought. I’ve always tried to encourage in her the belief that there is no difference between boys and girls, that one isn’t smarter or better or more able than the other. And I tried to steer her away from the stereotypes: Don’t like dresses? Good, I didn’t either. Trucks and cars on your braces rather than rainbows? You got it. Don’t want kids? Plenty of time to change your mind, but it’s not required. For summer activities, we’ll do science experiments this week (you could be a scientist!) and baking next week (you could be a chef!). I thought I was doing a good job at this.
As it happens, the chance to test this came the very next morning after that eye-opening report. Lilly was watching one of her cooking shows, the Kid’s Baking Championship, and one of the kids competing was a 13 year old girl from Texas. As she introduced herself, she said that she liked “hunting, fishing, and shopping.”
“Hunting?” Lilly said, screwing up her face. “That’s for boys.”
Hmmm, I thought. Let’s have this conversation then.
“Girls can do whatever they want,” I said. “Even hunting.”
“No they can’t,” she replied.
“Oh, they can’t?” I asked her. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling.
“But boys can do whatever they want?” I pursued, afraid of the answer.
“Yeah.” She said it like, Duh, mom.
Commence the breaking of my heart.
I should have pursued the conversation further, but I was so dumbfounded and kind of devastated, and I knew Lilly would just argue with me until she got upset, so I only reiterated, “Girls can do whatever they want,” and left it at that. For now.
As it happens, that Texas girl won the baking championship, out of lots of girls and boys. I hope that’s sinking in to her very capable brain, as much as the mixed messages kids are receiving in the media these days.