Archive for the ‘Gender’ Category

TBR: It’s A Girl!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

Today’s book is It’s A Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, edited by Andrea Buchanan.  I’m one of the last stops on this month’s blog book tour.

At the MotherTalk event I attended, Andi read her essay from this book, "Learning to Write," which is about how her daughter used writing to express her anger with — and her separation from — Andi.  I asked her why she included it, since it’s not obviously about gender, and she said that it was because she found the issue of enmeshment and separation was a running theme in the essays about mothering daughters, while it was not in the ones about mothering sons.  As she explains in her response to Meredith at Boston Mommy, Andi found that mothers couldn’t help identifying with their daughters, and revisiting "the ghosts of their girlhoods."  (Do fathers of sons go through the same struggles?)


I am the mother of two sons.   I adore them to pieces, but I do sometimes feel a pang for the daughter that I’m never going to have.   These books  (I wrote about It’s A Boy back in November) made me think about what it is that I think would be different with a daughter.  It’s not the traditionally girly stuff that I’m sad about missing (although I’ll admit to coveting the little girls’ dresses in the stores).

I think maybe I’m wistful about not getting to teach a girl that she can do anything she dreams of.  Oh, I’ll certainly teach my boys that they can do anything they dream of, but it’s not the same.  I guess, like many of the writers in the collection, I had thoughts of raising a daughter without the hangups and insecurities I have.  (Also, I think society today is by far harsher on boys who aren’t conventionally masculine than it is on girls who aren’t conventionally feminine, so I’ll worry about my sons even as I encourage them to follow their hearts.)

This sounds silly, but I’m also getting a sinking feeling that my boys may not be willing to sit still for all the books that I’ve dreamed of reading to them.  I know, they’re young yet, but… D is pretty much uninterested in any chapter books that don’t involve pirates or rocketships.  I’m going to be thoroughly disappointed if I don’t get to read Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, and the Little House books to my kids.  Do boys read Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret? Based on what I’m hearing in the blogosphere, my odds would be better if I had girls.

Equal Pay Day

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

So, yesterday was Equal Pay Day, the day when the average woman’s wages catch up with what the average man earned the previous year.  Evelyn Murphy is promoting a new organization, the WAGE project, to combat wage inequality.  The web site looks interesting.

I have to admit that I took Murphy’s book, Getting Even, out of the library, and only made it about half way through it.  Drawing mostly on court records, she discusses the various ways that gender discrimination is alive and kicking.  From blue collar workers whose gear was soaked in urine, to the Sears saleswomen systematically kept out of the high commission departments, to investment bankers facing the old boys’ network, she records case after case.  It’s depressing reading.

Without minimizing the role of discrimination in keeping women’s earnings down, I think Murphy goes too far in dismissing the role of self-selection and work-family issues.  Yes, the workers from which the 77 cents on the dollar figure comes are all full-time workers.  But male full-time workers work, on average, more hours than female full-time workers.  And — as we’ve discussed here before — women feel freer, for better or worse, to choose jobs for reasons other than making the most money possible.

For terrific discussion of these issues, see:

Happy International Women’s Day

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

Today is International Women’s Day, as well as Blog Against Sexism Day.  I started to write a post about what I mean when I call myself a feminist, but thought it was getting too wordy and not saying anything particularly interesting.  Instead I’m just going to share two links.

Neither one is explicitly about sexism or feminism, but they made me think of the old bumper sticker, Feminism is the Radical Belief that Women are People.  I’ve always assumed that the word "radical" in that was sarcastic, but reading these posts made me think about the ways in which the world would be different if we really did act as if everyone we encountered was fully human, as valuable as our loved ones.

Betty Friedan

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

When I took the intro to women’s studies class in college, Betty Friedan was hardly mentioned.  To the extent that she was discussed, she was mostly dismissed for focusing exclusively on the needs of straight, white, middle-class women.  To some degree, the problem was that she had succeeded so well — to my generation of younhg women, the idea that anyone would take satisfaction in gleaming floors was pretty much incomprehensible, so her insights seemed obvious.

And yet, here I am, in 2006, writing on a semi-regular basis about who vacuums the floor and picks up the dirty socks.  In some ways the world has been radically transformed since in 1963; in other ways, not so much.

Last month, Sandy at the imponderabilia of actual life wondered whether yesterday’s "housewives" are the same as today’s "SAH-moms."  I do think, for better or worse, the feminist revolution made it harder for women to take pride in a well-kept house.  But, in a world where children’s success can’t be taken for granted, regardless of their parents’ situation, investing time and effort in childrearing makes more sense.

The problem, however, is that childrearing is much less predictable than housecleaning.  Housecleaning is sometimes tiring, often boring, always repetitive.  But you can pretty much guarantee that if you put in the effort, you’ll get the results.  There’s something satisfying about knowing that. (I can’t be the only one who scrubs the stove or the tub when angry or frustrated.)  Childrearing is ultimately not predictable in the same way.

TBR: Love My Rifle More Than You

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

Today’s book is Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female In The US Army, by Kayla Williams.  This insta-memoir is Williams’ account of her year serving in Iraq as an Arabic-speaking military intelligence soldier. 

I first heard of the book through a fairly negative review from Debra Dickerson on Salon.  Their site pass system is broken tonight, so I can’t look it up to quote it, but Dickerson basically says that Williams is whiny and compares the book unfavorably with Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.  Yes, Jarhead is a better written book, brutal, elegant and hallucinatory by turns.  Swofford has serious literary ambitions — he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and has the advantage of writing 10 years after his military service.  Twenty years from now, I’ll guess that people will still be reading Jarhead, while they’ll have long forgotten Love My Rifle.

But that doesn’t mean that Love My Rifle More Than You isn’t worth reading.  Williams’ prose isn’t memorable, but it’s servicable, and she shares experiences that are worth hearing about.  She writes about the constant sexual harrassment and a near-rape by one of her fellow soldiers, about the ambiguity of the Army’s relationship with the Iraqi people, about her quest for vegetarian MREs, and about how some female soldiers use their gender to get out of unpleasant tasks.  She writes about her brief involvement with interrogation of prisoners.   There’s material in the book to discomfit both supporters and opponents of using women in combat roles, and both should read the book.

Yes, the book is whiny at times.  Williams sounds surprised that her armpits and groin chafe in the desert heat, that her commanding officers sometimes give her stupid orders that risk her life.  She doesn’t seem to have read Catch-22, let alone Jarhead.  (By contrast, Swofford never is surprised by any degree of official stupidity.)  But ultimately the book reads like Williams is sitting down and telling you what it was like.  And I was happy to spend a few hours in her company.

Cleanliness is next to…

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

In a comment last week, Jen wrote:

"There are so many things you can do to fight the domestic glass ceiling beyond requiring all other women to share your life choices!… Like not judging your women friends when their houses are filthy, or at least vowing that we won’t teach our daughters this female-specific shame."

Amanda at Pandagon and Hugo Schwyzer also wrote about how women are judged for the state of their house(hold)s in a way that men aren’t.  I had a "click" moment reading these posts — for all the time that I spend thinking and reading about feminism, it hadn’t really registered on me that society really doesn’t judge men for having a dirty house.

A personal story to illustrate: When my parents came to visit after D was born, my mom noticed that our stove top was absolutely filthy.  I had been exhausted and sick for much of the last trimester of my pregnancy, and am not sure I could have reached the back of the stove even if I had had the energy to try to clean it. T had been picking up much of the domestic slack (on top of his paid job), but cleaning the burners wasn’t even on his mental list.  So without saying a word, my mom found a scouring pad and started scrubbing away.  I was simultaneously grateful and absolutely mortified.  T wasn’t in the least embarassed.

It’s important to remember that one of the main "weapons" in the drive to push women out of paid employment following World War II was rising domestic standards.  All those wonderful labor-saving devices wound up saving much less labor, because expectations for cleanliness rose.  When you had to boil water and wash clothes by hand, people got a clean pair of pants every Sunday. With the invention of automatic washers, people started expecting to have clean pants every day.

Perhaps the problem with hiring housecleaners isn’t that there’s something immoral about expecting someone else to clean up after you (as some have suggested), but that it helps perpetuate the expectation that houses should be kept at a level of cleanliness that’s possible only if it’s a significant part of someone’s job to maintain it.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but I think unreasonably high standards contribute to social isolation.  I know an awful lot of people who never have anyone over, because they don’t think they can do so without cleaning their house until it looks like something out of Home Beautiful.    And that’s a real shame. 

Litmus test feminism

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

One more post in response to Hirshman’s article.  (See here and here for what I’ve already written.)

Hirshman is explicitly critical of what she dubs "choice feminism."  She writes:

"Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women ‘choices.’ The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying ‘abortion,’ and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it."

Well, what’s the alternative?  I think the opposite of "choice feminism" has to be "litmus test feminism," under which there’s a set of prescribed answers for all women.  Change your name when you get married = bad.  Stay at home with your kids = bad.  Bake apple pies = bad.

I don’t know how I’d rate — I think I’d get points because both T. and I hyphenated our last names when we married, but I might lose points because we’re married at all, and even more because we met when I was 18.  I don’t know if I gain or lose points in Hirshman’s scorecard for being in a reverse traditional family.  (Good because it reverses the usual expectations, or bad because there’s a stay at home parent who is financially dependent?  Would it be ok to be a stay-at-home mom if your partner is also female?  What if you’re independently wealthy?)  And like Bobbi Harlow, I shave my legs to the knees.

But the problem with litmus test feminism isn’t that some of us might not get gold stars.  After all, being a certified card-carrying feminist and $2 will get you a ride on the NYC subway.  The problem is that if you convince the world that "being a feminist means X," (say, climbing the corporate ladder) the vast majority of people doing Y (e.g. staying home) won’t suddenly start doing X, but will decide that it must mean that they’re not feminists.

In a comment at Literary Mama, Hirshman gets on her high horse and writes:

"I think — and can defend the opinion — that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological,ideological, economic or any other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or in the pages of the New York Times."

I agree.  But demeaning the choices that real live women make is another means of perpetuating hierarchy.  (Hirshman also takes a ugly swipe at Miriam Peskowitz and the choices that she’s made, as well as making a bizarre crack about "the weird space the internet creates.")

The bottom line is that I think feminism is about asking questions, and yes, sometimes those questions may make people uncomfortable or even defensive.  But it’s not about telling women what their answers are supposed to be.

It’s a Boy!

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Today’s book is "It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons," a collection of essays edited by Andi Buchanan, author of Mother Shock.

This is part of her blog book tour, in which different bloggers have been writing about the book each day this month.  It’s been great fun seeing everyone’s different perspectives on the book, from Tertia writing about parenting boy-girl twins to Dawn, who asked Andi some good questions about balancing writing and parenting.  (Go to Andi’s blog for links to everyone who is participating.)

I’m going to start by stealing a question from Shannon, of Peter’s Cross Station, who asked "When I first heard about the project, it sounded like yet another opportunity to make stereotyped claims about gender in children. How have you been able to avoid falling into that old rut?"  Andi replied:

"Well, as I said in my original call for submissions, my whole idea with this book was to refute the gender stereotypes about boys and girls, and to explore whether or not those stereotypes really exist in actual boys and girls through essays by thoughtful writers. For the BOY book, I was specifically looking for pieces that questioned the cultural assumptions we have about boys — whether the essayists ultimately embraced the stereotypes or rejected them was not as important to me as whether or not the writers wrestled with them in the first place. So the BOY book has pieces about a mother being surprised by a son’s love, since what she experienced with her son ran counter to her expectations of what a boy would be like; about a transsexual mother grappling with how to raise her son in the face of everyone’s attitude that her mere presence tips the scale in the direction of him being gay; about a woman nurturing her son’s desire for soft, pretty things, even though a part of her wants to protect him from the harsh, messy world that will surely not be so kind; about boys who defy stereotypes, boys who fit them, and the way mothers adjust their expectations to fit the reality of who their sons are."

There was much in these essays that found me nodding my head in recognition.  I think my favorite essay was "Becoming a Boy"  in which Robin Bradford writes about how her son led her to discover the joy of "boyish" things that she had never done as a girl or woman.  Somewhat to my surprise, the essay that left me looking sheepishly around the metro rubbing tears from my eyes was "The Day He Was Taller" by Jacquelyn Mitchard, which is about her son outgrowing all his clothes and buying himself a suit.

The book is organized into four thematic sections, and I’m afraid I found the first one, about what Andi calls "boy shock" or "prenatal gender apprehension," the hardest to relate to. In response to a question from Sandra, Andi writes:

"[T]he concerns of writers in It’s a Boy were about the otherness of the male gender: What the heck do you do with a boy? Some of the writers in It’s a Girl ask a similar question about raising their daughters, but what prompts that question is not the fear of an unknown gender, but of knowing it all too well."

When I was pregnant with D, we didn’t find out what gender the baby would be until he was born, and I truly didn’t have a preference.  I was under no illusion that I would understand a girl any better than a boy, or be able to provide any more guidance through the treacherous shoals of junior high school.  I may not be able to provide useful advice on whether to report a bully to the teacher or to fight back, but I can’t help with ingratiating oneself with the popular clique of girls either. I sucked at being a teenage girl when I was one; I’m pretty sure I’d suck at being one now if I were pulled back a la Peggy Sue.

It somewhat bothered me that so many of the authors were ambivalent about having sons, and none of them were univocally happy about it.  I asked Andi if she thought this might be because the project was about "women writers on raising sons," and she answered;

"I did worry that perhaps the book would be tilted too much towards the "overly articulate feminist intellectual pondering gender" because it would be written by, well, overly articulate feminist intellectuals who were concerned about issues of gender. But that’s kind of who I wanted exploring the subject — women writers….  And I think even the pieces about being apprehensive about the prospect of having a boy are ultimately about the writers coming to see how their own expectations are flawed, and how they love their child, regardless of gender…  I definitely don’t think writers value boys less. It’s about questioning the cultural assumptions we have about boys and girls and men and women. And questioning things, teasing them apart to find some kind of personal truth, is what writers do."

Given that, I was suprised to read in Andi’s own essay, "It’s a Boy!" this statement:

"We want our daughters to do everything our sons do, yet as mothers ourselves, we know the difficulties and the hard choices they will have to make when they grow up and choose to mother– the career options that dwindle; the daily balancing act that exhausts; the kinds of things our sons will never face, even as they become parents ourselves."

I wish those difficulties on my sons, because the alternative isn’t easy choices, but no choices.  Society has done a much better job of giving both girls and women the option of following either traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine paths than it has as opening up choices for boys and men.

TBR: As Nature Made Him

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

In a comment on my last post on gender differences in children, Darleen urged me to read As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto.  I had heard good things about the book before, but I hadn’t read it, so I added it to my list.

The book is about David Reimer, the man who was one of the most famous medical "cases" ever, a touchstone in the debates about gender identity and the roles of biology and culture.  As an 8-month-old baby boy, his penis was totally destroyed in a freak circumcision accident.  (Lesson one of the book: don’t let anyone circumcise your kids with an electrocautery machine.)  Following the advice of Dr. John Money, a respected psychologist, the Reimers had the baby castrated and a rudimentary vagina created surgically and raised her as a girl, "Brenda."  Brenda would have been a subject of scientific interest in any case, but the fact that she had an identical twin brother, Brian, turned her into close to the holy grail for researchers, an experimental case with a control.  Dr. Money featured her in dozens of articles, arguing that her successful transformation into a normal girl was proof that nurture, not nature, was the dominant factor in determining gender identity.

Unfortunately for Dr. Money’s argument, John Colapinto shows that Brenda was a desperately unhappy little girl who rejected all traditionally girl-ish pursuits, in spite of her parents’ frantic efforts to make her conform to her new gender identity.  She resisted all attempts to convince her to have the plastic surgery needed to complete her genital transformation, and as soon as she learned her true story, insisted on changing her name and living as a boy. He eventually had surgery to recreate male genitals, as well as a double mastectomy to remove the breasts that he had grown from taking female hormones.  While David had a period of deep depression as a young man, today at the time the book was written, he is appeared to be content in his life, happily married and a father through adoption.  [Edited to reflect the fact that he later committed suicide, as Fred informed me in his comment.]

The other major strand in the book is Colapinto’s damning portrait of Dr. Money.  He makes a convincing case that Money consistently ignored the growing evidence that Brenda’s sex transformation was a disaster, because it was contradictory to his theory, continuing to cite the case as a success long past the point when such a claim was reasonable.  Moreover, he suggests that Money’s treatment of Brenda was essentially sexual abuse, as he pushed the young girl to discuss her fantasies and even role play sexual situations with her brother.  (Because Money totally refused to cooperate with the writing of the book, there is no attempt to portray his side of the story.)

So, it’s a fascinating human-interest story, and Colapinto does a good journalistic job of laying it out for the reader.  But where does it leave us in the endless nature-nurture debate?  While I enjoyed reading the book, at times I yearned for a more acute scientific guide, someone who would probe further into the contradictions of what we mean by gender, who didn’t take Brenda’s willingness to throw a punch and her desire to pee standing up as proof positive that she was meant to be male. 

The one piece of solid scientific ground is that Money’s pure nurturist hypothesis seems to have been pretty much totally discredited, in part because of the case of David Reimer.  The more we learn about fetal brain development and its sensitivity to a variety of environmental influences, the less reasonable it becomes to think that powerful hormones like estrogen and testosterone would have such fundamental effects on other aspects of fetal development, but none on the brain.

But I think it’s fair to say that we simply don’t have a theory of gender identity that really makes sense of — and listens to with respect — the experiences of both David Reimer and biologically normal transsexuals like Jennifer Boylan.  We don’t even have a language to talk about gender identity that doesn’t fall back on such caricatures as ascribing all concern about appearance and relationships to femininity and all interest in mechanics and competition to masculinity.  And without such a language, we spend a lot of time talking past each other.

Boys and girls

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

Anyone who spends any time at a playground will discover that even at a very young age, gender differences start to show up between boys and girls in how they play. I’ve written before about how — in spite of the non-traditional gender roles in my family — my sons are both into traditional "boy things" like trucks and trains.

I also think that adults often notice behaviors that reinforce their preconceptions more than the ones that challenge them; we’ve gotten some odd looks from other parents when we point out what a spitfire some of the girls in D’s preschool class are.  I’ve commented before on how different personalities D and N are.  It must be very easy it is for parents of opposite gender kids to assume that the differences between their children are due to gender differences. (And as families get smaller on average, fewer have multiple kids of each gender.)

It’s clear that societal and cultural factors contribute a great deal to both gender differences and the perception of them.  Jo(e) wrote recently about the shoes that girls wear, which limit their ability to climb and run.  Mieke picked up on this theme, quoting a friend’s description of how other adults interacted with her daughters:

"They would talk about Rachel and Sarah’s clothes or their hair or call them "cute" and almost always, ask Rachel and Sarah if they had boyfriends (as I said this started at three). It was kind of a default question that adults had when they didn’t know what else to say to the girls. When the girls said no, the adults seemed stumped by what else to talk about, if they said yes, they would ask all about the boy."

But it also seems that there are some differences that can’t be so easily dismissed as cultural.  There seems to be a broad consensus  that boys tend to talk later and to be potty-trained later.  Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism and related disorders as well as with ADHD.  (I recognize that there are cultural factors involved in how these disorders are manifested as well as in what behaviors get boys v. girls referred to a psychologist.) 

Dawn and her very thoughtful commenters at This Woman’s Work had a wonderful discussion a few weeks ago about children, gender identity, and transgenderism. Like Dawn, my fundamental goal is to allow my children to pursue their interests and enjoy their desires whether or not they conform with traditional gender roles.  That means buying D "lipstick" when he asked for it after seeing one of his classmates with it (although I wimped out and bought chapstick rather than lip gloss — he was thrilled with it anyway), but it also means letting him play endless games about shooting "bad robots" (robots because we told him he couldn’t shoot people).  And yes, I probably struggle more with the latter than with the former.

But I also agree with Dawn that

"I don’t have a problem with a boy playing like a girl or even wanting to be a girl. But I start feeling challenged when a boy says that he feels he is a girl because of these girlish interests."

This past year, the principal at the local elementary school split the 4th graders by gender for their reading period.  Her argument was that the boys were more interested in nonfiction (e.g. books about cars, animals and sports) while the girls were more interested in fiction.  Such programs — which are increasingly common — make me intensely uncomfortable.  I worry about the boy who wants to read stories, or the girl who loves baseball.  But the truth is, the regular way was clearly failing the boys — the previous year, something like 30 percent of the boys passed their reading tests, compared to 80 percent of the girls.  That’s not acceptable.