Part Two: Gender and Family

My daughter in “boys clothing”.  Carter’s missed the memo that space is for boys AND girls.


This is part one of a series on gender equality in children.  It’s targeted to smashing the patriarchy but it’s not just about our daughters. It’s also, perhaps, more important to those raising strong boys.  Because without men realizing that women are human beings worthy of the same rights, women don’t stand a chance.  This series will discuss the importance of feminism and why we need to teach our kids feminism matters – starting first with theory and then moving to practical examples and applications.

So, last week, I explained why gender norming begins with the examples we set for our children. We can make good choices and be mindful of the ways we interact with one another to ensure our daughters and sons know there is not “women’s work” or “men’s work” just “housework”  We can also press for more egalitarian leave, subsidized daycare, and the like so that women and men have equal opportunities to parent. However, does this totally neutralize the messages girls and boys receive from outside the home?  I argue no.  In this part of the series, I’m going to discuss how the idea of insulation is really limited.  You can control what happens in your house, but what about the homes of your in-laws, your parents, your grandmothers, your siblings, etc.?  Once you leave your home, all bets are off.

Gender norming all comes back to society to an extent.  I will get more in depth with how society and social structures impact gender norms of boys and girls in the third part of this series.  Performing gender or “doing gender” is an part of feminist and gender studies theory.  Creative Sociology has some good information on “doing gender”, as first detailed by West and Zimmerman.  The gist of West and Zimmerman is that society teaches us what “masculine” and “feminine” is.  We fall into habits and routines which are largely based on our biological sex (if we are cisgendered).  This is based on Butler’s notion that gender is a “social construct” or that gender is something we adopt or learn to “perform” but is not tied to biology.  Girls act certain ways because they are told these are “feminine” things and boys act the way they do because they are told these are “masculine” things.

Understanding that biological determinism is harmful to children is step one.  And keeping your kids out of that look seems almost impossible.  We all bring with us conceptions of how we “do” or “perform” gender.  If we are aware of this, though, can we learn from it and “learn better, do better”?  Maybe.

Until kids are old enough to go to school, it is true that, for the most part, your baby and then your toddler will learn the most from you.  Thus, the idea of “insulating” your child, seems a good one.  I think, to a point, this is useful.

Destiny Connect responded to a study about gender norms and young girls. The study found that by age 6, girls were more apt to think of themselves as bad at math and less intelligent.  Zukiswa Zimela wasn’t satisfied with this notion and began to determine what she and other parents could do to help strengthen their daughters against this societal issue.  In “Insulate your daughter against not-good-enough syndrome”, Zimela comes up with four ways to help:

“1. Don’t give your children gendered chores…
2. Teach your daughter to read…
3. Direct praise away from her body…
4. Praise your children for the work they do…”

I think this is sage advice and a good place to start.  We’ve talked about gendered chores before.  I’m very opposed to raising kids who think mending and cooking are for girls and that boys should never have to sew a button or roast a chicken. Zimela also is spot-on with her determination to raise a daughter who has read a wide variety of feminist argument.  I gave a primer on some basic texts next week.  I hope to raise a curious daughter who can read feminist theory and be a wise consumer of media.  Also, praising what our children do and not how they look is a good idea.  I thought this would be easy until I had kids.  Now, I realize that everything your kid does is “cute” and you think they are the most beautiful thing on earth.  But, praising them for being a good friend, doing a chore well, etc. all seems to be better than placing the full emphasis on how pretty or handsome they are.

Still, this neglects a couple of things in terms of challenging how children should “do” gender.  First of all, Zimela’s argument hinges around girls.  That’s exactly what she set out to address so I don’t fault her for that.  Still, we don’t need to just work on our girls.  Boys also need to be introduced to pro-woman ideas and to be aware that there are not girls jobs or boys jobs.  They need to realize women have worth well beyond their bodies.  Secondly, while this must start at home, the performance of gender is sensitive to a lot of forces outside of the home.

I have seen colleagues and friends recently insist “not my daughter” when asked about how patriarchy will affect their kids.  I’ve also seen a lot of commentary, as discussed in last weeks Part One about how women feel their daughter’s don’t need feminism because they are so egalitarian at home.  Fair enough that you want to take the above approach.  Still, remember that the minute your kid leaves your house (which will happen more and more as he or she grows), he or she will face forces well beyond your control.  In fact, this may start even before birth.

Think back to the planning of your baby shower.  This likely happened around the time of your anatomy scan – where most people find out the sex of their child.  Did your family and/or friends who were putting on your shower try to gender the shower? If you didn’t find out the sex, did people express frustration about your shower and registry and what could they possibly get you.  I mean, there wouldn’t be a whole cottage industry of non-medicinal so-called “gender ultrasound” places with a bevvy of groupon deals if “gender” err… sex… didn’t matter.

From the very beginning, you had to make active choices about how to gender your child  if you decided to address and combat gender norms.  Some people try to raise gender neutral children. But even a couple who visibly tried to do this admitted that they struggled to keep the child’s sex (and thus gender identity as it developed) secret from family to protect and shield him.  I’m using a male pronoun as the child did “come out” as identifying as a cis-gender male at age 5.  The family was pressed to disclose this when he started kindergarten.  It starts early.  And I don’t know about your family, but growing up here in the American Midwest with a largely-Catholic family (even though a liberal one as things go), that is a bit of a pipe dream. I’m not even sure how my uber-liberal, sex-positive, feminist friends would approach this subject.  And I’m not sure how I feel about it myself.  I feel like doing something like this to my kid would isolate her.  At the end of the day, my female identity is something I, personally, embrace.  I hope she can embrace hers, too.  Unless she chooses to identify otherwise, which we would support, I plan to raise her as a girl.  Saying you are being gender neutral also raises another question – why is it bad for girls to be girls.  Why are feminine traits undesirable outside the home?  I will get to this in part three.

The active choice to raise a child without borders and limits began with our anatomy scan.  Then the scourge of pink I had feared began.  We first went to buy clothing before we knew we were having a girl at about 16 weeks.  Carter’s was having a sale.  We went in and asked where the “gender neutral” clothing was.  I was directed to one sad little rack of white onesies and some boy onesies.  It was in the boy section.  It was piss poor.  Baby clothing is so very gendered.  I once joked it was all “stupid ballerinas” and “dumb princesses” for girls and “dump trucks” and “football guys” for boys.

To the credit of most of my family and my in-laws, people have been really good at realizing I did not want lots of bows and lace.  I made it known repeatedly that most of the clothing I had bought was from the “boys” section (honestly, even the “gender neutral” stuff is “boy clothing”) and that I effing hated headbands.  HATED THEM.  To me, they were a sign that said, “LOOK AT ME I HAVE A VAGINA TELL ME I’M PRETTY”.  Your mileage may vary but I took an active stance against tutus and huge bows on her head.  When she’s old enough to choose, she can wear them. The few “girly” things we were gifted, she hasn’t much liked (even a really adorable tutu with a huge crinoline).  So, I know I’m not depriving her.  Still, members of the extended family have made our desire to raise her with minimal princess imagery seem not only impossible but deviant.  While MOST of our family plays a long, some do this grudgingly and there will always be a few who just utterly disregard your wishes as parents.

It gets even harder when your kid starts to play with toys.  Toys are inherently gendered – even moreso, perhaps, than clothes.  And, I would argue, this is more harmful to kids.  Because with toys, kids learn motor skills and learn to “do” gender. It’s very difficult to find anything that isn’t coded in a blue-versus-pink hellscape these days.

And it wouldn’t matter if research wasn’t identifying that highly gendered toys were shown to be negative for development or at least less beneficial.  Judith Blakemore of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (shoutout to someone from my alma-mater’s system) tells the National Association for the Education of Young Children that gendered toys can be harmful to all children – male or female – but that, in particular, feminine-specified toys were often not helping kids build cognitive skills.  Dr. Blakemore states,

We found that girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous. The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine. We concluded that strongly gender-typed toys appear to be less supportive of optimal development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

Research from Monmouth University shows that it’s not the type of toy that’s the problem.  It’s the marketing.  Boys and girls would gladly play better with a variety of cognitively-enriching toys that teach analytical skills, social intelligence, and caring for others if they weren’t coded in “pink vs. blue”.  And good luck with finding other options.  Toy aisles today are more gendered than ever before.  Target recently announced it would stop it with gendered aisles and separate sections for boys and girls clothing.  It’s helpful (especially to parents like me who dress their girls in a lot of “boy” clothing because why the heck not) but it’s still very obvious to see what boy vs. girl looks like because the marketing doesn’t change and the colors don’t change.

So, why does all of this matter?  Well, have you attended a family Christmas (or other religious or secular gift holiday) or birthday party recently?  Do your children ever receive presents?  If you have, you’ve probably noticed the bulk of toys and books the children receive are gendered.  It’s not hard to see why.  Great Aunt Edna is not going to have time to scour the internet to find a seller on amazon who makes gender-neutral firetrucks.  She’s going to roll up to walmart and buy something she thinks your daughter or son would like based on her own knowledge of gender norms (which, I’m betting, are much more rigid than yours if you are seeking out information on feminist theory).  She won’t be malicious about it.  It just won’t be on her radar.

My daughter is 3 months old (see her above in “boy clothes”).  People are already asking when I will be buying her dolls, does she have dolls, does she need dolls, etc.  My answer is “please do not bring her dolls.  If she wants them, we will buy them”.  I know at least one person will do it whether or not I ask.  She can have *a* doll and be just fine.  If she wants more dolls some day, we will seek them out.  Dolls can help her learn compassion and caring but by only buying her dolls, what message are we sending?  To me, it seems to suggest she should focus on only caring for others, raising children, and that being a mom is the most desirable and ONLY thing she should aspire to.  This makes my skin crawl.  I am actually really unfulfilled being “just mom” myself.  And I was often unsure kids were for me.  I am glad I decided to have this baby but OMFG I hate being a stay at home parent.  My husband enjoys it much more.  There is nothing “wrong” with me for preferring to work on legislation vs. teaching her ABC’s or changing diapers.  I do not have the patience and I need gratification from other things.  That’s normal.  I would never say my “most important role” is mom.  It is an important role.  My most important role is being a tolerant, and compassionate person  who also happens to be a mom, a doctor, and a researcher.

Would it be different if we had a boy?  I don’t think so.  The goal would be different but we would still want to raise a kid who wouldn’t be bounded by hegemonic masculinity in its rigid form.  If we had a son (we do have both a son and a daughter they are 9 and 11 and have already identified as very gender-conforming which is fine) and someone wanted to bring him a doll when he was a baby or toddler, I would encourage them to bring him one.  He should learn to take care of people.  If all he got were footballs and trucks, that would not help him build compassion or service skills he will need in society and I would probably buy him a plush doll.  If he never played with it, I would drop the issue.  I want my kids to choose activities and toys they find to be good not be forced into a rigid idea of what is “good”.

I cringe at gendered conversations and fear my 3 month old’s first birthday a little because I was a gender non-conforming child.  I did not like dolls.  In fact, they terrified me.  I preferred horses and cars and dinosaurs.  I played tea party with stuffed animals and trucks.  I used to carry around an old briefcase of my dad’s and pretend I was a doctor or a lawyer or a president.  I wrote briefings to President Bush (the first Bush, I’m old people) as a toddler because I was concerned for his health.  I grew up to have a job where I now write policy briefs for a living so maybe nothing changed and this was good practice?  Regardless, this led me to hate every gift-giving holiday.  My parents didn’t ever force the issue.  In fact, they went above and beyond to start requiring all people participating in gifts bring receipts and enclose them as an SOP.  I had a lot of aunts and uncles and a lot of cousins, so this was a lot of gifting pressure.

But even with all of this, my parents could not stop the world from telling me I should feel less because of how I “did” gender.  I was a girl.  No one could ever tell me otherwise.  Still, I did not like “girl toys”.  Every holiday was an excuse to make it known I was doing something wrong – barbies, baby dolls, Polly Pockets (god what choking hazards those were and none of us cared!), Easy Bake Ovens, etc flew at my feet.  I didn’t want any of these gifts.  I thanked people politely because that was our rule but was so sad.  My parents would take me to exchange them a day later.  My sister, on the other hand, was gender-conforming as she could be.  She would jump up and down with glee at her gifts.  Pink was everything in her world.  Even at 7 or 8, I was keenly aware of what I was doing “wrong”.

The same went for any clothing I received.  I didn’t wear dresses.  I stuck to jeans and t-shirts.  Every time I came to a “fancy” gathering, I wore basically what my male cousins wore but got lambasted by my grandmother for doing it all wrong.  When I decided I couldn’t keep somewhat androgynous clothing up after my body exploded into womanhood at age 11 with the onset of puberty, I adopted bras reluctantly and decided to completely change my wardrobe to fit – not hide – my new body.  Suddenly dresses were good.  They were more comfortable than pants because of my big hip to waist ratio.  And I was beyond the stage of running around like a little kid.  The immediate change in people’s behavior towards me at family gatherings was so telling.  Suddenly, I was being praised for just my appearance.  I was rewarded for doing gender “properly”.  While my mom, I think, thought this was good for me, it still stings.  I am happy being a woman and being able to choose womanly (or not) things to wear but the fact that this either made me look “bad” or “good” in the minds of those who loved me was a painful realization.  My worth was reduced not to my intelligence, personality, or dedication to my family but instead to a set of arbitrary gender expectations.

So, the moral of the story, gender norms are everywhere.  You could be the most egalitarian family on earth and still face issues.  When you leave that household to see grandma or Aunt Edna or your kid’s godparents, you will have gendered interactions.  You can’t hide from it unless you want to raise your kids in unhealthy social solitude.  As your kids grow, things will make you uncomfortable.  It’s okay to say “we don’t do that” or “Allison likes trucks not dolls” but good luck getting that to stick with most people.  Do the good work but realize insulating your kids from gender norms is basically impossible.  I have accepted this.  The difference is, I’m going to talk to my daughter at length and ensure that she knows no matter what toys she chooses to play with, she is still loved, respected, and treated as an equal.  When she receives gendered gifts, we will accept them with a “thank you” and no forced happiness.  I will build amazon gift lists with toys she likes and try to get her interested in STEM early because her older siblings enjoyed it and my husband and I feel strongly that analytical skills are best learned at this stage and will serve anyone from a writer to a scientist.  I just also have to remind myself I can only do so much outside of our comfortable, feminist refuge.



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