Part Three: Society and Gender


Image courtesy of Thomas Life.


We’ve talked earlier in this series about how gender norms are influenced by parents first. I took issue with the idea that we can completely insulate our kids. While it’s a great goal to always strive for equality in the household, this is pretty impossible for most people. In fact, I would say that it is impossible as soon as you start to introduce your kids to extended family and friends. These people will have different ideas about gender than you and some of these ideas will be contrary to the goal of inequality. This is inevitable. Some will say “but, but, my family strives for this, too”. That’s great. And even if that is 100% the case, eventually your kids will go out into the world. They will turn on a TV or see something on a screen (blogs like this one, perhaps, will have completely replaced print media and magazines of olden times by the time my daughter is old enough to read), children will learn to internalize “difference”. That is the topic of today’s blog.

We’ve already discussed, to some extent, how this has filtered into our lives through toys. Whether presented by relatives (probably the first place we see gendered toys) or by an aisle at Target or Walmart, our children learn “blue is for boys and pink is for girls”. This sort of thing is made even more apparent the minute you turn on a television. We don’t have cable at our house. We have a variety of apps which definitely cuts down on the ads the kids will see but even then, when we watch our antenna stations, they will see tons of ads aimed at kids. Thus, the idea of insulating children from gender stereotypes is impossible from any age where they start consuming media. And, lets face it, even though we try to stop a lot of screen time from happening, my 3 month old watched a lot of hockey this weekend.

The affect of advertising on women is well-known. I will not get into the down and dirty of all of this because if you are reading this blog, it stands a good chance you have some idea about how women are viewed in society – they are passive, their worth is often tied up in their outside presentation, and they are expected to be “hormonal” and “irrational”. Watching TV and consuming media will begin to influence them from an early age. It is unavoidable.

School further complicates the gender continuum. Even by preschool, it seems there is a gap in the sorts of things that kids do. Gender segregation starts early. It first seems to manifest in play.  Teachers can contribute to these issues by encouraging girls to do typical female gendered activities (dress up, playing “house”), while they can encourage boys to play more active games like “building” and “construction”.  Bigler and Lieben (2006) found that teachers were found to reinforce more gender norming through using “girls” and “boys” as categories to sort children into. If kids begin to internalize these differences as overly important, they learn to self segregate from an early age.  Martin and Fabes (2001) observed that after 6 months of pre-school curriculum, there was an even greater preponderance for sorting by gender.

At about the same time, the gender gap in STEM begins. Girls start to say they are bad at math before they hit middle school and way before they choose a major in college. We tend to think of this gap in types of learning in older children but recent research suggests it is much sooner.  A study conducted by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) showed that by kindergarten, girls were less likely to rate themselves as “good” at math than boys.  AERA cited similar evidence to what other studies had found.  Teachers may reinforce these ideas unconsciously through selecting more boys to answer questions or be more likely to recommend boys for STEM-associated tasks.

This gap, though, keeps happening. Women in STEM fields (such as myself even in social science since I was trained in extensive quantitative methods) are a rarity still. According to the U.S. Dept of Commerce, women only hold 25% of stem jobs – far below parity as they make up about half of the workforce in the U.S. – and only 1 in 7 engineers is female.  While things have improved since my mom started as a drafter working in an engineering capacity, she is still the lone woman in her work group. Women just aren’t represented. They may be highly recruited for this reason but they often stay out of these fields. Again, girls and women have so internalized that they are “bad” at math at a young age that they feel like these sorts of careers aren’t “for them”.

Why does this matter? I’m not saying that majoring in English or the arts is bad. We need artists and musicians and writers. For what it is worth, my husband and I have reversed this trend. He majored in English and Sociology and I majored in something still considered a STEM discipline (political science). I like solving programming issues and doing quantitative stuff. He really likes to write and read. He’s still a tinkerer, though. I think you can still be a well-rounded person in either STEM or the arts. I don’t mean to demonize the pursuit of a less numbers-based curriculum. In fact, I would say my gender studies and philosophy course were essential in teaching me to analyze things and think more critically than I was prepared for in most of my political science courses. I also learned to write there. I did not learn to write in political science (even though I attempted to teach my methods students how to use grammar and diction and sometimes failed). I am by no means a fantastic writer. My husband is often terribly critical of my use of adverbs (see what I did there?). Still, I try to get my point across and use proper grammar occasionally. Writing a dissertation is a true test of one’s persuasive writing and organizational skills.

I argue, though, there are issues with women being confined to the arts. First of all, STEM fields are highly-paid and tend to lead to good, stable paychecks. On average, STEM majors graduating with Bachelor’s degrees earn significantly more than their peers.  Recent data show that students graduating with a liberal arts degree earn about 20,000 less than those in STEM fields and those in STEM earn, on average 10,000 more in a starting salary than the average person with a BA or BS.

If you want to have more gender equality in the home, it would be silly not to address the role that being a breadwinner or equal earner pays. Two of my sister-in-laws both work high-powered jobs alongside their husbands. One is an engineer who has made substantially more than her husband due to, in his words, being a better study and having more drive. The other is a business leader who is currently managing a start up and travels regularly. Neither has children but both set good examples for our daughters in terms of having equality in gender in the household. If a problematic aspect of household gender equality comes back to a lack of value in domestic labor, an equal split in terms of economic capabilities and abilities seems to be a short-term solution to this issue that will help all women. This is not to say being a stay-at-home person is bad at all. However, the more women working these jobs, the more opportunities for women to be visible earners, capable employees, and, eventually, a greater ease should arise for men to choose to stay-at-home more often.

A second problem I plan to address with women not entering STEM fields or learning math is that we need women in all sectors of the workforce. We know that having women in workgroups leads to having more diverse ideas and can lead to greater productivity across the board. We also know that having women in high-powered positions can positively benefit women down the chain.  A recent Gallup study shows all of these benefits.. Although, I would argue, this should not be where we stop (contrary to Ms. Sandberg’s line of reasoning). There are definite merits, also, to women being engaged as the educators of the next generation of numbers-loving ladies. We know now that female math teachers are more positively associated with greater math achievement not only in girls but also boys (Stearns et. al 2016). Thus, from the bottom to the top, there are benefits to having women in STEM and not just in the arts.

Society can be a force for good or a force that will hold our daughters back. Insulating your kids is impossible. However, it starts at home. Knowing the issues will allow parents to help their daughters. It’s why I started early with a space-themed nursery for my kid rather than ballerinas or princesses. If she chooses to become a ballerina later on, we will love and support her, but I want to try to combat the idea that she is only relegated to fields where her body is judged and where her worth is tied up in subjective assessments of “self”. I want her to have a mind open to all possibilities. It won’t be perfect but it will let us work proactively instead of reactively. These are the challenges we face and we have to be prepared to head them off at the pass.

The invisible women of the women’s strike:

Photo by Allen Lew of

The women’s strike was seen by many feminists to be the continuation of momentum from the very successful Women’s March.  It was expected to be less successful because a lot of women can’t strike (I could be fired as a government employee).  However, it did close a number of school districts (which was a BFD). I would also argue this protest served its purpose if the sole purpose was to raise awareness for things like family leave, reproductive rights, and equal pay.  However, assuming that this, alone, was the main takeaway is not helpful.  The women who did not strike have more to say than the women who did, in my opinion.  Let me say that I totally supported and cheered for my friends who were able to strike.  I think it was wonderful and I don’t think their intention in any way was to discount the voices of women of color.  However, I think if we are to use this strike as a moment of visibility, we need to be careful to talk about those invisible women, too.

I have talked before about privilege and feminism – specifically in the context of the romanticization of mothering in a developing nation which is often seen in discourse about how we raise and feed babies.  There are issues with intersectionality in third wave feminism.  The “selfie girls” who were criticised in the aftermath of the Women’s March illustrate an important dialogue about white feminism and the reality of being a minority or working class feminist.  I think it is important to continue to address these issues.

We are doing ourselves, as feminists, no favors by focusing just on the white, privileged women. It’s reductionist.  It is harmful.  This criticism became very vocal with the introduction of “you go girl” feminism in Lean In.  Sandberg makes some good points, of course.  She argues that women need to feel free to take charge, should speak more in meetings, and demand a place at the table.  Moreover, she suggest women need to choose partners who are supportive of them and will share equally. I value all of these things as a working mom and I would give the same advice to a young grad student or trainee.

However, as a working mom who is highly educated and white, there are so many opportunities I am already afforded.  My biggest problems truly are equal pay for a job that already pays my bills and parental leave at a job where I was able to use paid leave already for an FMLA protected leave where I did not have to go on LWOP.  Sandberg argues in Lean In that for our sisters in the trenches working other types of jobs, this should lead to an overall better standard of living.  That makes me uncomfortable because the issue of equality probably is hardest to swallow for these women.  It neglects the needs they have RIGHT NOW.  Asking them to wait while we serve our own needs seems selfish and misdirected.

This approach also puts the ability to succeed on the backs of women.  It’s your  fault if you don’t demand more-even though workplace harassment and institutional barriers are so entrenched in patriarchy that they are incredibly difficult to overcome.

Many feminist theorists have criticized this type of feminism, including the amazing Bell Hooks, in an essay about her “trickle down” feminism.  Hooks writes,

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

“You go girl” feminism is nearly impossible to achieve due to something political scientists like myself know all too well.  It is one big effing collective action problem.  You can do your best but only through the cooperation of women and, yes, men, can you change corporate culture.  Sandberg clearly hasn’t done that for even her class of uber-privileged ladies.  Uber (please grant me this pun) has a huge harassment scandal brewing and the EEOC is currently seeing an increase in such complaints:

Source: EEOC (2016)

Clearly, it is not all fixed.  That’s why women marched and struck this week.  Still, focusing just on this is harmful.  I’ve already read a number of articles about the politics of gender equality and the strike.  One I would encourage anyone to read was an Op-Ed written by Meghan Daum in the LA TimesIn it, Daum states,

Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5… Meanwhile, for the millions of women who have no choice but to show up and meet their responsibilities on March 8 (and every day), it will be business as usual.

I didn’t strike.  I couldn’t strike.  And the strike did not affect me as a woman because my female coworkers couldn’t strike and I was able to avoid buying anything (a man bought me a beer and a pretzel).  I posted about this on social media.  I felt it important to note why I wasn’t striking.  I was working a job to help people who needed me – vulnerable people – for a government that required me to work.  Many women are in the federal and state government workplace not represented by unions.  It’s hard for us in that capacity.  My only ability to take the day off work would be, ironically, through the PTO I do not have left because I just had a baby!  I made it clear that insufficient family leave was the reason I couldn’t strike.

I saw mostly white women striking – women with good jobs, women who are salaried, women working in industries that supported their choices.  I value what they did because it does raise awareness and keep the ball rolling.  But just talking about the strike and the powerful message it sent misses the point.

The women who can afford to strike are the “you go girl” feminists already supported by people like Sandberg.  They are very, very visible.  “Selfie girl” basically explains this all in one picture.  I was able to go out last night and see my dissertation advisor, have a beer with him, and talk about my love of Canadian politics post-dissertation because my husband made a point of taking our kid for the night.  He was able to work around a change in morning routine without my help because we share responsibilities.  If I had had the PTO and wanted to strike, he would have supported me, work would have supported me, and I would have still sent my baby to daycare.  That, I argue, would have totally defeated the purpose of the strike for me and my family.

My sitter is a great lady.  She is semi-retired and we love and value her.  She’s a small business owner.  However, she doesn’t have my education or my privilege.  Every freaking day, she juggles three babies of various ages – one who is scooting, one who is a toddler and walking, and my 3 month old – and does an amazing job at it.  She does things I could not.  She’s also a working class woman who works every day probably too hard for too little.  I feel ashamed at saying that because what she does is so hard to value for us as parents because it’s an invaluable act to help our child grow and we are lucky to afford her.  She, like many women who perform domestic duties, could not strike.  If she had struck, she would have inconvenienced those of us who pay her a lot of money to watch our kids and threatened her own business.  We would have adjusted to accommodate her but her other clients may not have.

My grandmothers were both working class, albeit white.  Would the strike have helped them?  Likely not.  One of my grandmothers ran her own cleaning business.  She had 5 living children to support on a meager income.  Pleasing her clients was what kept food on the table.  Even so, her income was often a precarious thing and very dependent on the economic situation of her clients.  It was variable.  Her work was daunting and hard.  She could not have been on strike.  My other grandmother worked every day at a grueling factory job.  She could not have been on strike.  She was not unionized – even back then.  This was the lot of so many of our mothers and grandmothers – white or otherwise (although it was so much harder for women of color) – but I think we forget about it as the plight many women still face today.  The idea of “blue collar” has changed but “working class” women still exist.

Women of color also exist.  We neglect to speak about their issues.  Again, I cannot speak for them but I feel the need to advocate for them.  These women are paid less even then us white ladies.  Black women make 60 cents vs. a man’s dollar while Latino women make only 55 cents on a man’s dollar. This is opposed to our overall pay gap of 1 dollar for men compared to 77 cents for women.  This means Latino women make almost 40% less than white women and even Black women make almost 30% less than white women.  These women are more likely to work these sorts of precarious jobs where a strike would be disastrous for them and their households.  If your main goal is to put food on the table for your kids, you can’t even afford to take a day off of work when you are already making minimum wage.  So, even if your boss won’t fire you, you don’t have much of a “choice”.

“Working class” or “minority” feminist issues ARE feminist issues.  Full stop.  They should be treated as such.  We shouldn’t stop talking about the strike as  “women were striking” but we should continue on. We should also focus on who could not strike.  That speaks so much louder to the dire situation many women find themselves in.

Why couldn’t we all strike yesterday?  We needed to save our PTO and needed to pay our daycare providers so striking wouldn’t matter anyway.  Our daycare providers and cleaning ladies, which we are privileged enough to have, can’t afford to piss off clients or miss a day’s pay due to a scheduling conflict.  Women couldn’t strike for fear of losing their jobs, folks.  They couldn’t strike because that one day’s pay was the difference between eating and not.

Feminism cannot be everything to everyone all the time, true, but it also cannot keep beating down the women who suffer most.  When working class and minority feminists start to demand inclusion and cry out for more, we need to stop high fiving ourselves and denying them a seat at the table.  Otherwise, we are no better than the misogynists calling us nasty women.

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.


Part One: Gender in the Home


Image courtesy of astoller of


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, I’ve talked about the March on Washington and the March for Life before but I think we need to talk more about how we still need these things.  If we are to find gender norms that hold our kids back, activism matters.

Some women felt we didn’t need the women’s march. I think those women are patently wrong. And I think they missed the point. Seriously so!

I hope some day to tell my daughter about how all mommy’s friends marched on state capitols, government buildings, and Washington on that historic January afternoon when she was only a few weeks old. I wasn’t cleared for exercise yet and it depressed me I could not walk. Still, I hope she is inspired to know that my friends didn’t desert us and stood for her and so many little girls.

Sure we’ve come a long way from the issues our mothers and grandmothers faced but let’s not forget where we came from and how recently we were fighting for basic human rights.  Let’s begin in the Victorian Period when the First Wave started.  We may romanticize the beautiful dresses of the period.  I do.  My husband jokes that if there is a period piece, I’m addicted.  It’s true.  I love Victoria and will watch it tonight for sure.  Still, we should remember that Queen Victoria was considered an extension of her husband in many ways.  Prince Albert had an uneasy go of accepting that his allowance and abilities relied on her in many ways.  The show does a decent job of illustrating this at times.  It’s not perfect (see romanitcization) but it illustrates the uneasy play between private and political life.

During the Victoria era, women did not have property rights in most cases and could not vote.  Even women as fortunate as Victoria!  She was at the helm as a Head of State and could not vote.  As a gender studies and political science major in college, I read a lot on this subject.  One of my favorite discussions of property rights and suffrage deals with John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft Mill.  J.S. Mill’s “The Subjugation of Women” and Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” are standard reading for burgeoning feminist scholars.  If I wrote a syllabus, I’d probably start my class here.  Wollstonecraft, in particular, touches on the issue of the home. She states that equality in education and rights between women and men would strengthen marriage as an institution and would benefit children and, thus, society. Some radical feminists will scoff at this, certainly, viewing all marriage as harmful to women but I would argue that this was about as militant as feminism was for the time. Likewise, Wollstonecraft’s defense of bringing the personal as the political is important.

What does this “personal as political” mean?  Why does it matter?  The personal as political is what drove the march for suffrage and property rights for women.  No longer were women content with letting their husband’s rule their lives.  This Victorian concept, discussed interestingly enough by the Victoria and Albert Museum, was later taken up by second wave feminists as a call for politicians to grant women more rights – rights like contraception, abortion, the choice to divorce, and the ability to be free of domestic violence. Prior to First Wave Feminism, it was thought women didn’t need political or property rights because their husbands had their best interests in mind.  Issues like this were “personal” and confined to the household and not acceptable topics for public discussion.  Remember, women couldn’t discuss or show their pregnancies still.  This would continue until Lucille Ball was pregnant on I Love Lucy in the 1950s!  Domestic violence and birth control were similar issues for Second Wave feminists.  You see, domestic violence was not a public issue. It was between you and your husband, ladies.  But if you wanted to leave?  Well, the state would admonish you and make it nearly impossible to divorce your husband.

Carol Hanisch’s essay is the seminal text on the personal as Political was published in 1969.  1969, ladies and gentlemen.  She argued that the biggest issues still facing women were simple and that excluding non-radical feminists from the dialogue wasn’t helpful.  I will still hammer this home. It’s no secret I really don’t find radical feminism to be helpful.  We aren’t there yet.  We are still in the trenches fighting for basic rights almost 50 years later. We aren’t dealing with issues specifically outlined in Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as most of us either get to choose to stay home or work if we are privileged enough to have a family life which affords this.  But we aren’t in a world where we can say “equality” yet, either.  At the same time, in our largely heteronormative world where a majority of people marry and have babies, many so-called “women’s issues” are “family issues” and, thus, still big feminist issues.

Our mothers grew up witnessing this Personal as Political debate.  They had to claw like crazy to break into the workforce and get professional jobs.  This is not to say women hadn’t been in the workforce.  You see, our working class sisters had been working as cleaning ladies and factory workers for years prior with very little respect.  One of my grandmothers was a lifelong factory worker and the other was a cleaning lady and often the only breadwinner in her family.  My grandfather was always trying to be an artist.  She had 5 living children so she had to support them somehow.  But for our mothers who wanted to earn a wage and advance their careers – often with the same education or more education than their husbands – they had to work twice as hard.  Women of color probably had to work three times as hard.  And then they came home at night to the same responsibilities their stay-at-home-mothers had had.

This was even the case in my otherwise egalitarian house.  My mom would work similar hours to my dad, would do most (if not all) drop offs and pick ups and would do almost all of the housework and all the cooking during the week.  If one of us was sick, my mom took over. My dad did some household chores on the weekends and cooked our weekend meals.  He also taught me how to cook and was an excellent pasta and bread maker.  But, honestly, my mom did twice as much as my Dad.  Neither of them ever treated us differently but that was the example I had of what mom did vs. what dad did.

And I internalized it a lot.  Until my hellish pregnancy which had me bedridden for half and unable to cook for fear of vomiting in the sink.  I did almost all of our laundry, I did most of the cleaning (minus dishes, garbage, and toilet bowls), and cooked all of our home-cooked meals because my husband doesn’t cook.  But then I had to ask for him to step up.  I couldn’t work a full time job, struggle through a difficult pregnancy, and do it all.  It just wasn’t possible anymore.  So, we had to find a better balance. We still struggle.  We have a newborn now.  It’s impossible to eat out like normal people because we don’t want her to get sick and we don’t want to worry about screaming. So, I basically cook all of our meals.  I also, now that I’m back at work, I commute about 7 hours a week.  My husband now cleans and does laundry but he won’t fold and sort it properly, so that still leaves me a lot.  It’s gotten much better but it is nowhere near perfect. He’s taken more night feedings to help with the deficit but with PPD, I still struggle.  He does drop off and pick up for daycare so I don’t double my commute.

And I realize that as I type this, the implication of all of that is “he does it to help me” as if he doesn’t share an equal part in this and I am the default parent. He doesn’t see it that way.  He’s openly told me this week that he sees me as looking at her more as his “project” than as his responsibility.  That stung.  Maybe it’s not wrong.  In response, I pointed out to him that when he leaves it incumbent upon myself to cook every. damn. meal. and to watch him play xbox quietly while I make and clean up dinner while trying to take care of  a screaming baby, I feel like that’s the message I get.  I internalize that.  I bend over backward to kill myself doing it.  I turn into my mom. I go to a place I don’t want to because damn it it’s 2017.  So, we are having more conversations going forward about what we both can do to stop this.  I’m getting an hour of zen a day.  NO ONE is playing Xbox until everything is cleaned up and we are both sitting down.  Still, the fact we even have to have these discussions is indicative of gender inequality.  My husband is not an asshole. He’s a feminist.  But we’re all figuring this out.  He’s been through this before.  But his ex was a stay-at-home mom.  I am not and I am drained after a day of solo parenting in a way he isn’t.  Part of this is PPD.  And part of it is just my personality.

My anecdotal experience is not unique.  In this country, women still do significantly more housework than men.  Around the world, women miss significantly more work than men taking care of children because men don’t feel comfortable being “that” parent. Men are denied paid leave or do not take their paid leave (for the record, my husband took his paternity leave.  He said it made parenting a newborn and bonding with a newborn so much easier this time.  Still, his work did not have a formal paternity leave policy.  He was lucky to have a (female) boss and company that wanted to be flexible with us.  Hopefully, in the future, other dads will benefit from this precedent.  But he had to ask and push for it.  Many men don’t feel like they can.  And he will be the go-to pick up a sick kid parent.  That’s our agreement since I commute.  But I still worry enough about gender roles.

My daughter will learn to cook food and fix things around the house.  He will teach her how to replace a baseboard or lay down tile.  I will teach her how to make a roux.  But I don’t want her to think it has to be this way.  If her future partner (male or female) prefers to cook and she prefers to mow the yard, that’s cool.  I want her to know how to do it all, though.  And I want us to try to illustrate that moms and dads are all responsible for and capable of taking care of the household.

Parenting equality is not private issue.  It’s a public one.  Or, at least, I argue it should be as we still are nowhere near “equal”.  We need to push for paternity leave and equal pay.  We need to teach our sons how to cook and our daughters how to fix things.  We need to not stop calling dads babysitters and acknowledge their responsibility as parents and their innate abilities to be primary caregivers (yes, dads can be great stay-at-home parents!).  We need to as a society decide that parenting is unisex and that women are no more equipped to do it than men.  That’s the first step.

This isn’t just about working parents, either.  I see many friends who are struggling to balance a stay-at-home parent and their sanity.  Many dads, it seems, don’t get the very real stress of being a SAHM or the fact that keeping a tiny human alive is a full-time job.  I can’t speak to the alternative (dad stays at home) because this is really rare in my social circle.  My Dad was a SAHP for about 2 years but even he arranged childcare and worked PT for that period.  A few of my friends have husbands/partners that stay home as the primary caregiver.  I think that’s wonderful.  But even in my circle of Dr. Moms, it is far more common for both parents to work or mom to quit her job to make a career of momming (if even just until the kid is 2 or 3).  Just because mom stays home doesn’t mean she should then do all the housework and cooking.  We’ve talked about this recently.  The prospect of in the future me taking a job in a larger city with substantially more pay would allow my husband to stay home for awhile.  He’s expressed interest in it.  I know if this happens, our balance will need to change.  We’d treat it like daycare. We don’t expect our daycare to also clean our house or cook dinner.  Why should the working parent assume the SAHP is somehow capable of doing everything all the time?

I also think as much as we need breastfeeding protections in this country, we need to stop equating the parenting of newborns with breastfeeding success.  If I had a dime for every time a friend insisted she hadn’t slept in ages because she couldn’t pump enough for her husband to do a nightfeed, I would be a rich lady. Breastfeeding is hard when you work.  Really hard.  And it almost inherently puts more pressure on moms than dads.  This is not to say I disapprove of this but saying that it makes moms more important or let dads off the hook isn’t fair.  And while you can argue dads can do other things to make up for this added labor of breastfeeding, I would argue you can almost never make up for this all-encompassing tie a mom has to her baby.  I can leave the house without a worry because my baby is formula fed.  I could even go on an overnight trip.  And I can say, “I need you to take the night feed because I just can’t go another night without two REM cycles”.  But a mom who is breastfeeding can’t say that.  We should probably acknowledge that breastfeeding is inherently a labor of love for women that requires them to take on a disproportionate amount of work.  Granting more maternity and paternity leave would take some of this burden off moms and dads going through the struggles of starting breastfeeding.  And if it is not working, we should stop shaming moms.  And as moms, we should feel like it is okay to value our mental health and sleep.  This is ultimately what led me to buy the damn brezza (well, my husband bought it for us, actually) and say “I can’t do this” well before she was born.

Overall, we’ve come a long way from not being able to own property.  That’s great.  But moms are still doing more than dads.  Our daughters and sons have the most important and most immediate lessons on gender norms in our households. We need to talk about the very real challenges women face and try to do better in our households to explain that both parents are responsible for the security, health, and happiness of the family.

An Open Letter to Moms Marching “For Life”

Image courtesy of Cheryl Coward.

Dear moms marching for life,

If the March for Women was a pro-women cry for the support of women’s rights, the March for life is seen in the eyes of many as being its antithesis.  I don’t know if I believe this.  But I do think the constituencies that overlap here are small.

Women’s rights face opponents in Congress and statehouses across this world.  I am no stranger to abortion legislation as the official “abortion lady” in our office.  I have to assess it regularly.  I do it from a non-political perspective but I am not a robot.  I’m a woman with a uterus.  I’m a feminist.  I’m a mom.

Abortions are not something everyone agrees with personally.  I get that.  Prior to my pregnancy, I didn’t think I could have terminated a pregnancy.  That’s probably why I’ve always been anal retentive about contraception.  Then I got pregnant the first time and had a miscarriage.  I had a relative assume that miscarriages would make a woman more supportive of “life”.  My response to miscarriage was the opposite.  I felt so out of control with my body.  So vulnerable.  So miserable.  And I was thankful for the compassion I was shown by my provider.   And because I had good insurance, I would have been provided a D&C no questions asked if I had needed one.

My pregnancy with my daughter only strengthened this pro-choice feeling.  I had a terrible pregnancy which I’ve posted about often.  My body definitely not my own.  I was in hell.  I wanted to end my life at times.  I didn’t because I loved this life inside me.  But I also resented the hell out of her.  I wasn’t sure I would say it was worth it when she was here.  In fact, I was terrified that it wouldn’t feel worth it and that I wouldn’t bond with her. I did, though.  I fell head over heels the moment she was placed on my belly.  I am so in love with her-beyond what I ever thought was possible.  I also thought to myself, “Who would do this if they didn’t want this baby?”  I didn’t think it was humane to put a person through that against their will.

While pregnant, I also met other moms who made me realize I may have made that difficult choice under different circumstances.  I met wonderful, loving moms who had to terminate pregnancies because their babies were “Incompatible with Life”.  That’s the actual term when a baby will never be able to live outside the room or would not make it to term.  Instead, the baby would suffer and only know pain before certain death. Choosing to end the pregnancy was the most humane and compassionate thing even though it killed these mothers.  I also met mothers who had even worse HG than I had suffered and chose to terminate because it was literally killing them and destroying their marriages. They couldn’t do it anymore.  I couldn’t judge any of these women for their choices and I began to realize that there absolutely were situations where I would terminate a pregnancy. I have always supported a woman’s life to choose as long as I can remember.  My mom was ardently pro-choice and I was, too.  I hated the idiotic, male youth pastor who, when I was 11 and in youth group, decided it was wise to show a totally fake and traumatizing video about “late term abortion” without parental consent and without any context.  I didn’t even know what an abortion was before this.  I just learned that it was heinous and I felt so opposed to this atrocity.  Later, I asked my mom about it and she explained that some people oppose it and it wasn’t her choice.  However, she said that she could never tell anyone else what to do with their body and that every baby should be wanted.  That seemed logical.  I didn’t tell her about that awful video until years later.  She blew a gasket when she found out.  As a mom myself, I would have also been enraged.

I don’t think you can be a feminist and anti-choice.  I think you can absolutely be against abortion but not against a woman’s bodily autonomy and right to choose.  I think you can hold strong religious beliefs about life, death, and the death penalty and realize that we have a secular government that has a lot of people to protect who don’t share your theology and values.  I think a lot of women choose compassion but I also think many of us haven’t had to walk in those difficult shoes.  So, you can be pro-life and still not believe it’s the government’s right to interfere with the rights of women to get abortions.  You can work to make it happen less often, can support women who choose not to terminate pregnancies, etc. I think you can also morally defending being pro-life and feminism if you agree to the following:

  1. Support free contraceptives to all women regardless of ability to pay, type of contraception, etc. The thing that is shown to be most helpful in lowering abortions is not legal prohibitions, it’s contraception (especially options you don’t have to take every day which are often the most expensive).
  2. Support welfare services that help mothers pay for breast pumps, formula, diapers, and other things babies need. Babies are expensive.
  3. Support free or reduced childcare for people. If you expect a mom to work to keep benefits, you need to help her care for her child.
  4. Better public education and head start.
  5. Better family leave policies so families can bond with their babies appropriately, people can assist family members that need them, and so women who choose to give their babies to adoptive parents can recover from pregnancy. Also better protections for pregnant women and requirements about disability policies to help women who need to stop working early. This is not a rare thing. It’s all too common.
  6. Free or affordable maternity care for all women regardless of ability to pay.
  7. Immigration laws which are equitable and help provide shelter for refugees – especially children who are suffering every day in bad situations.
  8. Better civil rights protections for women, people of color, and the LGBT community. These people are at risk and deserve your protection.
  9. Oppose the death penalty.
  10. Support sex education in schools. Abstinence only programs don’t work and they set kids up to fail and contribute to teenage pregnancy and higher abortion rates.

Being pro-life shouldn’t set women up to fail.  Life shouldn’t require martyrdom.  If you truly believe in life, it must be cradle to grave.  And charity is not the answer.  One should not have to submit to unscientific and awful videos or proselytizing to receive care and support in times of trouble.  If you agree all lives matter, you should care about everyone not just Christians.  Charitable organizations do admirable things.  Don’t misunderstand.  But they are not the government.  People don’t have the same protections and rights to goods from charities that they do from the government.

I would encourage any of those women who marched yesterday to consider that they don’t live in a religious state.  I would appeal to their senses of compassion and empathy for other women who have to make difficult choices.  I would hope they would understand pregnancy is not and should not be a punishment and babies should be gifts and not burdens. And I would compel them to support everyone – cradle to grave.

Gender Disappointment? More like Gender Frustration.

I was so hoping to have a son.  I will fully admit that.  I assumed it would just “be easier” for us.  This baby was a tie breaker since my husband already has one daughter and one son.  This is our one and only baby to have together because we don’t need four and I’m not ever doing this again.

I was a non-gender-conforming kid.  I was definitely a girl who was PROUD to be a girl.  But every single holiday was an excuse for my extended family and society to school me in proper gender presentation. I didn’t play with dolls.  I played with horses and trucks and planes.  If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have been more likely to tell you I wanted to be president or an astronaut or avet than a “mommy” or a teacher or a nurse or any other “acceptable” occupation for a lady in the late 80s/early 90s.  My sister was the absolute opposite.  She wore dresses.  She played house.  She played with dolls.  She was rewarded at every birthday and holiday by receiving presents she actually wanted.  I would end up feeling demoralized.  My parents were fairly keen to start a tradition of receipts for this reason.  I knew the rules: accept gracefully, tell mom and dad you are sad on the way home, go pick something out you actually like.

The situation I remember frustrating me the most was a holiday Christmas party my mom’s company did.  I grew up in a manufacturing area and mom worked in engineering for a big firm.  Each year, everyone from the line on up would bring their kids to get a toy.  But, like the frustrating trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru in which you had to announce a “boy toy” if you wanted something that DID anything and wasn’t just a model of a stupid princess, girls lined up for “girl toys”.  Santa would turn a lever and down the line your stupid girl toy would come.  I waited patiently knowing my only options were a doll, a housecleaning set, or a tea set.  ALL CRAPPY.  The boys got a boat, a plane, or a car.  I wanted to go in the other line.  But nope.  I had a vagina, so I got stuck with a housecleaning set.  Now, the irony in this is I actually have OCD, so I actually really do enjoy cleaning and desire cleaning in a way most people don’t.  But 4 year old me was so unimpressed.

So, when they got the “money shot” up on the ultrasound that sealed our fate, I started crying.  The tech asked me what I thought the baby was.  I told her I thought it was a boy “but that’s not looking like a penis”.  I was right.  We are expecting a baby girl in just a few more weeks.  Everyone was overjoyed and to be honest, I was crying tears of joy because as awful as pregnancy has been, I wanted this baby desperately and I will love her so much.  But my husband was worried I was crying because I was sad.  He waited until the tech left to ask me and I assured him while I have my worries, I am thankful to be given the chance to raise an amazing little feminist.

But that said, god it’s so much harder to raise a girl from the outset.  I mean, with a boy, you can debate the merits of circumcision or what sports you are willing to let him attempt because head trauma but we’d already had those conversations.  WIth girls, the conversations just got so much more everyday and involved so many harder subjects.  The beginning stuff was rather simple.  For my friends – most of which had been gifted daughters- I had been warned that the clothing nightmares were real.  Oh boy were they!

I’ve put off buying clothing because I hate it so much.  Bows?  Why?  What the hell is the point?!  I will wear a bow.  I’m actually a fairly feminine-presenting adult hetero cis-female.  I’m very unremarkable.  However, I’ve CHOSEN this performance of gender.  She can’t choose.  Bows scream “I’m a girl!  See!  Don’t call me a boy because this bow is big enough to see from space!”.  And all the outfits have a stupid theme – high heels, ballerina shoes, cats, daddy’s little princess (oye that word).  My husband and I have struggled.  Most of our clothing is “boy” because the only other option is so very “boy”.  I don’t care.  No child of ours is going to be a ballerina.  I’m not built for it.  I’m built like a steel locomotive.  Her dad is like a tall steeple of a human.  We aren’t building dancers here, people.  We don’t like the idea of the woman who needs saving.  And why does it matter if the baby possesses certain genitals?  It’s a baby.  Unless you are a medical professional or changing her, it’s really none of your business (I feel strongly about asking people about decisions to circumcise their children but that’s another story for another day).  Clothing with ruffled pants (because standard pants are just unacceptable?) make your child look like a deranged clown.  Which, right now, is just dangerous.  Again, if you like these things, fine.  But I hate them and I think my baggage of being tormented by being forced to “do” gender “right” or pay the social price has really turned my stomach.

Further down the road, you get asked about whether you are piercing your daughter’s ears.  The arguments for are almost entirely predicated on “well she will want them done later”.  I am whitewashing here a bit because I know culturally there are more “meaningful” reasons, but I am talking about middle American whitebread moms because that’s mostly what I know.  I hate the above argument that you should get them done now because it’s silly.  What if she hates them later?  What if she’s allergic to nickel (I am and so are my mom and sister) and now she has to spend an arm and a leg to keep up this habit later?  What if they are hard to cover up for sports?  I’m a full grown-ass woman who, no, has never ever had her ears pierced.  People lose their minds when I say this. I am fully-functioning, I promise!  And really, the “she will want it done later” is not the argument.  The real underlying argument is this is another way to signal “hey I’m a girl!  Don’t you DARE call me a boy because I will be so offended!”.  Again, it’s a baby.  The argument she wants it later is still predicated on the assumption that girls have pierced ears and it’s a way to properly “do” gender.

Then further down the road you have to worry about consent and really heavy things with a girl in a way boys don’t have to.  I don’t mean this should exempt the parents of boys from teaching their sons “no means no” and how bodies are not theirs just to touch when they feel like it.  Parents of boys are just as responsible for this.  They should take it incumbent upon themselves to help solve these problems.  Still, my reality was that by age 14, I was a survivor of sexual assault.  I was abused by a friend on school grounds.  My parents taught me the importance of consent, using proper terms, you name it, but the whole “boys will be boys” and “boys say stupid things when they like you” messages society had put in my brain overrode everything else.  I spent years blaming myself.  I ended up in an abusive relationship after all of it and still blamed myself.  My stepson will never have to worry about walking down the street alone at night as much as the girls do – it’s incomparable. We worry about the girls much more.

It’s so hard.  Still, I don’t think of it as a disappointment.  This implies I’m sad I’m having a girl.  I’m not.  I’m just frustrated that “having a girl” means a greater degree of complication and mindfuckery.  I’m not even concerned about the things I thought I would be.  I don’t worry about her being limited by her gender presentation – no matter how girly or not – because I don’t think I ever felt limited back in the day.  I’ve surrounded myself with kickass ladies.  Our baby’s family includes a mom with a PhD who currently programs for a living, an aunt who runs a tech startup, an aunt who is an aerospace engineer, a grandmother who works in engineering creations out of sheet metal, an aunt who is a special ed teacher, and a number of other “aunties” who have advanced degrees and don’t fear the math required to do their jobs.

I worry more about the everyday struggles women face.  I worry I will either make her feel weird about being girly  which I don’t want to do if that’s the way she chooses to be or I will make her feel like she needs to have this big girly identity because I do (even if it wasn’t already that way).  I worry about what others outside our immediate circle will beat into her.  I have to hand it to my mom and mother-in-law so far because I haven’t received bows or tutus.  Most things have been fairly neutral.  But I know it’s gonna happen as she grows.  You can’t protect them from the real world even if it sucks.  That does more of  disservice.   So, I’m thoroughly frustrated for her and for us because the world is not kind to our type.

But I’m not disappointed.

The Romanticism of Third World Motherhood

Image courtesy of David Leo Veksler of

The recent Cry-it-Out arguments and “Breast is Best” competitions on my facebook have devolved into commentary about how “90% of the world doesn’t see it this way”. Possibly true.  But I especially love these comments from people who have never been to the developing world for more than a luxe holiday.  I get that many people don’t do it “our” way and see bedsharing and breastfeeding as the only “normal” option.  But  I also think the romanticized idea of women in the developing world having it all figured out to be patently offensive.  Why?  Let me explain.

A lack of choice – Women living in developing nations don’t have all of our luxuries.  They may very well live in a one room flat or hut with 5 or 6 kids.  When I was going out to villages to speak to women in Rwanda, many women appeared to sleep on a dirt floor with all of these children.  That was the way it was for their families because that was the only option.  Breastfeeding was definitely the preferred,if not really the only, way to feed in Rwanda but that was also due to a lack of safe water.  Formula feeding there would either be dangerous or prohibitively expensive.  Most of my friends would have a hard time understanding this.  In cases where women lost production due to illness or an aberrant inability to feed their kids, other women living in the same village or social circle would often help.  I know there are milk banks here, many of which do not screen milk, but this idea of community feels very different.  These women do what they need to for their kids to survive.  There is no other option.  Sure, there are also plenty of wealthy women in Rwanda who live differently as there are plenty of wealthy women everywhere but the average woman breastfed and bedshared due to a lack of space and a lack of funds.

A lack of economic power – The reason I was in Rwanda was to study post-genocidal recovery and to look into the status of women there.  As a white feminist who doesn’t want to make her experience the only acceptable experience, I have a hard time saying that more “traditional” setups can’t be a CHOICE for women.  However, when it comes to working outside the home, on average, Rwandan women had few options.  The main bit of field research I did required me to interact with women in somewhat precarious situations.  Many were abused by partners.  Leaving was not easy.  There is a “No Sugar Daddy” campaign by the government currently so girls will stay in school and go into the workforce rather than marry early and end up in a bad relationship.

Because women don’t often make their own money (especially typical middle and working class women), they don’t have the same problems with juggling breastfeeding and work or deciding who will take shifts.  There is just no question.  Most women stay home and provide almost all the domestic labor.  It’s not comparable to the experience that many Western women have.  Whether it is better or worse is immaterial.  It’s apples to oranges.

A totally different “role” as a woman applies – Patriarchy is a huge issue in the U.S. and abroad. My time in Rwanda made me realize that similar things were said to women, a similar rape culture dialogue existed, and women, in large part, were fighting similar battles to be seen as equal.  The women in Rwanda, however, were dealing with other basic necessities not being easily found and disparities in education beyond what is seen in the West.  So, we all face patriarchy but in different ways and different amounts.  While my working mom was a bit unique in my upper-middle-class suburb for working despite having a gainfully employed husband, she wasn’t seen as a pariah or completely unusual or unheard of.  Sometimes teachers did not “get” it but no one was downright offended by her choice of working over homemaking.  This is different in other places.  There was a choice in her role.  At one point, my father quit his job to stay home and raise us so my mom could go back to work.  She did not enjoy staying at home. This sort of choice would have been unheard of in Kigali.

Romanticizing the fact that women who don’t have a choice, don’t have their own economic ability to “choose” to work outside the home, and don’t have the ability for outside work to be seen as “normal” or even “acceptable” is disturbing to me.  These women aren’t choosing to stay home for the most part.  Many of them don’t see any other opportunities.  That’s the role of a woman in her society.

There is a weird need to explain bedsharing and breastfeeding as being “closer to nature” and, thus, preferable but we need to be especially careful when we romanticize women living in the developing world as “closer to nature” lest we veer towards describing them as “primitive”.  Nothing could be more offensive in my opinion!  It’s not “cute” for women to be stuck in a role without the choice or economic means to pick another way.  A lack of cry-it-out and formula feeding is out of necessity and different circumstances.  It’s not only unfair to women in the developing world to take this tack, it completely ignores the difference between a woman in a postmaterial society and than in society industrializing.  I’m not big on first-world feminism being the only argument and I’m a huge believer in intesectionality, so these dialogues just ignore huge, important concepts surrounding the rights of women around the world.

Instead, how do we avoid this?

First, know that it is okay to say you prefer to bedshare or breastfeed.  If you prefer it, that’s reason enough to do it.  It is your choice to do so.  If bedsharing means everyone sleeps, that’s fantastic.  If breastfeeding works for you, keep it up!  Second, we should acknowledge the difference between a choice and a given.  If you live in a place with non-potable water and a one room place, you don’t have a choice.  Realize that women around the world are not pictures or scenes, they are living breathing people just like us who have their own struggles which may differ from ours and that’s okay.  As long as we don’t try to speak FOR THEM directly, we should be okay.  Using them to support your argument against an entire swath of women (for the purposes of basically calling the other women bad moms) as if they are game pieces or tokens is never okay.

We can’t say their experiences are ours or are better or worse than ours but we can be sensitive in our conversations.  Neither CIO or bedsharing are the devil. Neither breastfeeding nor formula feeding will kill your kid.  It’s okay to have a preference and it’s okay to respect the preferences of others.   But, seriously, leave women in developing nations OUT of it!