We were at a 3 year old’s birthday party a couple of weeks ago. There was a piñata. Although my 3 year old had never seen a piñata before, there still was a buzz of excitement when a colorful, decorated stuffed animal came into the room tied to a string. As one of the party entertainers hung up the piñata, the other showed the kids a long stick and a blindfold and began explaining what they were to do. (There is nothing safer then spinning a toddler around and around, handing him a stick and telling him to start smashing while all his toddler friends scream and yell around him.) Naturally, the kids were excited.
The birthday girl went first. My son ran over to make sure I understood what a fun game this was going to be. He watched another girl take a couple of swings. “Who’s next,” the Keeper of the Stick asked. The little crowd chanted, “me! me!” Another girl took a turn. After a few more girls went, my son was right at the foot of the Keeper, jumping up and down. He had been eagerly and patiently waiting his turn. “I want to go,” he said. “Sorry, you need to wait until all the girls go first,” the Keeper replied. As only one of three boys there, he waited some more.
My son accepted this explanation without question, but it stuck with me.
I mentioned it to my husband who suggested that maybe they didn’t want the boys to break the piñata before the girls had a chance. But they are three. The physical differences between body mass and strength of boys and girls are nonexistent. I’m sure the comment barely registered with my son, if at all. But over the course of his lifetime, there will be millions of these subtle instances of gender and cultural norms that will continue to shape his views about what boys should do and what girls should do.
This week social media was flooded with inspirational, funny, poignant message about women. March 8th is International Women’s Day. There are several hashtags trending right now related to IWD and most posts seem to be trying to raise awareness about violence towards women, equal pay and many, many sound bites generally promoting “gender equality.” As a woman, I support all of this. I see the importance of ensuring all women/girls feel safe, valued and empowered. Women deserve equal pay for equal work. Women deserve equal access to education and health care. But as a white, middle-class, American woman, I can’t say I’ve had much first hand experience with gender inequality. (Maybe if I had, I’d feel a little differently.)
I recognize my luck. I am grateful for being born where and when I was born. I am aware that many, many women are not so lucky. So I think that a day to raise awareness for women is worthwhile. I am in no way saying that there are not significant inequalities women still have to overcome. I get that we’re #notthereyet. The big issues I get. But the more subtle issues that would truly create gender equality, I’m less clear.
We talk a lot about raising strong girls, about challenging them to break stereotypes, about pushing them to do anything boys can do. But what about our boys? They are not encouraged to cross gender boundaries with the same enthusiasm. They are not encouraged to wear pink dresses and try out for the cheerleading team. A man’s sexuality or gender identification is immediately called into question if he, even for a momentary passing little boy phase, asks for Barbie dolls for his birthday. Boys are not encouraged to do things #likeagirl. Myself included. Truth be told, I’m not sure what I would say if my son came to me and said he wanted a princess backpack. I’d like to think I’d say “great” and head to the checkout line the same way I would if my daughter wanted a Spiderman backpack. But I’m guessing I’d hesitate and ask him if he was sure, really sure, he wanted the princess one (subtlety sending the message this isn’t gender typical.) My view of gender equality has been vertical – about women catching up – but now as the mother of two boys, I see this view is too narrow. Like Emma Watson famously proclaimed, we can’t have a shift in gender norms and expectations without including men in the shift. In our modern, first-world lives, we do a great job of helping our girls. We are starting to put programs in place to encourage them to study math and science. We are starting to see more and more women take high powered, executive roles at large corporations. We are helping our girls believe that can be and do anything they want. I just worry that the boys, my boys, also need to hear the same and will not.
I don’t know what gender equality really looks like but I know it’s not just about women. My hope is that as we continue to fight for the basic human rights of women all over the world, we remember the boys too. Instead of hearing that they need to let the girls go first, I hope my boys learn that we let our friends go first. I hope they open doors for anyone who happens to be behind them because it’s the kind and polite thing to do. I hope that they don’t grow up as “gentlemen” but as kind, courteous, polite humans. I hope they don’t see undue violence aimed at women or men. I hope they get paid and promoted fairly. I hope they, and everyone they love, feel safe, value and empowered.
I hope our kids learn that gender is not a card to be played, a label to abuse or a definition with limits.