Sunday, March 4, 2012

Parenting Girls in a Sexist Society


My little girl just turned 8 years old!  I can hardly believe it.  The other night my wife, Ms. Skeptical, did something which I can only assume was meant to kill me.  Out of the clear blue she turned to me and said, "You know, we should really think about when and how we're going to talk to her about puberty.  I was talking to some people at work today about how it happens earlier now than it used to - probably related to better nutrition."

My first reaction after the initial horror and shock was that, although an intimidating prospect to consider, the task itself should be relatively straightforward.  It should just be a matter of honesty, clarity, and a basic level of anatomy and physiology, right?  Hell, Ms. Skeptical is both a female and a doctor, so she ought to be well qualified to explain how it all works.

And then I remembered the day's news.  The Catholic bishops and a large contingent of other social conservatives were up in arms over the requirement that health insurance providers offer coverage for birth control.  The rhetoric around this issue quickly shifted from political "dog whistle" sexist to overt sexist.  A few days ago Rush Limbaugh made the news for calling a student who testified on behalf of the importance of birth control to women a slut and a prostitute whose parents should be ashamed that she had so much sex that she wanted to create a new welfare program just to pay for it all.  Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick.  This is the shit our daughter - and everyone's daughters - are going to have to deal with.  More to the point: this is the shit Ms. Skeptical and I have to prepare her for.  Anatomy and physiology 101 won't cut it.

A couple more quick examples:

When Ms. Skeptical was in medical school a professor went on a little bit of a tirade about med students who complain about the hard work of their education.  He said med school was a lot like rape in that it is really just a matter of perspective.  He suggested that, like rape, if they just lay back and enjoy it rather than complaining then there's really nothing to worry about.

When our daughter was born I was the "stay-at-home-dad".  We planned for Ms. Skeptical to pump at work, but we quickly learned that the support for this was more theoretical than actual.  We had to switch completely over to formula after only a few months.

The point here is that I often forget just how much inequality there is for women.  I bet this forgetfulness affects fathers more often than mothers, but I imagine that many mothers experience it from time to time as well.  In school, we read about crusading heros like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Jeannette Rankin and, in celebrating the magnitude of their accomplishments, it's easy to imagine that the necessary changes have been made.  The danger is that we might not raise our children, particularly our daughters, to remain vigilant against the dangers of a sexist, unjust society.

The conversation we'll be having with our newly minted 8 year old will be the first in a long line of conversations about what it means to be a woman in this particular time and place.  Sometimes the challenge of parenting isn't knowing which choice to make - often the right choice if obvious, but the challenge is remembering to see that a choice needs to be made.  Time marches inexorably forward and every day our daughters and sons will continue to soak in messages about things like gender roles and equality regardless of whether we've taken the time to remember to reinforce or counteract those messages.  Once I'm prompted to consider these things, it becomes immediately clear that when raising a daughter I have to prepare her with a couple of skills.

She'll need a fighting spirit.  This means that through my parenting I need to teach her that "fighting" will right wrongs.  So, she needs to feel comfortable telling authority when she feels something is unjust and she needs to feel that if she makes a good enough case then those wrongs will be righted.

She'll also need a prepared awareness of the bigotry she's almost surely going to face due to her gender.  One big injustice often starts with a thousand small ones.  The Catholic bishops that started this whole birth control firestorm didn't just up and call women sluts.  Instead, they talked about their religious rights.  The student who testified before Congress didn't get to testify before the formal committee because they didn't invite any women to participate.  These less blatant injustices were just as damaging, or even more damaging, than the more obviously offensive name calling on talk radio.  I want my daughter to be prepared to notice prejudice long before it loses all the trappings of civility.  It's that civil, "respectable" oppression that creates an unjust society.

So wish us luck as we proceed!  And, removing the trappings of civility for a moment: fuck Rush Limbaugh.  Seriously.  Fuck that guy.

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