July 13, 2016

I was recently at an appointment in a medical office with my preschool son, Bobby. As he is sometimes want to do, Bobby was wearing a dress. The dress was flowered, with a wide skirt that swirls out when he twirls. He usually wears pants or shorts, but he loves dress-up and has a small collection of dresses of his own, and I figure, if girls can wear pants as well as skirts, why shouldn’t boys be allowed to wear skirts if they so desire? It wasn’t his appointment and we hadn’t been there before, so the woman at the desk naturally assumed Bobby was a girl. I didn’t bother to correct her because it wasn’t a big deal and I saw no reason to embarrass her.

Watching what happened next, though, was fascinating.

Bobby asked for some paper to color. The receptionist rifled through a stack of loose coloring pages, flipping through dozens of Spiderman coloring sheets clearly looking for something, presumably, less masculine. She soon realized that they only had Spiderman sheets left, and paused, looking unsure of what to do. “Spiderman is fine,” I assured her. She pulled a sheet out but still looked concerned.

Then there was the sticker, for of course, every child must have a sticker, and the office had quite a collection—half a dozen rolls of stickers with various themes. The woman zeroed in on the princess roll and reached for it. “Minions,” I interrupted, for I know my son. “Minions.” And so the woman turned to that roll, looking through the different Minion stickers options until she came to the only feminine one—Agnes Gru hugging her pink unicorn. I was playing it cool, but this was a bit much even for me. I lifted my son and let him choose. As I had expected, he wanted a minion, thank you very much, not Agnes Gru. The woman looked surprised, but complied.

Sometimes raising children who don’t always conform to expected gender norms in appearance feels like a sociological experiment—it’s not my kids who are the subject of this experiment, mind you, it’s the adults they encounter. Adults treat children differently based on their perceived gender. Constantly. Anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration should take a small child in public for a while, and then gender swap their clothing and try again. The difference is fascinating.

The day after the above incident we were at another clinic for another appointment. This time I had both of my children with me. They were each wearing boys’ shorts and one of the matching orange shirts they got from school last year. (My older child, Sally, discovered the boys’ section the last time we went clothes shopping and declared the shorts she found there vastly superior to those found in the girls’ section.) Sally’s hair is short—she prefers it that way—and she is often mistaken for a boy when not wearing dresses. She corrects people when is aware of it happening, and tells them there’s “no such thing” as girls’ clothes and boys’ clothes, just clothes.

In any case, when the receptionist at the clinic brought my children each two stickers—to reward them for waiting so patiently while I filled out paperwork—I was not at all surprised to see that all four were superhero stickers. Each sticker featured a collection of male heroes arrayed in bold colors. It seems the receptionist had quite naturally assumed, based on their appearance, that both of my children were boys—and boys get superhero stickers, you see.

The first night, I told my husband the story about Bobby and the receptionist and the coloring pages and stickers. He laughed. We live in a strange, strange world, a world that pretends we’ve somehow achieved equality while continuing to socialize and treat boys and girls very differently. The afternoon of the second day’s appointment, I texted my husband a picture of what the children were wearing and asked him what stickers he thought the receptionist gave them. It wasn’t a hard question for him to answer—boy-appearing children are given boy-coded stickers.

I hear people say girls naturally gravitate toward princess and boys toward superheroes. It’s in their genes, I’m told. What I hear people note less frequently is that we live in a world where girls are given stickers of laughing girls hugging pink stuffed animals and boys are given stickers covered in armored, boldly colored, muscled male warriors in full costume (aka Iron Man, etc.). And it’s not just stickers. It’s everything—from birth. Just as children tend to prefer the diet they’re most familiar with, it makes sense that many children would gravitate toward what they’ve been constantly handed and encouraged to play with, over and over and over again from before they can first remember. (And yes, I’ve seen children actively discouraged from playing with toys associated with the opposite gender.)

On a related note, I recently listened to a TED Radio Hour segment in which Reshma Saujani explained that boys are socialized to take risks while girls are socialized to play it safe. Here is an excerpt from a transcript of the show:

So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers in professions that they know they’re going to be great in, that they know they’re going to be perfect in. And it’s no wonder why. Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s.

Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. And by the time they’re adults – and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it. It’s often said, in Silicon Valley, no one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed startups. In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect. And we’re raising our boys to be brave. Some people worry about our federal deficit. But I worry about our bravery deficit. Our economy, our society – we’re just losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave.

I see this in how people respond to my children. People treat Bobby differently when they think he’s a girl than they do when they think he’s a boy. They’re more careful, more worried, more gentle. When he dresses in boy-coded clothing, in contrast, he’s encouraged to be rough and tumble, and receives praise for jumping from somewhere high (relatively speaking) or getting up quickly after a fall on his kick scooter. (When Bobby wears a dress and gets up quickly after a fall, people’s first reaction is surprise, not praise.) I see it in how adults interact with Sally, too. The messages my children receive from the adults around them vary depending on the clothes they are wearing on a given day.

How my children act, their interests and passions? Those things don’t change. Those things remain the same whether they’re wearing frilly dresses or board shorts. And yet, the perceived gender of their clothing affects how the adults around them treat them in significant ways nonetheless.

August 20, 2015

As a parent, I am very passionate about breaking down the gendered rules society expects my children to play by. I decided early on that I would not push my children into gendered play, and indeed, that I would try not to gender play to begin with. In fact, I push the boundaries even in areas like clothing. When my son Bobby was born, I put his older sister’s perfectly good outgrown pink baby clothes on him (I would have bought gender neutral baby clothes to start with, but we were given a mountain of used girl baby clothes and we were poor college students so I wasn’t going to turn them down). Even today, three-year-old Bobby enjoys wearing his older sister’s outgrown dresses. And six-year-old Sally? I let her pick her own clothes, and have since she was old enough to start indicating a preference for this outfit or that. She has recently started shopping in the boy section, because Star Wars shirts are apparently way cooler than pink sparkle hearts shirts.

Both of my children display some level of what might be seen as gender nonconformity, though I don’t think they experience it that way, because I’ve never taught Bobby that dolls are for girls or Sally that computers are for boys. For them, there are simply things they’re interested in and things they aren’t. Bobby plays with his kitchen set and his trains, and Sally plays with her barbies and her CSI kit. It isn’t weird to them that Bobby loves watching Tinkerbell movies on Netflix while Sally prefers science documentaries.

I recently read an anti-trans article arguing that parents who transition their children do so because they can’t put up with the social pressure of having gender nonconforming children. In a response to this article, a trans author wrote that when parents first start wondering whether their children are trans, trans advocates tell the parents that there is a difference between “gender nonconformity” and “gender dysphoria.” In other words, this author argued that the author of the anti-trans piece was full of shit because trans advocates know very well that there is a difference between nonconformity and dysphoria. (I wish I could find these articles and link them here, but I seem to have lost them!)

I have learned recently that being a girl is very important to Sally. She gets upset if someone reads her gender presentation as male (as people not infrequently do), and she adjusts her presentation (clothing, hair, accessories) in order to be read the way she wants. I don’t know why being a girl is so important to her, but it is. I read somewhere that gender becomes important to children in their preschool and early elementary years as part of their efforts to figure out the world around them. Perhaps that’s part of what is going on here—perhaps Sally simply wants to know (and assert) where she fits in this complicated world we live in. Or perhaps it’s more than that, I don’t know.

At first Sally’s strong identification as a girl bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, I identify as a woman myself. But gender is a social construct, right, and aren’t we, as feminists, supposed to be breaking it down? What does being a girl even mean? Why does Sally care so much? Except for the physical realities of things like sexual reproduction, there is little in our biology to mark us “male” or “female.” Why can’t we all just be people and leave gender behind entirely, I wondered? Was it because I had accidentally let patriarchal gender norms influence her? I asked Sally why being a girl is so important to her, but she couldn’t tell me. She is a girl, and that matters to her, and she can’t articulate why. She just is.

And you know what? While this initially bothered me, I’m okay with it now.

There has been an increasing amount of press given to parents with young trans kids, and with some have responded to that press with concern. Why not just let kids be kids, they ask? Why not just let kids play with the toys they want, and leave it at that? Does transition reinforce the gender binary by telling girls that if they like male-coded toys and play they must be really boys, and vice versa? It may seem odd, but being the parent of two apparenlty cis kids has made me feel an incredible amount of support for parents of trans kids.

Gender performance and gender identity may be related, but they’re not identical. My children’s gender performance is all over the map, but they both identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Bobby doesn’t see anything wrong with wearing a dress and saying “my a big boy.” Sally hangs with the boys and talks Star Wars and computer games, but will adamantly correct anyone who uses male pronouns for her. A child who is trans is not one who plays with the “wrong” toys for their gender, but rather one who identifies as a gender other than that assigned at birth. Sally hanging with the boys is very different from Sally insisting that she is a boy, just as Bobby wearing a dress is different from Bobby stating that he is a girl.

Yes, gender is a social construct. But we can widen accepted gender performance without getting rid of gender identity. I can accept Sally’s identity as a girl while encouraging her to perform that gender in whatever way suits her. In other words, being a girl does not have to mean wearing dresses, becoming a nurse or a teacher, and being a homemaker (though it can mean that, of course). Being a girl can also mean wearing overalls, becoming a mechanic, and bringing home the bacon. When we talk about gender as a social construct, it’s not gender identity that’s the problem, it’s artificially imposed limits on gender performance.

Last year I read the Divergent trilogy, which focused on a society where children were born into one of five factions, each with its own social rules and values. When they came of age, children were allowed to choose whether to remain in the faction they were born in or whether to switch to another faction. When someone failed a faction’s initiation, they were thrown out, and became factionless and despised. Over the course of the trilogy, rebel leaders among the factionless overthrow the prevailing order. They set up a new regime, and banned factions entirely. Even wearing your faction’s traditional clothing was against the law. The trilogy’s heroine, Tris, initially supported this idea, but ultimately came to believe that banning factions was just as harmful as mandating them.

I couldn’t help but see some parallels between the world portrayed in Divergent and the world we live in. An increasing number of people identify as nonbinary—neither male nor female—as well as genderqueer and other variations, not unlike the factionless. One of the big problems the trilogy turns on is the mistreatment of the factionless. One can imagine a world, in the years after the trilogy ends, where the factionless are treated as equals even as others continue to identify with a faction, albeit with more freedom and a wider range of possibilities open to them.

Or maybe this whole Divergent tangent only makes sense in my head.

Anyway, as a child I was taught that being female meant fitting in a specific box, a box I have since broken out of. I didn’t know I had any choice about my gender identity until I was an adult, though being a woman has never felt wrong to me. I want Sally and Bobby to have more freedom in both performance and identity than I had growing up. I’ve told Sally about transgender and nonbinary identities, both so that she knows for herself and so that she can support any trans or nonbinary classmates she may have in the future, and I’ll tell Bobby as he grows. I want my children to make their own decisions and form their own identities within an atmosphere of information and acceptance.

But my takeaway here—the main thing I’ve realized—is that gender identity and gender performance really are two different things. When we say that “gender is a social construct” we are primarily talking about gender performance. But gender identity? Is that a social construct too? I’m not sure. But let me ask the question a different way—Does gender identity cause harm? Should I be telling Sally that she is wrong to identify as a girl? Clearly not. Trans and nonbinary identities are breaking down some of the traditional rigidity of gender identity, and increasing acceptance of more varied gender performances is removing some of the traditional constraints of gender identity.

Perhaps the real problem is neither gender identity nor gender performance but rather the policing of each.

February 24, 2014

Bobby’s face was pressed against the glass surrounding the electric train set. The trains were running, whistling, and crossing each other’s paths. It was his favorite part of the children’s museum. Even at only one year of age, children have interests and show preferences, and one of Bobby’s definite interests is trains.

Just then, my husband Sean’s Uncle Dale walked over and smiled at Bobby. “Look at him!” he said. “He’s obsessed with that train. He’s such a boy!” I frowned. I hate it when this happens. I took a deep breath.

“Actually,” I said, “When Sally was Bobby’s age, she was completely obsessed with large construction vehicles.”

Uncle Dale laughed. “How odd,” he said. His voice was dismissive.

“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” I replied. “I find that if you let kids just be kids rather than pushing them into gendered boxes their interests are generally eclectic.”

I didn’t mention Bobby’s high heels. Perhaps I should have. As I’ve written before, Bobby absolutely adores the pair of white heels I bought him at the consignment shop a few months ago. He loves running around clacking his heels. He wears other pairs of girls’ shoes too (passed down by Sally), as well as boys’ shoes and grown up shoes. Shoes, shoes, shoes—the kid is obsessed. I also didn’t mention Bobby’s favorite iPad app, Candy Girl Resort. He loves giving the characters in the app facials and dressing them up, choosing each article of clothing. He plays lots of other apps too, but he always seems to come back to that one.

Sally’s interests are similarly diverse. There was her construction vehicle obsession, and today she’s just as into superheroes as she is into princesses. And what’s really interesting is that even as she loves fancy princess dresses, she has never played with baby dolls. Yes, really. And it’s not that she doesn’t have any—some relatives passed us some practically new Bitty Baby dolls, along with numerous sets of clothing. She has just never been a baby doll kind of girl. Princesses, yes. Baby dolls, no. Plus superheroes. And did I notice there is nothing that grosses her out? When I’m grossed out she’s simply fascinated.

Neither Sally nor Bobby fit in conventional gender boxes, but someone who spotted Sally playing at princesses might very well respond with “She’s such a girl!” in the same way that Uncle Dale noticed Bobby fascinated by trains and responded with “He’s such a boy.”

What’s going on here exactly? Confirmation bias.

From Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

When Uncle Dale saw Bobby fascinated with trains, that confirmed his belief that trains are a boy thing. If he’d seen Sally similarly fascinated with the same electric train set, he probably wouldn’t have latched onto it. He similarly wouldn’t notice Sally not playing with dolls. He was fitting what he saw into his preconceived gender ideologies and ignoring things that didn’t fit. When I told him about Sally’s construction vehicle obsession his response was not “huh, maybe I should rethink my assumptions about gender” but rather a dismissive “how odd.”

Confirmation bias is one way people can continue to hold more rigid gender ideologies in a more fluid world—they latch onto information that confirms their biases and rejecting information that contradicts them. Of course, anyone can suffer from confirmation bias, and we all do at some point or another. But as a parent raising a child of each gender in today’s world, I see firsthand the way confirmation bias can reinforce traditional ideas about gender and affect our lives—and our children’s lives. Why can’t we just let children be children, and recognize that each child will have a variety of interests that may not fit into any preconceived gender box?

Yes, Bobby loves his trains, but he’s also not about to give up Candy Girl Resort.

November 28, 2013

I was getting ready to check out at the second-hand children’s clothing shop when I realized I had a problem. When we had first arrived at the store Bobby had brought me a pair of white heeled girls’ dress shoes just his size and had asked me to put them on him (he doesn’t really have words yet, but that doesn’t mean he can’t communicate!). So I had, and he’d been running around in them with smiling from ear to ear ever since. And now that it was time to go, well, now he wouldn’t let me take those white heeled dress shoes off of him. Oh, there were tears and there was hysteria! Bobby wanted those white heels, and he was letting me know the only way he knew how. And as it so happens, he is really very good at communicating.

So I bought Bobby those white heels.

Bobby’s older sister Sally loves dancing. Sometimes we turn on music videos and let her have at it, throwing herself into the music. Sometimes she dances on hard wood floor, clicking and clacking in her heeled dress shoes. Not surprisingly, Bobby is usually jamming right alongside her. Bobby loves music just as much as Sally, and he dances right alongside her, creating his own little innovative dances. I think Bobby was probably remembering how Sally danced in her heels, clicking and clacking, and so clinging to the heels his own size that he had found all the tighter.

Bobby also just loves shoes in general. My shoes, Sean’s shoes, Sally’s shoes, and every pair of shoes his own size he can find—he loves shoes. Sometimes he brings me his shoes and asks me to put them on him, and then brings me another pair of his shoes and asks me to switch them, and so on over and over again until I want to throw up my hands. But I had never seen Bobby quite as entranced with any pair of shoes as he was with that pair of white heeled dress shoes.

Bobby adores those white dress shoes.

It’s weird, this thing we do to children. We gender them so quickly today. Why is a little girl expected to wear white heeled dress shoes while a little boy her same age wearing the same shoes is looked at as odd or out of place? Take a look around the baby and toddler clothing at any major store and you’ll find that almost nothing crosses over between the two genders. It’s so extreme it’s almost surreal. And of course, it didn’t used to be this way. No, this is relatively new.

Sometimes I think I know why we do this, why we so quickly gender children’s clothing, and it’s at those moments that I am profoundly saddened. Because I know what happens when I take Sally out in her blue jeans and a dark-colored T-shirt, and I know what happens when I take Bobby out in Sally’s old pink jammies. People treat them differently. I’ve had people assume that Sally is a boy before, and do you know what they do? They call her “buddy” and bring her a batman coloring book instead of a princess one. Sometimes I wonder whether we gender children’s clothing as quickly as we do so that we can properly gender how we as a society treat those children. And then we say it’s natural.

I’m not embarking on some sort of plan to subvert the gendering of children’s clothing as a whole. Sometimes I think I should. Sometimes I contemplate gender swapping their clothing entirely. There are several things that stop me, though. For one thing, my children do not exist for me to use their lives to make some sort of point. For another thing, Sally is already making her own clothing choices, some of them quite feminine, and I wouldn’t constrain that freedom. And then, of course, is the fact that my children will have to navigate the world that exists, not the one I might wish exists, and that means they must learn to navigate the gendered roles imputed upon them even in the here and now.

But I’m also not making an effort to force my children into gendered clothing choices. I’m not going to tell them that these clothes are boy clothes and those clothes are girls clothes and that they have to stick with the clothes that correspond with the gender assigned them at birth. And I’m certainly not going to constrain their choices—society will do more than enough of that on it’s own. And, well, that means that if Bobby wants to wear white heeled dress shoes—if those are what makes his day—I’m letting him. Period.

And you know what? Bobby rocks his heels.

March 24, 2013

I just came upon this sentence in a comment on a blog post on some other blog out in the blogosphere:

Boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies.

Here’s the thing: Sally is wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and loves her mama and wants to be like her daddy.

A couple months ago I was at a wedding, and an older woman stopped by me to admire my small son Bobby, who had just started furniture creeping. He had a bruise on his forehead, and when she asked about it I told her about how he’d gotten it in an attempt to move from the living room chair to the coffee table. Her response?

“Yes, that’s how boys are—rough and tumble! I remember well.”

Well you know what I remember? I remember Sally doing the exact same things when she was a baby. The same daring attempts, the same bruises, the same scrapes. Sally has always been a very rough and tumble sort of child. And guess what? She’s a girl.

And you know what else? Bobby is actually more cautious and less daring that Sally was. Things Sally would have attempted, Bobby sits back and thinks “Hmm, should I? Maybe not, I might get hurt. I better do what I already know I can do.” Isn’t it “supposed to be” the other way around?

As of right now, I actually see no gender differences whatsoever between my children. I’m firmly convinced that babies don’t have gender, just personalities, and even as Sally, now in preschool, plays princesses and tea parties, she doesn’t do those things in a gendered way. I mean, half the time she plays the prince, which just means that she wears a cape instead of a fancy dress. And the whole point of playing princesses is going on adventures, not doing needlepoint or something. And when she plays Doctor Who, she’s the Doctor and Bobby is Amy. And besides, Sally spends just as much time poring over human anatomy books as she does her princess stories—more, actually. Oh, and dinosaurs. Sally is a huge dinosaur fan. She’s even thinking of being an archaeologist because she wants to dig up dinosaurs.

So when I read a comment like “boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies,” I have to shake my head. I know my oldest is only in preschool, but Sally and Bobby have so far only cemented my conviction that gender is entirely socially constructed*. Yes, there are biological differences, but gender is not sex. Anyway, you know how little boys are supposed to be made up of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” while girls are supposed to be made up of “sugar and spice and everything nice”? Well the thing is, boys aren’t born boys—we make them boys. And the same is true with girls.

Now, I know this won’t last forever. My kids aren’t growing up in a bubble, and they will be socialized at least in part into our society’s prescribed gender roles, whether I like it or not. And even if they resist being nailed down, they will have to navigate in a world where people make huge gendered assumptions whether people fit those assumptions or not. But for the moment, I’m just going to enjoy the present, and focus on raising two little individuals, not a girl and a boy.

So how about you? What are your thoughts and observations on children and gender?


* Several of the commenters had an interesting exchange about the difference between “gender identity” and “gender-coded behavior.” I want to reproduce it here, because I found it both very interesting and extremely helpful.


There is evidence to suggest that gender identity at least is not entirely culturally constructed. For one, there is the experience of trans kids who are enculturated as one gender but still feel like the other. And then there is the very sad case of David Reimer, a boy who had a botched circumcision so they decided to give him sex reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. The result was not successful, as one would expect it to be if gender were entirely socially constructed.


Or, you could argue that we are all individuals and that we shouldn’t be forced (via media, parents, society) to act like an artificial construct (gender) in the first place.


Yeah, I got the impression Libby was conflating gender identity with gender roles. Kids are certainly treated differently based on their sex, but a boy who is treated like a girl doesn’t become a girl.


I think there are far less gender differences than society tends to believe–but at the same time, saying that it’s completely a social construct seems…I don’t know…un-affirming, I suppose, to the people who claim to have felt like the “other” gender since they were toddlers (and these aren’t people who just wished they could act out the roles of the other gender…they actually felt that they WERE the other gender in essence.). I don’t know how to define gender as a social construct without somehow de-legitimizing these people’s stories. (Is de-legitimizing a word???)


There’s a big difference between gender identity and gender-coded behavior. Gender identity is what do I feel like- do I feel like a girl or like a boy? Gender-coded behavior is what the post is about, though. Things like persistence, rough-and-tumble play, fearlessness, caution, playing with dolls, climbing trees, displaying emotions (especially crying), etc. None of those behaviors/attitudes have anything to do with how one feels on the inside as one’s gender.


what M said, basically. A person who feels that they are a girl is going to express that in whatever way their culture says girls are – American culture today says girls talk a lot, in the 18th and early 19th century it said girls were more reserved and less articulate.

It’s easy to express it the opposite way (“I knew I was a girl because I liked Barbie and not GI Joe”) because we are so steeped in the gender assumptions they’re invisible. But in a culture with different gendered toys, the expression would be different.

January 31, 2013

In the wake of the decision to allow women to serve in combat positions, let’s take a look at popular evangelical leader John Piper article on the subject, “Co-Ed Combat and Cultural Cowardice.”

If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea. Part of the meaning of manhood as God created us is the sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of our women.

Back in the seventies, when I taught in college, feminism was new and cool. So my ideas on manhood were viewed as the social construct of a dying chauvinistic era. I had not yet been enlightened that competencies, not divine wiring, governed the roles we assume. Unfazed, I said no.

Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.

I’m sorry, what? No. Just, no.

First of all, if I had a black belt in karate and knew I could take a bad guy down, and some other guy who didn’t have half the skill or ability in fighting that I had kept getting in my way, I would be pretty upset. What’s Sarah supposed to do in Piper’s scenario, wait around until the bad guy knifes and incapacitates Jason, and then take him down? That’s just absurd. I mean seriously, think of Zoe and Wash from the TV series Firefly. Does anyone really think Zoe should step back and let the bad guys take Wash out when she could just take them out herself? (Also, Zoe and Wash are my favorite.) Why can’t we view people in terms of their abilities instead of having to see everything through a gender dichotomy?

Furthermore, Piper’s suggestion that being willing to lay down your life to protect those around you is a man thing dishonors the memory of all of the women throughout history who have laid down their lives protecting others. That desire to protect others, especially those weaker than oneself, isn’t a man thing. It’s a human thing. Think about those brave teachers who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, for example.

When God is not in the picture, the truth crops up in strange forms. For example, Kingsley Browne, law professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, has written a new book called Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars. In an interview with Newsweek, he said, “The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology. . . . Men don’t say, ‘This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.’ Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.”

If you leave God out, the perceived “hard-wiring” appears to be “evolutionary psychology.” If God is in the picture, it has other names. We call it “the work of the law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). We call it true manhood as God meant it to be.

As usual, the truth that comes in the alien form of “evolutionary psychology” gets distorted. It is true that “men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.” But that’s misleading. The issue is not that women are leading men into danger. The issue is that they are leading men. Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women, period. They are hard-wired to get in front of their women—between them and the bullets. They are hard-wired to lead their women out of danger and into safety. And women, at their deepest and most honest selves, give profound assent to this noble impulse in good men. That is why co-ed combat situations compromise men and women at their core and corrupt even further the foolhardy culture that put them there.

Two things here. First, these men have clearly not heard of Joan of Arc. The idea that men are somehow incapable of following a woman into combat is simply historically untrue. And second, these men don’t appear to be aware of the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” I’ve written about this before. If you tell men that they are simply not wired to take orders from a woman, do you seriously think that that won’t affect how they react when they have a female boss? And beyond all that, I find the idea that we can’t get beyond gender and see each other as individuals of equal value both insulting and a sign of immaturity.

As for the idea that men can’t help but jump in and try to protect women, and that women profoundly respect this impulse in men, I once again have to ask why this has to be gendered. Those teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary jumped in to protect those around them, and as a result the entire nation recognized them as heroes. Why can’t we just value the actions of anyone who steps in to help those who need help, and encourage people of both genders to see helping others as a virtue? But no, Piper can’t do that, because to Piper a person’s gender is the most important thing about them, and to Piper a person’s gender determines how they will and should behave in any given situation.

Curious, I looked up just what it is that Piper redacts in his quotation from Kingsley Browne (who is a law professor by the way), and here’s the whole clip:

The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology, which recognizes that the human mind is a product of our evolutionary history. The reason men don’t like women comrades in dangerous situations is they don’t trust them when the shooting starts, and that is probably because women don’t possess whatever cues evoke trust in men. And trust is central to combat cohesion. Men don’t say, “This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.” Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger. It is largely an emotional reaction.

Really? Really? Because to me that just sounds terribly, terribly immature. And in fact, it strikes me that patriarchal assumptions like these do a lot to support this sort of immaturity by telling men that they don’t have to and aren’t supposed to trust women, or follow women, or work side by side women as equals. Can we all just grow up and start viewing each other as fellow humans already? Can we just be professional? Is that really so much to ask?

And also? These arguments sound very much like the arguments against allowing black people to serve in the military, and, more recently, the arguments against allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. And guess what? The sky didn’t fall when black people started serving in the military, and it’s been a year since gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals were allowed to serve openly as well and I have yet to see any sky bits falling past my window. And you know what else? New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland all already allow women to serve in combat positions. And you know what? The sky has not fallen. So stop yelling about how equality is going to make the sky fall and I might start listening to you.

(For more on Browne, see this past Monday’s Daily Show episode.)

Having explained that men should be the ones protecting women even in situations where the woman may be the stronger or more able of the two, and that men are not wired to ever follow women, here is how Piper finishes:

Consider where we have come. One promotion for Browne’s book states, “More than 155,000 female troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. And more than seventy of those women have died. . . . Those deaths exceed the number of military women who died in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War combined.”

And the total number of men who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan? Oh right, that number would be in the thousands. But apparently Piper isn’t so bothered by those deaths. Which is odd, considering that I would be just as bothered by Bobby dying in combat as I would by Sally dying in combat. Actually, “bothered” probably isn’t the best word to use there. Talk about understatement! But you get the idea! Losing Bobby wouldn’t hurt any less than would losing Sally.

So, in conclusion: First, Piper thinks that when people find themselves in dangerous situations, they should assign tasks based on gender roles rather than skills and abilities; Second, Piper believes that men are incapable of treating women as equals and working together with them to accomplish a given objective in a combat situations; and third, Piper isn’t bothered by men’s deaths in combat but is very very bothered by the idea that women might die in combat.

January 2, 2013

I’ve noticed something as the mother of two children, one daughter and one son. I can dress my preschool daughter in girls’ clothes or in boys’ clothes, but if I dressed my baby in purple or put him in a dress, well, I’d get some serious stares.

We often say that “patriarchy hurts men too.” It’s true. For example, I grew up in a community where boys were expected to grow up to be providers and girls were expected to grow up to be homemakers. Girls didn’t have any options, but boys’ options were curtailed too – they were pushed toward careers that would make enough money to support a wife and multiple children, and away from careers in the arts that were seen as less financially sure. Patriarchy makes women’s only option homemaking while allowing men to choose from a variety of career paths, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also limit men’s options.

And patriarchy limits other things too. If I took time off of my career to focus on my children, that wouldn’t be seen as odd. If my husband did the same, he would face questions. Women are encouraged to express their emotions, but men are expected to be strong. It is seen as natural for a woman to cry in a stressful situation, but men who cry are seen as weak. Of course, there is the flip side of each of these: men benefit from being seen as strong, and while a woman taking time off from her career is more accepted the result on a wider scale is that the “mommy track” contributes to the pay gap between men and women.

Men are expected to follow the one option that is generally valued most highly in our society – to have a full time career, to keep their family name, to be tough and strong. But that doesn’t change the fact that if they choose other, less valued options – staying home with their children, changing their name upon marriage, or being sensitive and emotive – they face questions and possible ridicule. Sally is allowed to do girl things or boy things, but Bobby is expected to just do boy things. Sally is allowed to be either sensitive or tough, or even both at once, but Bobby is expected to simply be tough.

While we still have conversations about how hard it is for women to “do it all,” I don’t think we can achieve true equality unless we expect men to “do it all” too. In other words, reaching equality means more than just girls adding trucks to their repertoire of toys. It also means boys adding dolls to their repertoire as well. Reaching equality doesn’t just mean finding ways for women to both parent and have careers but also asking men to both have careers and parent as well. Reaching equality doesn’t simply mean giving women the option to work rather than stay home with their children but rather offering men the same option as well, and with the same expectations and acceptance.

We talk a lot about the pay gap. Well, it strikes me that if a manager has the choice between promoting a man or a woman, and he knows that there is a decent chance that sometime in the next few years the woman may have children and at the very least have to take maternity leave, but that the man’s performance and presence will not be affected if he has children, then the rational choice is for him to promote the man. Because of this, I don’t think we can get rid of the pay gap until we expect fathers to invest the same amount of time and energy into parenting that we expect mothers to invest in parenting. If that same manager looks at the man and the woman knowing that if either has a child their performance and presence will be impacted the same way – parental leave after the birth, and perhaps a need for more flexible hours afterwards – he will no longer have any reason to prefer the man to the woman when it comes to a promotion.

I am not trying to minimize the negative impact patriarchy has had on women. In the past, women have ceased to exist legally at marriage, and in many societies children have functioned as their father’s property. Patriarchy has always meant that women have had less power and men have had more, but patriarchy has also always been about roles. Women have specific roles and men have specific roles. We’ve made good progress breaking down women’s role and giving women a greater array of choices, but the truth is that we also need to break down men’s role.

Fortunately, we are already seeing progress on this front. The number of stay at home dads is growing, and fathers are increasingly expected to be just as involved in parenting as mothers are, or at the very least, more involved than in the past. There is more acceptance for boys breaking through gender norms by wearing female clothing or playing with female toys. But we still have a long, long way to go.

In discussing both feminism and the reaction against feminism, Melissa of Permission to Live wrote the following:

Somehow society has become convinced that there is a right way and a wrong way to be the sex you are. Boys are told to toughen up and quit crying, girls are showered with messages about how their value is tied to their beauty (as defined by the surrounding culture). These are just a few examples of the stereotypes that have been around for some time in the western world. While men are still largely stuck in the role created for them, recently there has been some effort to fight back on behalf of women. But instead of seeing this as a good thing, and doing the rest of the work to debunk these stereotypes, many people see this as a major step back.

As Melissa says, we need to go the rest of the way and debunk all of the stereotypes. Girls need to be encouraged to be tough as well as sensitive, yes, but boys also need to be encouraged to be sensitive as well as tough. We’ve taught girls that it’s okay to be like boys. Now we need to teach boys that it’s okay to be like girls. Liberating women from the restriction of female gender roles without liberating men from the restriction of male gender roles is a one-sided revolution that can never be completed.

As I see it, feminism is about breaking down patriarchy, and that means smashing the box patriarchy puts men in every bit as much as it means smashing the box patriarchy puts women in. It doesn’t matter whether one box was roomier or more comfortable to begin with. Both restrict and both need to be done away with.

I look at Sally and I look at Bobby and I know that the world still has different expectations of the two of them simply because of their gender, and completely irrespective of their talents, passions, and abilities. The world I want is a world where both of them have the same choices, receive the same reaction, and face the same expectations. I want a world where people are seen as people first, rather than immediately typed by their gender. I want a world without boxes, a world where we are all just individuals.

We’ve (mostly) liberated women from the restrictive gender roles of the past. It’s time men were liberated too. Feminism isn’t just for Sally. It’s for Bobby too.

Browse Our Archives