Jesse has been in a vague tizzy for most of her conscious life about whether people think she’s a girl or a boy. Part of the problem is her name, of course, which is fairly gender-neutral.
Don’t think for a minute that the name choice was some anti-normative statement. Anthony and I don’t play like that. It was a lazy statement. We never bought a baby name book or anything like that. We just needed a name with no tooth-gnashing and we didn’t feel like waiting until 26 weeks or whenever it is that they do the big ultrasound. At about 3 months into the pregnancy, we picked a name we liked that could go with a boy or a girl, and that my mom could say without an accented struggle, so then we were done.
After Jesse got her hair cut really short this summer, she became even more self-conscious about her gender identification. It’s all mixed up in her head with the notion that girls aren’t as good as boys. One morning at breakfast, after hearing for the umpteenth time from Jesse that some lame-ass little boy hassled her about looking like a boy, I got fed up. I googled “celebrities with short hair,” and we eyeballed Hollywood girls looking fabulous and feminine with short hair. I don’t know what I was thinking. After 3 minutes of this, I had the big DUH and told Jesse that one of the most powerful women in the world has short hair. We talked about Hillary Clinton and we looked up photos of her, with both short and long hair. Jesse liked her much better with short hair. I never really noticed that Clinton looks really handsome and strong with short hair, but she looks kind of dopey with long hair.
As we browsed pics of her, I remarked, “She’s probably going to run for president.”
“I didn’t think girls were allowed to be president.”
Said my daughter. In 2014, in the United States of America, in MY home. I was stunned.
We talked it through. We talked about voting rights, the word “suffrage.” Anthony and I chattered about how, indeed, not so long ago women used to not be able to vote or be president.
“Who stopped girls from voting and stuff like that?”
Men? I answered. Society, culture, religion? It was a curious question, one I couldn’t really answer. And anyway, now women can vote. In the USA anyway.
Jesse commented that it must have been a girl who helped other girls vote. Following this inspiration, we looked up Susan B. Anthony on Wikipedia and read about how she went to jail for voting and about the suffragette movement. We talked about the 19th constitutional amendment. Jesse wanted to know who the president was when it became law. She thought he must have been a pretty good guy.
I was getting more and more agitated in my heart as this conversation progressed. How had I allowed the world to make my daughter feel second-class? How had I screwed this up so badly? Nick walked into the kitchen. We went through a shout-back chant. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen. The kids looked a little concerned. Anthony fussed about nervously because he knew I was all worked up.
Can a girl or a boy be president?
Can a girl or a boy be an astronaut??
Can a girl or a boy be an engineer or a mathematician??
Can a girl or a boy be a great athlete??
Can a girl or a boy be a great artist, a great musician??
CAN A GIRL OR A BOY BE ANYTHING THEY WANT???
I turned to Jesse, who was sort of cowering and giggling nervously in her kitchen seat. My arms were gesticulating and karate-chopping wildly by now to punctuate my words. I was practically yelling as I explained why I was so upset.
When a little boy says you look like a boy, girls aren’t allowed, only boys can do that, boys are stronger, or anything like that, I don’t just see a little boy being a jerk, I see HISTORY and all the suffering women have been subjected to, all that we’ve risen above! I see Susan B. Anthony towering behind that little boy, telling him NO! Women are powerful! Women are equal! Women deserve everything and anything they can earn and learn! How dare that little boy put you down!!
The kids were silent for a moment as I caught my breath, and then Jesse snickered. “Mom, stop. He’s just a little boy.”
Which was sweet. But then again, little boys become little men with attitudes that put down girls.
That was a couple weeks ago. I was optimistic that my histrionics would make a difference. Then last night Jesse said these exact words to me: “boys are smarter than girls.”
Is there no hope?