The feminist blues

I am a bit of a chauvinist.  Growing up in the constant company of 3 brothers left me with an innate sense of female superiority that I have never fully shaken.  From my girlhood vantage point males were surprisingly simple, the whole of their interactions with the world seemingly defined by a clumsy approach to physical domination- a series of clashes and collisions set against a background of jackhammers and farting noises. And I have been convinced for as long as I can remember that the mold of human culture would be far superior if only a much greater share of the shaping were performed by the more gentle and considerate hands of women.

From this viewpoint it’s particularly hard to swallow the reality of gender dynamics. At some point I was forced to recognize that I had been cast in a role that expected little more from me than the embodiment of an ideal of sexual attraction.   I have always found this role, sexually alluring and domestically useful, to be sadly lacking in appeal, perhaps because it is largely defined by that same bungling male mindset that produces the instinct to approach every square inch of the planet with an excavator.

And nobody even bothered to come up with a second act.  After the natural fulfillment of sexually appealing (childbearing), there is nothing.  And so I watch, defeated, as many a woman struggles doggedly to remain desirable well beyond middle age.

I hit a wall when I began my journey to becoming a mother. My particular struggle was exacerbated by the inconvenient perspective that family and personal life carry an importance that justifiably rival professional life, a mindset that clashed heavily with the workings of an institution (academia) that fails to even recognize their existence. I remember looking to women faculty with children for answers to my internal conflict and being frustrated by their failure to respond- a failure that I now interpret in the sentiment- apologies, but I am too busy just trying to survive to begin to address the problems of institutional bias. I didn’t stay in academia, but I now know that if I had I would have felt exactly the same way.

During my time in academia there was something else that discreetly gnawed at me. It was a sense that the institution didn’t fully belong to me, that the values and rules that made it function were not mine. In many ways, this makes sense. Women did not build the institutions that define our public life. In fact, we weren’t even present during their construction. But it has only recently hit me that we have absolutely no way of knowing how they might look if we had. Would they really be better? Would they exist at all? The best that we can do is to imagine how we can influence their functioning as we move forward.


When I was pregnant, I hoped for a girl.  I now understand that gender preference has everything to do with the baggage we carry as parents and nothing to do with the actual child but I couldn’t yet see past my own experience.  I didn’t know how irrelevant my expectations would come to feel once my had children arrived – here, boys, perfect!

Becoming a mother has expanded my old notions of gender, adding, as if it were necessary, a layer of even greater complexity.  Watching my boys through the lens of maternal love, I am learning to find a greater appreciation for all things male.  You might even catch me playing happily with an excavator.  But I also watch, disillusioned, as I recognize the power of gender bias falling on my children’s generation.  While I want to believe that we have the potential to make great progress by the time they come of age (look at how far we’ve come!), what I actually feel is resignation for the world that so likely awaits them.

Dazzled by the sophistication of the little girls in g’s class, I find that rather than feeling concern for the prospects of g and the many other little boys who trail along behind, I balk at the probability that those little girls will be forced to contend with a world that will narrow over time, all but shutting them out, while the boys will discover, though they hadn’t even thought to look, a world that is steadily widening to welcome them in.  I do my best to fight back the image of these talented young ladies becoming too consumed with concerns over the thickness of their thighs to perform the important work of trying to balance the overly male framework that confines us all.

As a mother of boys, there might even be comfort in all of this.  But I hold out a possibly naive hope that these little girls will one day succeed much better than I have in defining and imposing their own vision on the society around them.  Because I still believe that we would all be better off.





14 thoughts on “The feminist blues

  1. I have the same worries. It is a strange contortion to be a feminist and mother of boys. To watch the way the world embraces and encourages certain things in them and at the same time stifles…like the physicality! Rarely have I felt more judged or shamed than when my boys haul off and hit or kick or put some other kid in a choke hold (at age 3, mind you) and yet, they demonstrate more physical boldness than I can ever remember. I note the ways they’re culturally encouraged to assert themselves, while I was encouraged to be kind and pull back. To this day, I have no real idea how to assert myself in sports because I never broke through to the other side. It is humbling to witness our social machine at work. Though I do think its slowly evolving.

    1. I also think it’s slowly evolving, fortunately. And you and Ana both bring up an important point, one that I largely overlooked: that many young boys face barriers that many young girls don’t. I have pretty much written this off as being a result of the fact that boys are so typically behind in their emotional/social abilities but I think there is more to it than that. The world of early childhood (caregivers, teachers, even pediatricians) is female dominated. Just as I think that we would all benefit from a greater female influence on public life, I think we would all benefit from a greater male influence on domestic life.

      1. Fascinating. I never thought of it this way before, but I think you’re right. There is a strangely arbitrary division here, and I do wonder what boys internalize from their time being quite restricted and, at times, shamed for their physicality in school. How does that translate into their life as men? I would guess that many of them have an internal loathing of aspects of their own masculinity. A fear that they’re just too dangerous and big deep down. That they have to keep that side of their maleness under wraps. I’m pretty confident that what I internalized as a girl–I LOVED school, every minute, and jumped through hoops like it was going out of style–was that if you follow the rules and be really nice and do all the reading that you will succeed. The real world was quite the harsh distinction, and it took me a good 10 years to sort out which end was up and realize that most of the men I knew were taking risks and breaking rules and succeeding much more than me. What sad contortions to put everyone through, really. What could it look like if we weren’t shaped in these ways?

  2. I too grew up with brothers and found the company of males more comforting, I just couldn’t get female company (and have only really started to recently). I wouldn’t exactly call myself a feminist I don’t know what I think of myself really, I do believe in equality but males and females are not the same so I struggle with those that believe all should be equal, how can it be when we are so different? My first born is a boy and I breathed a sigh of relief, I knew what to do and was so comfortable being his mother, my second a girl I was both terrified and delighted. It is amazing what our children teach us, and I am sure that becoming the mother of a girl has enabled me to enjoy the company of other women. I no longer dread the future as a mother of a girl in quite the same way. Having said all that I live in a quiet rural community where the constant bombardment of gender division is not apparent I know that if I lived in a city I might feel quite different.

    1. I agree with you that males and females are not the same and equality is a difficult concept to implement. It IS amazing how much our children teach us. Watching them, I have also learned much more about just how fluid gender identity can be. My firstborn is BOY but his little brother has many of the strengths that we typically identify as female and none of the physicality. And both of them love pretty, sparkly things.

      It’s also interesting to think about how these things differ between city and rural life. In so many ways, I adore my urban community but there is a gigantic part of me that would move to a place like yours in a heartbeat.

  3. I also wanted a girl. I only knew girls, never had brothers, wanted to teach her to be strong & sassy & independent and successful and take no sh&t from the patriarchy. I have two little boys. And maybe I’m more selfish/inward-focused than you, but I feel like the girls in their classes are far and away more advanced, poised, socially aware, and ready to take on the world because the world of the classroom has (intentionally or not) been MADE for them. My boys—they can’t sit still, can’t stop moving, jumping, wrestling, running and hearing “stop! no! sit still! slow down!” & I wonder what that does to them? I also have a kid that, while very very physical, happens to like the things that fall on the “girl” rather than the “boy” side, and seeing how society at every level denigrates and shames him for liking pink and princesses and everything glittery & shiny makes me rethink how hard we, as feminists, want to push girls away from those things. Maybe its ok to like whatever it is you like, no worse for a girl to be into princesses instead of superheroes than it is for a boy, is it?

    1. I love having the perspective of other moms in the “2 boys club”. Your point about the classroom being made for the girls is valid. I was just in g’s classroom today and I think the (female) teacher does a decent job with the boys but there is no question that she is essentially teaching them (patiently, to her credit) to act more like the girls- “let’s talk this through, how about giving him a hug….”.
      I would love to see more males in the classroom and would be really curious to see how they might do things differently if they felt free to do so (one of my brothers who is a coach and has worked with kids for many years attempted to teach in the classroom one year and found that he simply could do what was expected of him).

      On the other hand, I wonder if you see similar forces at work in your workplace. Do you think that maleness is often rewarded later on?

  4. Another amazing post, and although I’ve been thinking about it for days, I still have no organized thoughts. I’ve had similar frustrations with the many institutions built by men (my profession, my government), and with the notion that I am supposed to be a sexual being all the time (nothing could be further from the truth at the moment, I tell ya). And now I am experiencing what it is to have a BOY. I know that children of both sexes come in all flavors, and my babies’ temperaments may have nothing to do with their sexes, but I was RELIEVED that Bunter was a girl. I like my children compliant, quiet, and more interested in plants than destruction. Rightly or wrongly, I believe I’m more likely to get that with a female, because I am currently more likely to get that with my female toddler. And lately I’ve been PISSED at my three year old male because it’s hard for him to sit still and not make loud noises and not run around screaming POOP! POOP! And I think of him going to kindergarten (with an August birthday) and will we hold him back because he’s a BOY and the expectations for kids are based on GIRLS? So yeah, nothing to say that approaches your thoughtfulness, but a big YES.

    1. I think you are right to put some thought into the timing of kindergarten. g’s birthday is in late May and, in hindsight, I wish I had felt more comfortable holding him back. Unfortunately, he is very big for his age. He is fine, academically speaking. He is even surprisingly good at sitting still and not causing trouble for an active boy. But his social/emotional skills are very far behind. There is a universe between him and the girls in his class, in particular, in this area. I’m now almost positive that he would have benefited from another year- if only he weren’t such a giant. Several of his peers (yes all boys) started this year instead and are doing very well.
      But I also suspect that Bunlet will/has benefit/ed tremendously from having an older sister. I’m guessing that you will know when the time comes but I think holding kids (boys or girls, theoretically) back can be a very good idea.

      1. Yeah, it will be a tough call, I think. Maybe. Maybe it will be totally obvious. I also wonder to what extent preschool has been a homogenizing influence. Is it possible he has become more BOY since being around more BOYS? Or am I just looking for someone to blame…

  5. These things are fascinating in the abstract and maddening when observing it in your own career and your kids’ lives. One rude awakening that sticks out in my mind was when my MIL asked what she should buy E for her 2nd birthday and we proposed costumes. I was expecting police officer, fire fighter… the things E loved at school. What she got was 5 princess dresses. Ugh.

    1. Oh man. I find the princess thing to be a real challenge, even though I am not personally parenting girls. I know many little girls who are so genuinely attracted to that narrative – look at the success of Frozen! And yet, from an intellectual perspective it’s almost all wrong – the privileges of wealth, the importance of finding your prince….. Ugh indeed.

      I sometimes think that the stakes are a little higher when it comes to parenting boys according to progressive values but it may be even more difficult to parent girls on a day to day basis. And, of course, parenting is hard enough without even considering gender.

  6. It’s interesting. Now that I have two children, one of each sex, my assumptions have been completely upended. Because my son will likely be the one shut out (he doesn’t assert or distinguish himself as boys “should”), and my daughter, princess though she may be, is about as bold and outspoken and opinionated as they come. I don’t think she’ll settle. I hope that what happens is that all of these barriers collapse, because I think they’re just as damaging for boys as they are for girls.

    Fabulous post!

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