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.