from Womankind (1971). Raising children in a sexist society is a challenge as this first person account reveals. from Womankind (1971)
(Editors Note: The author had twins: one boy and one girl. The way these two children grew up is indicative of the challenges parents face raising children in a sexist society.)
My children, girl and boy twins, are only two years old. It may seem that sexism couldn’t yet have been much of a problem. Instead, I’ve found that “normal” dealings with babies include many sexist attitudes and behaviors guaranteed to stunt the growth of any human being.
Sexism showed up very early. In fact, my twins’ appearances at birth were an embarrassment to some well— wishers. Rachel weighed two pounds more than Adam and his hair was longer than hers. Not one person who saw then lying next to each other told me what a big, strong daughter I had or how very delicate my son was. In most people’s minds, when the right compliment is attached to the wrong sex, it ceases to be a compliment. What people did notice and comment on was that Adam was far more active than Rachel.
They said: “He’s a little man already.” Since my children’s activity levels were predisposed in traditional sex role directions, I was always explaining that it was only chance and could have been the other way around. lt was frustrating, because, with Women’s Liberation a hot controversy in the mass media, people translated the fact that one boy was more active than his twin sister into the final word on the question. Of course I (and they) knew baby girls who were very active and boys who lolled around all day. Every time this kind of boy moves at all, someone says, “He’s such a little man.”
There were also behaviors that I had to overcome. I found myself poking my head in Rachel’s crib and saying, “How’s my sweetie?” My husband would call her a princess. At first, we only called Adam “little man”. When other people called Rachel a “honey” and Adam a “fine boy” even their tone of voice was different. To her they spoke softly and sweetly, and to him they used the kind of gruff voice that fathers use with their sons. I could feel a more direct warmth in the first, a holding back, teasing, and rough quality in the second. This voice difference made me angry because it seemed obvious that Adam needed more soft sweetness in his life since he was active and kind of nervous, and Rachel could have used the stimulation. But human needs aside, the input was already being selected for the roles they would be expected to fill later.
Our initial tendency was to be physically rougher with Adam. We threw him in the air from the time he was a month old. But we had to remember to roughhouse with Rachel, which was her favorite activity too. People would caress and cuddle Rachel, while Adam would get a playful jab in the ribs. A person's sense of her body depends on how people treat her. Of course it makes a difference if you are treated like a glass statue or like a prize-fighter.
For gifts, Adam got overalls and denim pants. Rachel got many fancy dresses. If you dress a girl up a lot because you want her to look pretty,you're also going to care a lot more how dirty she gets. You’ll be more likely to pick her up off the floor when she gets to a dirty place. Cleanliness becomes an important part of her image. No wonder she’ll be less explorative, even afraid of new challenges. What image are we after when we dress our girls in frills? lt’s a kind of Christmas tree appeal.
She (the person) is there in the middle, while hung about her are all the ornaments to admire. A boy is dressed simply, and the same holds for Rachel and trucks. Playing with cars and trucks has already made her interested in all kinds of motor vehicles. She doesn’t have to become a truck driver, but I would like her to feel comfortable with machines. Everyone knows we live in a technological age, but so far only men can relate to a machine.
There are many more aspects of sexism in the first two years. The most crucial is probably the way people in the family— whatever kind of family it is — relate to each other, and what they do with their lives. Also, I have many unresolved questions. Adam’s hair has reached a length where even hippies think he is a girl, and I don’t know whether that is a good reason to cut it.
When I finally put a dress on Rachel last spring, she started to cry, presumably from unfamiliarity. I realized two things: one, there’s nothing wrong with dresses sometimes, and two, I would be afraid to raise a daughter who was that uncomfortable in a dress.
These little incidents reflect a far deeper dilemma— I don’t want my children to feel like freaks, but I also don’t want to condemn them to repeat our past mistakes and suffering. I think the best answer is to provide our children with a community of peers with similar values so they are not alone.
The exact solutions to many sexist problems are not easy to find. But for ourselves and all our children, to struggle is essential. Having girl— boy twins has made it clear—I and others contribute, either to creating one—half a personality in each child, or a whole human being in both.