I’m the kind of feminist who values stuff that has been traditionally associated with The Feminine. If I have to choose between “difference feminism” and “equality feminism,” I’ll choose difference: no unisex jumpsuits for me, Charlotte Perkins Gilman! You might expect that I wouldn’t want to dress my children in jumpsuits, either.
I don’t actually believe that there’s anything in the world that’s fundamentally “feminine” or “female.” I just tend to like objects and activities and aesthetics that people consider “girly”—or, at least, that Americans have considered “girly” during my lifetime, even though some of those things (poetry, the color pink) were once the domains of boys, while others (talking loudly, talking a lot) get gendered differently depending on the context. Because I’ve more or less colored within the lines of what girls like me (white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, highly educated, apparently straight) were expected to do, I’ve experienced sexism and misogyny differently from the women I know who have had to struggle to gain a foothold in male-dominated fields, or who were shamed for not looking or dressing the way women are “supposed” to look or dress, or whose lives don’t conform to heteronormative models of marriage and child-rearing, or who have had to bear the burden of convincing people that they were women at all. Instead, for most of my life I’ve been most affected by the brand of sexism that dismisses my interests and practices as trivial and marginal. And, as many of my posts here and most of my academic writing makes clear, I have a very strong knee-jerk reaction to that kind of sexism—not because it’s The Worst Kind of Sexism in the World, but because so few people even seem to recognize it as sexism. Making people recognize that kind of sexism feels like important work to me, and like work I might be able to do.
I like “girly” stuff. I have an ideological commitment to “girly” stuff. And I love girls: I love reading about girls, writing about girls, watching movies about girls, listening to girl bands, talking to little girls and young girls, hanging out with women who think of themselves as “girls.” I was in a girl band in my 20s. I’ve spent the entirety of my 30s as part of a poetry group called (G)IRL. I’m also married to a man who’s kind of into girly stuff himself: unicorns, glitter. So when we found out I was pregnant with a baby girl (“I see vulvas,” the sonographer said) we were kind of relieved.
I wanted to share all the stuff I liked with my kid. Even before we knew our baby would have a vulva (so sorry, Jane, I’m the worst mom ever) we’d planned to paint a mural in the nursery with everything we’d loved as kids: a castle, a farm, a ship like the Dawn Treader, a mermaid, a unicorn. A loving family who would be us, but dressed like a prince and a princess.
I knew I could still paint a mural like that for a baby boy; I could still read him Anne of Green Gables; I could still sing him songs from The Little Mermaid; I could still give him dolls; I could even dress him all in pink if I wanted to. What would he care? But I knew that if I shared these things I loved with a little boy I’d have to take a lot of flak from other parents, especially if I selfishly forced them on him before he showed any “innate” or “natural” interest in them himself. Progressive parents give their children “gender-neutral” toys like natural-wood blocks and balls and tools and trucks, maybe some stuffed animals. Regular parents buy dolls and pink blocks for girls, footballs and trucks and blue blocks for boys. Maybe a sword. Maybe a gun. It just seemed easier to have a daughter, like the world would just leave us alone with our butterflies and princesses, let us sing our mermaid song in peace.
But when I actually met my baby, and as I got to know her, I was surprised at how little I wanted to share my world with her. From the first moment I held her, wild little snuffling snorting squirmer that she was, it was so clear that she was already her own person, that she had her own way of exploring the world, and that my job was to make the world safe for her to explore. Sharing my interests with her seemed so much less important than supporting her as she followed her own wacky bliss. Of course her world, her wacky bliss, was strongly shaped by the nursery I made for her, the clothes I dressed her in, the objects I put within her grasp, the spaces where I carried her. But what surprised me was how little I wanted to shape her.
I was also surprised by the ferocity of the resistance I felt to any suggestion that her behavior was gendered, that she even had a gender. Before she was born, I’d had an intellectual commitment to raising kids without oppressive gender stereotypes. We were definitely planning to offer her toy trucks and dinosaurs and the occasional book about a girl who wasn’t a princess. But on some level I must have expected to do those things grudgingly. Or maybe I thought I would be one of those parents who says, “You know, we tried giving him all those different kinds of toys, but, it turns out that all the stereotypes are true. Boys will be boys!” It turns out, though, that I’m not one of those parents, or that my baby isn’t one of those babies, or that we aren’t one of those families. When a relative quotes Trollope on the power a daughter has over her father, or talks about how charming little girls are, I want to scream. When my daughter’s playing with some random baby boy at a coffee shop, and she grabs his toy like twelve times in a row, to the point that my husband and I are wondering if we should intervene, and then the boy grabs the toy back and his grandmother says, “Such a girl! always letting the boys do whatever they want,” I want to yell, “YOUR DATA IS BAD! and anyway, is that even a stereotype about girls?” Even when a progressive poet I know makes a lighthearted comment meant to cut against this wave of gender determinism, like “All babies are transgender,” I feel resistance to the possibility that she, or we, could understand a baby’s gender enough yet to register it as trans or cis. No. No. No. First of all, a lot of those comments are just so sexist and weird. Second of all, and most skin-crawlingly, heart-thumpingly urgent: Where in this face, in these gestures, in these choices, do people see gender? Maybe this baby was born with an innate gender that is slowly rising to the surface, that will blossom and expand and make itself known as she ages. Maybe we’re building a gender all around her with “the relentless ‘drip, drip, drip’ of gender stereotyping,” a rigid cage that will grow into her skeleton, her brain. After all, I use feminine pronouns to refer to her. We gave her a clearly gendered first name and a super-feminine middle name. My friends and I joke about what kind of feminist she’s going to grow up to be: something so radical and or so bizarre that we don’t even recognize it as feminism? And no matter what we do at home, the world is going to treat her as a girl until she tells it not to (and probably even then).
But I don’t see her gender now. I don’t feel it. I don’t think she feels it. I could be totally wrong, and maybe you’ll point me to a convincing study that proves otherwise, but when she puts on my necklaces, when she wants to wear Mama’s makeup, when she holds a washcloth to her chest in the bath and says dress, I really don’t think it’s because she knows she is, or is supposed to be, more like Mama than Dada. She also puts a headband under her chin and says beard. She also wants to wear Dada’s boots and Dada’s dress (an XXL T-shirt with a wizard on it.)
I love my girl world so much. I like to joke and pretend that my daughter lives there, too. Two mermaids. Two princesses. But that’s one game among many. It doesn’t feel, right now, like she’s a Girl World citizen.
These feelings leave me in a weird place.
If I don’t think she’s a girl (yet), what am I doing making her sleep in this pink-and-aqua nursery every night? Making her put on hot-pink snowpants, wheeling her around in a hot-pink stroller, dressing her in striped onesies and gray sweatpants and red hoodies, yes, but also sparkly pink heart-shaped sunglasses and pale pink tutus and baby’s-breath wreaths? What is this stuff but the most brutal dripdripdrip imaginable, as powerful and coercive as the pitocin drip that hammered her out of my body with such furious speed? I think about parents who won’t dress their daughters in pink or let them read about princesses. Those parents used to make me so mad: did they think pink was worse than blue or green? Did they think princesses were worse than superheroes? Did they know that some princesses are superheroes? Did that help, if the princesses were good at violence? But now, after having strangers in the drugstore tell me that I should dress my baby in pink to make it clear that she’s a girl (in one instance she was wearing dark purple), after hearing a caregiver tell a two-year-old girl to keep her legs together in gymnastics class, after hearing smug blanket statement after smug blanket statement about how girls are so much more verbal/less physical/gentler/less loving/easier to take care of/harder to get along with than boys, after reading blog posts that cheerfully assert that almost all girl toddlers are “bitchy,” I’ve witnessed that dripdripdrip myself as if for the first time. If it happened to me as a kid, I didn’t notice it, or it felt like a gentle spring rain, or my own ferocious feminist mother’s umbrella kept me from getting soaked. But now I feel it, and it’s torture.
So that’s why those grim old second-wave feminist moms ban princesses and pink: because they want their home to be a shelter from the drips. A counterbalance. An antidote. Okay, I get it. Maybe it’s time to buy my jumpsuit.
But when I talk this stuff out with my partner, I remember that as much as I don’t want my child to think pink dresses or passivity or whatever other gross stuff is out there is her only option dripdripdripdripdrip I also really don’t want her to think that all this stuff I love and value, and/or all the stuff that women totally unlike me have labored over or delighted in for years and years before she was born, is bad or shameful or trivial or weak. We’re all dripping with that nonsense too, and my home has to be a shelter from it. One day she’ll be able to shop for her own clothes and toys. She’ll develop more and more of her own obsessions (recent obsessions: dogs, peacocks, bagpipes). Until then, it’s my job to make the things I love and the things I do available to my child, as part of a range of things that kind, thoughtful people can love and do. It’s my job to show her that I love and do these things, and that I’m worthy of respect and admiration and love. Not to get all reproductive futurism-y on everybody, but it’s kind of my job to do that for your kid, too, and for you to do that for my kid, and, like, it takes a village. And, like, in our house maybe pink isn’t just for girls; maybe polka-dot headbands are also beards; maybe mermaids sing for everybody. For the record, she has a ton of jumpsuits.
So I don’t care if my baby grows up to be the kind of girl I was, or am. I don’t care if she grows up to be a boy, or a tomboy, or an equality feminist. No matter what her gender, sexuality, her feminism, her affinities, her job turn out to be, I want her to respect and value Girl World, whether she lives there or not.