Monday, October 18, 2010

Sugar and Spice

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s:  Girls studying tegether.  (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

I distinctly remember the moment in high school when I realized that every single one of my mother's close friends was a teacher.

Well, to be more precise, it wasn't the moment I realized it, but the moment I realized what it meant.

My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and the fact that virtually all of the adult women I knew were teachers as well -- including every single member of the tight-knit crew with whom my mother had gone to New York's Hunter College -- was just one of those facts that had never merited any special consideration before. It was just something about my world that I had absorbed, like the fact that we were Jewish, or that we lived in the suburbs.

But one day the implications of it finally dawned on me: it wasn't an accident or a coincidence that all of those women were teachers. They all became teachers because there just weren't very many options for women graduating from college in 1952. (Mom also knew a rogue nurse or two, to be fair.)

Perhaps that's why I had always harbored a romantic fascination with the one friend of my mother's who had refused to conform. Sue Slade marched to the beat of her own very distinctive drummer: an honest-to-goodness Bohemian, she became a theater casting agent and even once worked as a secretary for Marlon Brando. Sue eventually wrote a play called Ready When You Are, C.B., which ran for 80 performances on Broadway, directed by theater luminary Joshua Logan. It's still performed in schools and community theater from time to time. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971, the year she turned 40. I never got to know her.

By the time I graduated from college almost 40 years after my mother and her crew, the idea that women could only be teachers or nurses seemed to me like a quaint relic, something akin to Victrolas and corsets. It had been drummed into my head throughout my childhood (see: Title IX, Free To Be You and Me) that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be and the fact that I was a girl wouldn't limit me in any way.

I laughed when my first editor after college, after watching me turn around a transcription project at lightning speed, warned me never to let anyone know how fast I could type. It seemed charmingly anachronistic. He was mostly kidding, right? Because no one really thought that way any more, did they?

I'm now the mother of two little boys who have female doctors and female T-ball teammates and a female Senator. Maybe I haven't been watching the messages we're sending little girls these days as vigilantly as I could, but I naively assumed that we were still mostly on the right path. (I do take credit for sending a letter to Nickelodeon four years ago complaining about their sexist marketing of Dora. I loved that my then two-year-old son was a fan of a show with a strong female lead character like Dora. Why did they only make Dora merchandise suitable for little girls? Did they really need to spin off Diego just because he was a boy?)

Which is why I was so disappointed when I opened a recent Land's End catalog and saw this:

See, it turns out that boys and girls "aren't built the same." Girls' coats apparently need to be "pretty & playful" while boys' are "rugged & ready." Really? In 2010? It seemed so ludicrous -- so 1952 -- that I find it incredibly hard to imagine the meeting in which this copy was approved. Did someone think it was an episode of Mad Men, maybe?

Has no one at Land's End heard of Brandi Chastain?

PASADENA, CA - JULY 10:  Brandi Chastain #6 of Team USA removes her jersey while celebrating after kicking the winning penalty shot to win the Final match over Team China during the FIFA Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999 in Pasadena, California. Team USA defeated Team China 5-4 in sudden death after two overtimes. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Or Hillary Clinton, a woman who mounted a completely credible bid to be the President of the United States a mere two years ago?

I was irked, but dropped it. An aberration, I decided.

Until last night, surfing around looking for bunk beds for my boys, I came across this:

Sigh. Need I walk through the litany of misconceptions here, starting with the idea that girls "just wanna have style" and need "sweet" bunk bed designs, while their boy counterparts need "manly" bunk beds that are just as "tough and cool" as they are?

For the record, marketers of the world, I'm perfectly ok if my three- and six-year-old sons sleep in "sweet" beds. They are neither particularly tough nor cool, and I'm fine if things remain that way for a while.

But you know who is tough and cool? And rugged and ready? Their seven year old cousin. In fact, like scores of little girls before her, she recently started trekking regularly to the ice rink with big dreams.

You know. To play hockey.

So take that, Land's End and I'm choosing to believe that Alexandra is the kind of little girl we should be raising in 2010, one who won't fit in the ridiculously outdated stereotypes you're still trying to sell her. And you know what? I bet Sue Slade would be proud.


  1. Greatest blog post ever. Seriously, Jen, that was a really good read. Loved the Sue Slade stuff.

  2. Love it! My almost eight year old daughter just began playing hockey in September and will participate in a U-10 girls hockey jamboree this weekend.

  3. Great blog. I like the way your mind works.

  4. I love this post. Your niece could be my 7yo hockey-playing daughter. Her twin sister would prefer the feminine, sweet bunk beds but I can't find anything - outerwear, shoes, you name it - rough and ready enough for my future Brandy Chastain/Hilary Clinton/Sue Slade. (P.S. She prefers Diego to Dora; he plays with more interesting animals.)

  5. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. Now the dilemma: I really like those bunk beds. Can I buy them? (Hello? Randy Cohen??)

  6. How about girls clothes? I cant find a single thing without "too cute" or "pretty flower" that won't break the bank. It makes me want to just let her go naked...

  7. I have to add, kcorn, that your adding of Sue Slade to those list of feminist heroes has made my week. Maybe my year. Just the idea that she's being talked about and celebrated by a total stranger is amazing to me. (And my mother is totally going to cry.)

  8. Nice. I've always had a torn relationship with the girly/boy thing. I see that my daughter has the same issue. She LOVES pink and all things sparkly. On the other hand.. she will take her very own lacrosse stick, play her eldest brother in the yard, and then scream, "YES! In your FACE!" when he lets her score. She wants to play with the boys--she just wants to wear a skirt while doing it. ;)

  9. Jennifer, great post! You have nailed so many things here, and as the aunt to three unique, smart, and tough little nieces who love all colors, not just pink, and sports as much as dance, I applaud you. One of the things I worry about with our society's current "girl" conditioning is that we seem to have forgotten some of the important lessons of the 1960s and 1970s feminism. I work with college women who no longer seem to turn to Our Bodies Our Selves for wisdom . . . they are turning to media images of what it means to be a woman. It is really scary.

  10. Cat Valcourt-PearceOctober 19, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    My older sister was the first girl on our high school boys baseball (NOT softball) team. She was a catcher and she was always given a hard but she was damn good at fact, when I was a little girl I was her middle school baseball team's bat girl (ha, how many kids can say they were batgirl?).

    LOVE the photos of Alexandra. That child has spirit and coolness cornered.