It’s International Women’s Day, and International Woman’s Month: important markers of how far we’ve come in our ongoing struggle towards true gender equality, and important reminders that exploring history through the lens of the other is a key component of our ongoing growth as a humanity.
But the very fact of International Women’s Day is also an indicator of just how deeply we still suffer, and how much we still need to pause, thoughtfully, in order to explore the hidden and not-so-silent assumptions which keep us from being who we should be. And so, as a father of daughters, a husband of a wife, there’s a part of me that finds myself more than a bit frustrated that it’s 2013, and here I am raising two girls in a world where people still insist on setting aside a whole and single month to acknowledge 51% of the population.
I cherish and celebrate the women in my life – though like most men, probably not as much as I should. It is a hard-won habit, and one needful of constant reinforcement. But it’s not enough to honor. Lingering inequalities undermine all of us, and to address them, we must start by being honest with ourselves about that which we still carry in ourselves, both collectively and individually. And so I have celebrated the tomboy tendencies of the elderchild, and then later been ashamed, for unconsciously nurturing that within her which would make her able to compete with boys and men on their own turf, for forgetting that becoming the other is never the right path to consensual change. And I have struggled, mightily, with the pink princess preferences of my younger daughter, before ultimately deciding that as long as we are able to help her reach a point where she is able to make a conscious and informed choice to embrace such range of identity, girlishness should be a legitimate point on that spectrum for her or anyone to defend, and proudly.
After a lifetime coming to terms with both my own white male privilege, I consider myself a feminist, of a sort – a term which I use, in part, because it makes everything stop for a while, leaving that breathing room which can become the foundation of self-healing. And this means many things: accepting, for example, that it is not my place to decide what women need or want, but owning the idea that it is my place to both guard the rights of those whose gendered lives I cannot truly know or claim, and to confront and help illuminate the worlds of those men who – through their casual words, or their subtle actions – create discomfort without knowing.
Believing in true equality also means walking the walk in my teaching practice, too. More often than not, this means working hard to seize each teachable moment, all in the name of teaching both boys and girls that it is to their ultimate benefit to claim their role as active collaborators in the process of change, lest they find the world more confusing than it needs to be. The immediacy of my reactions to what my male students often try to defend as mere horseplay (or worse, as culturally-grounded role-play which I, as a white outsider, should respect and allow), confounds many of them, who too often spout (or worse, enact and embody) the misogyny of the naive and brash, and are too often startled by the vehemence with which I call them on their casual objectification of their female peers when I see it in the hallways and classrooms.
Working hard to use non-gendered terms, and to correct my students gently when they use them in daily practice, is an ongoing struggle: too many of the texts we use still automatically assign male pronouns to hypothetical CEOs, Chairs-of-the-Boards, and Doctors, and female terms for office assistants, nurses, and airline hosts. But I am privileged to teach a subject where such discourse can be explicit, too. For the sophomores who take my Introduction to Media Literacy class, our upcoming study of both the strict division of toy and television programming – from the Dora/Bob The Builder dichotomy to the increasingly subtle but no less present gender cues in the Disney Princess canon – will offer a more explicit lesson: that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are still limit us; that the patterns they embed in our developing minds recreate generations of disempowered girls and boys, who are ill-prepared to confront themselves, and less able to open themselves to each other in healthy ways as they find each other and themselves in adulthood.
As it is in my world, so it is in yours: as long as men and women work every moment to see themselves as equal partners and allies in the fight for true equality, and to develop the habits of mind and practice that teach others that such lenses are normative, there is hope, to pair with our frustration.
Until then, I suppose, we must reluctantly accept Women’s Day as the desperately needed touchstone that it is.
Still, it remains my hope that my daughters will one day live in a world where discourse of quotas and glass ceilings is truly moot; where strangers and grandparents do not cite my daughters for their prettiness first and foremost; where the sixteen year old adolescents I cry for in my darkest hours not only cease their grab-ass corridor ways, but accept their role as parents and partners before they impregnate their peers – and where, because we set aside every day to celebrate and reflect upon all the things we are, International Women’s Day can take its place in the cultural pantheon as just one more of those crumbling granite edifices that – like footprints in the fading snow of a warm Spring – mark the path that has taken us to where we want to be.