In my college adolescent psych class I attempted to write a paper on the expectations on women to break gender stereotyping and the backlash against women who chose to stay with more traditional roles. It was the mid-eighties, so apparently I was way ahead of my time. I had a terrible time finding any actual evidence that such a backlash existed. Yet, I had felt it myself so I was sure it was a legitimate issue. Eventually, I found enough data to write a B paper, but it lacked the overwhelming evidence I had expected to present.
Thirty years later, the evidence is everywhere. While it is great to empower girls to feel free to explore their abilities, I still wonder if we are intolerant of those who still choose to make being a wife and mother their ambition in life. As we think we are pushing people to accept women in various non-traditional roles, we don’t seem to recognize how intolerant we often become of women who choose not to pursue them. As we try to widen the options for women, are we narrowing the roles that are considered “acceptable”?
I grew up with a strange mix of messages about women. On one hand, I was raised by a very strong intelligent woman who never ever made me feel like I could only be a nurse, secretary or teacher, yet, we attended a very conservative (especially for New England) church that taught the stereotypical male dominated hierarchy that most evangelical churches still teach today. I never felt as if there were limits on me because of my gender, in fact, I felt sometimes like there were extra expectations on me because I was female. Not only do I need to figure out what career I should pursue and work hard at, but I also need to be a great supportive mother and wife. I never heard a lot of pressure put on the young men to be ready for life as a husband and father.
I would never have called myself a feminist even ten years ago. I thought feminism was equivalent to man-hating. You know those shirts you see little girls wearing that say “Girls Rule…boys drool”? I wouldn’t allow my daughters to even say that. Just because we don’t believe men are superior doesn’t mean we have to believe that women are. I remember hearing about the Equal Rights Amendment when I was growing up. What I heard was always very negative. I heard that if it passed, there wouldn’t be any more male and female public restrooms. I heard that women would be included in the draft.
Working for conservative evangelical churches for twenty years, I accepted the line that there were certain positions that were only meant for men. Women in positions of power would somehow throw everything God intended for this world into chaos. At least, that was definitely the impression I got on the rare occasions when I would question the role of women in the church. But raising three daughters, I really started to question the validity of these “rules”. Were they really from the Bible or just years of male-dominated church history? I started to find out that there were legitimate people out there who were much better at supporting their theories than I was – who were more than just questioning these “rules”.
But it now seems like we may find ourselves in a strange no-mans-land as far as new “rules” for raising girls.
So – what exactly is expected of a woman these days? A lot. We are still expected to fill most of the traditional roles, while also competing equally with men in the workplace. We are expected to take care of our homes and our children without it getting in the way of our career. If we choose not to have a family, that is considered totally understandable, but if we choose to have a family instead of a career, well, that is a waste of your potential as a human being. In fact, somehow this choice weakens what all women who want equality are fighting for. We seem to want the next generation of women to have the option of never wearing make-up or heels or shaving our legs, and to be looked at for more than their bodies. However, little girls still instinctively seem to want to dress up like princesses, and older girls often still want to be treated like one. If we are to believe the press we read, all women want to be treated as equal to men, but if you look at culture in general, there are still a LOT of women who are happy being “taken care of”.
Along with these gender role prejudices that women often place on each other, there is a specific list of issues that all women “should” be one the same side of. Woman specific issues include domestic abuse, abortion, contraception, equal pay and sexual assault. If you are a woman, it is expected for you to be on ONE side of all of these issues, or you are somehow condemning your own. In fact, if you are like a lot of women, when you read through that list you were thinking: “how can a woman ever be on the OTHER side of these issues?”
Twenty years ago, the women who were looked at as making a bad name for all women were the ones who chose to be involved in the porn industry. Now it seems the women other women are most likely to look down on as giving women a bad name are the ones who get married and have children and don’t pursue a career.
Isn’t it possible to put your all into being a wife and mother? And isn’t it possible to be a decent mother who has a career? If you are or ever have been on either side of this “debate” you know it doesn’t feel like anyone from the other side has any respect for you whatsoever. Women have a hard enough time with respect in this world. Why do we have to be so hard on each other?