In which University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik blows our antiquated minds.
I was in seventh grade when the New Jersey public school system changed the dress code. The girls of Ocean Township wore pants to school for the first time that year, 1970. At which point I put on a pair of Lee jeans, a black leotard and a plaid flannel shirt from the Army-Navy store and pretty much didn’t change until I graduated from high school.
Fast forward. My daughter Jane, now in seventh grade, never wore a skirt to school in her life until this year. Now she rocks the Baltimore City public school regs in a fitted navy t-shirt and a tiny khaki skort with bright leggings and knee-high boots. She admits it — she’s becoming more of a girly girl. But this, it turns out, doesn’t mean what you might think it does.
A girly girl, in Jane’s mind, is one who dresses in feminine clothes and does not enjoy masculine activities like torturing bugs or playing violent video games, though she may well participate in sports. I asked her if a girly girl could be a feminist. She looked at me quizzically, saying she thought girly girls were the biggest feminists of all. “They’re the ones who are most excited about being a girl, right?”
For Jane, wearing that skirt and reading fashion magazines and playing with lipstick are all feminist expressions. It’s the new Katy Perry kind of feminism, where your candy-color makeup and ice-cream cone boobs are symbols of empowerment, not subjugation.
When I asked her if there was a difference in the way boys and girls are treated at her school, she said there definitely is. The girls are expected to be smarter and work harder. This seemed to her to be something everyone knows.
“But are the boys ever given preference?” I asked, groping for some evidence that I hadn’t woken up on Mars. She tried hard to come up with something, then remembered an incident where her music teacher asked the boys to move piles of stacked chairs out from under the stage while the girls stayed in their seats.
“It was totally unfair,” she said. “We wanted to get up too!”
While it was once a fact of life that boys were the preferred and privileged sex, the ground has shifted. Last year’s controversial The End of Men by Hanna Rosin documented changes in women’s status around the world, from college campuses to Bible Belt communities to the Pacific Northwest, South Korea and India. For example, while it’s always been assumed that letting people choose the sex of their children would cause a drastic majority of male babies, Rosin reports that “orders” for girls in FDA trials of a new method for sperm selection, called MicroSort, are running at 75 percent. Why? Because, like Jane said, everyone knows girls are easier to raise and do better in school. In fact, colleges now secretly have to apply affirmative action policies that favor male applicants so they don’t end up with huge girl majorities.
Just as shockingly, Rosin asserts that the “hook-up culture” on campus is driven as much by girls as by boys. As one female MBA student explained, she doesn’t want the “ball and chain” of a boyfriend or husband holding her back. But girls have needs, you know? So “hooking up” is not a sad masquerade but a way to postpone commitment until key career goals have been reached. This is probably why the average age of marriage is now 32.
Reading this book and talking to Jane, it’s dawned on me that the radical change between my mother’s generation and mine will probably be no greater than that between mine and Jane’s.
When I was growing up, few women worked outside the home; my own mom left a career in market research to have me and never went back. A couple of kids I knew had moms who were cashiers or secretaries; this just meant the family needed money. As I said, I wore a dress to school every day. Though I was too young to attend the bonfire when bra-burning was a fad, I was in high school when Ms. Magazine premiered. I took feminist history, sociology and women’s literature classes in college and was deeply infatuated with the ideas they presented.
Today, the mothers of Jane’s classmates fall into almost every category except full-time traditional homemaker, and there’s a Nobel Prize winner among them. Far from feeling discriminated against, Jane is certain that she can pursue any career she wants.
When I broke the news to her that women are often paid less than men for the same work, she didn’t believe me.
“You mean if they did the same job at the same company, they wouldn’t get paid the same thing?” she said. “How can that be?”
Well, it does seem kind of ludicrous at this point, doesn’t it? Fortunately, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the most powerful and most highly compensated women in the world, has just published a book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead that may help change that. By the time Jane comes of age in the workplace, the advice Sandberg gives on how to make career choices, how to negotiate, how to deal with the prejudice against powerful women and how to have a family without sacrificing career objectives may be something “everybody knows.”
Part of Sandberg’s creed is that husbands must be 50-50 partners in all domestic matters, no ifs, ands or buts. I asked Jane if she expected to split the work of her future household 50/50 with her mate — she wasn’t sure. “Do you think they can?” She hoped she would be able to find a partner smart enough and competent enough to do his share.
Well, honestly it may not be easy, and in the meantime, what to do? Girls have needs. “Date all of them,” advises Sandberg, “the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner.”
Maybe I have woken up on Mars. I hope the many women in the world who are not enjoying Martian living get a seat on the rocket ship soon.
A version of this essay ran in the Howard County women’s magazine, Her Mind, which happens to be edited by my neighbor, the eloquent food writer and restaurant critic, Martha Thomas.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.
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