“Kig! Kig!” is a zealous cry you can hear many times a day in our house. Our two year old son is obsessed with pigs, and with a certain young, female, cartoon pig in particular. No one can hold a candle to Peppa. Nothing thrills his heart like more Peppa merchandise. But I’ve noticed something weird over the past year. People often apologise for buying him Peppa gear because it is pink (like pigs). Unimpressed with mother nature’s indiscriminate colour palette, there’s this strange idea abroad that it isn’t quite appropriate for a little boy to like anything pink.
Thankfully he’s not picking up on any of their hints.
This is obviously just a tiny example of how our culture decides what is appropriate for each gender – in terms of possessions and clothing, but also in terms of roles, ambitions and behaviour. It’s everywhere. And as the parents of both a girl and a boy, it’s something I know is going to smack us in the face repeatedly over the years, as we try to fight it. Because we want both our children to be able to live fulfilling lives in which their contributions and achievements are not limited or prescribed by anyone else’s concept of what is appropriate for their gender. (Can I get a fist pump?)
Which is a nice idea, but what does it mean practically? That I won’t dress my daughter in pink? (I am far too thrifty for that – I will dress her in pretty much anything she is given). This idea of equality and freedom of opportunity for people of any gender is the focus of International Women’s Day this year (they call it the “pledge for parity”), and for us it leads to lots of practical choices in daily family life. Things like how we divide up chores and decide who works when, who looks after the kids… I could write a list of stuff we do in pursuit of this aim…but I have a feeling it would be quite dull. What’s more, I’m not suggesting that our lifestyle is a model that anyone else should adopt – it’s full of compromise and privilege and mess, and shaped as much by our personalities as anything else. So how do I envisage our society moving forward towards ‘gender parity’’?
The question makes me think of the discussions Andy and I had about what surname or surnames we would adopt when we got married. I always swore blind I’d never take a man’s name, knowing full well that it was a hangover from an era when women were expected to give up their identity entirely when they got married, and become the possession of their husband. I may in fact have dropped this fact casually into conversation about three weeks after we started going out.
But in the end I did take Andy’s surname.
I still don’t like its cultural roots as a practice. I’m not in favour of its universal adoption. But when it came down to us and our relationship, our very specific story and struggles, it felt like an important way for me to express my trust in Andy, and in the fact that he wasn’t going to treat me as a possession but wanted to see me become more and more fully myself.
It looks like I just did the culturally normal thing, but I know that our story was about finding the best ways we could to love one another.
I don’t think equality of opportunity leads to a certain list of outcomes. Everyone’s personality will lead them to different choices. But I weep at the thought of a world where my son will get to choose things that my daughter won’t. Or that the world will expect her to put up with things it will never ask of her brother.
But I get stuck on the how. Because the only way I know to move in that direction is by loving one another, and putting my husband’s flourishing ahead of my own, trusting that he’s doing the same for me. You can’t legislate for it, you can’t enforce it, I don’t even know how useful a thing it is to say. Fighting my corner, fighting for my own rights, will never make my family into the kind of place where we can all become the best versions of ourselves. Love, which so often leads to sacrifice, is the only way forward I can believe in.
But of course it only works when it is mutual. Otherwise one person is just railroaded – and this is perhaps all too familiar a story in cultures the world over. So perhaps we need to triple underline in red biro the imperative for MEN especially to put the hopes, dreams, callings and growth of the women in their family ahead of their own, to encourage them towards opportunity and self-realisation. But how effective will red biro be?
It doesn’t leave me in a very satisfying position – passionate about gender parity but also about every couple and family working out what that means for them as a unique unit acting out of love; idealistically championing the idea of marriage partners putting their partner’s dreams and ambitions ahead of their own rather than fighting their corner, and simultaneously weeping over the cultural blindness that means that probably this advice will just perpetuate the same old bias towards men’s self-realisation at the expense of women’s. Eurgh.
I don’t have a better answer right now, but plenty of other people do. So head over to Lulastic for a round-up of great blogs celebrating International Women’s Day, and to the official website itself for great stories, brilliant initiatives and a lot of inspiration.by