I had a short piece up at Slate’s Double X blog yesterday about the lessons I’ve learned this summer while teaching summer school. As those of you who follow me on Twitter might know, I’m teaching third and fourth grade English and writing, as well as SAT prep. It has been an exhausting, enlightening experience, one that has endowed me with a new respect for all the teachers I’ve had, from professors and TAs to coaches and singing teachers. It is hard bloody work, and it makes me want to look up all my favorite teachers and thank them so much for what they did, day after day, so that I could grow up loving learning (in the meantime, thanks, Mrs. Woolley and Mrs. Reeves!).
To the point. What’s really struck me as I’ve been observing my students, particularly the eight- and nine-year-olds, is how early on they learn about gender, and how thoroughly they’ve internalized the “battle of the sexes” mentality evident in the t-shirt – “The stupid factory… Where boys are made” – that prompted me to write the Double X post.
Last week, I was teaching a reading passage about the ancient Greeks and their beliefs about numbers. They believed, the passage said, that odd numbers were good, and even numbers were bad. So they called the odd numbers “male” and the even ones “female.” “Women were not highly regarded by the ancients,” the passage explained parenthetically. So I asked the class if they agreed that women were more malicious than men. All but two of the boys raised their hands in agreement, while most of the girls shook their heads. One little girl said, “they’re the same! Boys are mean too!” It’s moments like this – when a student espouses the belief that meanness knows no gender – that give me hope. But those moments are few and far between. In my classroom, the “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them” mentality is more common, and it worries me.
We gender our kids early. We dress our little girls in pink and our boys in blue, our girls in shirts with sparkles and cartoon kittens on them and our boys in shirts bearing pictures of robots and monsters. Sometimes, we sexualize the girls, dressing them in skinny jeans or string bikinis when they’re three years old. Or we dress them in clothing that reinforces traditional gender roles, like t-shirts with “Daddy’s Little Princess” or “Diva” emblazoned across the front. These practices are harmful, no doubt about it. And as Miriam pointed out a few weeks ago, gendering children as early on as we do only makes sense in a culture that is incredibly invested in the man-woman dichotomy and deeply uncomfortable with any gender ambiguity.
But the “battle of the sexes” mentality is, perhaps, even worse. It’s one thing to separate and distinguish between boys and girls unnecessarily, to mark them as inherently and immutably different. And of course, the reinforcement of outdated gender roles – princess, diva – is harmful to girls. But to pitch boys and girls against each other and to encourage them to see each other as enemies is something we should avoid at all costs. To be successful, the fight for gender equality must be a joint one, and its outcome will be win-win. Ultimately, feminism isn’t just about women fighting male dominance, but about all of us fighting sexism. How can we expect to raise kids who will be ready, as adults, to join that fight, if we’re training them up to do battle with each other?