Little Girls

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Today is International Women’s Day. This is not a day I’ve noted before, because until recently I didn’t think much about being a woman.

Growing up, in the time and place that I did, I had the strange “luxury” of feeling ambivalent about my female-ness. It was something that I took for granted; Hair: Brown, Race: Caucasian, Sex: F. I never disliked being a woman, but neither did I take any particular pride in it. I emerged from adolescence with some vaguely negative stereotypes about what it meant to be a woman: women were overly emotional, too sensitive, too talkative, bad drivers, and subject to the ultimate Sophie’s Choice of career vs. motherhood: no matter how you chose, your life was doomed to be less than satisfying. Back then, I would’ve been afraid to say I was proud to be a woman; such a statement might align me with the angry voices of second-wave feminism. Granted, those angry voices were necessary in order to get the culture’s attention, but anger doesn’t usually speak to me. I was brought up to be polite; I still don’t do angry very well.

It’s gradually dawned on me that I am a woman. Not only that: I am the mother of three little girls who will one day be women. As such, I am my daughters’ first example of what it is to be female.

That’s a charge I shouldn’t take lightly.

My role as a mother, I repeatedly tell my girls, is to help each one of them become “the best YOU that you can be.” How do I help my girls become their best selves, and instill pride that their SELF includes being a WOMAN?

I think pride in being a woman begins with recognizing that there’s something unique about womanhood. Men and boys are special, of course, but women are special because they’re not men — we bring something different to the table. My daughters, despite being raised in the relative cultural isolation of small-town Vermont — few chain stores, no billboards, no T.V., and the only magazine we get is The New Yorker — STILL gravitate towards fairies and princesses and ponies and pastels. They choose to dress and play differently than the boys we know. I can either fight this apparently inborn female-ness, or I can encourage them to find the strengths in who they already seem to know they are.

Those female stereotypes I grew up with, many of them are in some way true. But they also encompass some of the qualities I love best in my girls, qualities that I think make them uniquely female. In trying to get at what’s special about women, I’ll take each stereotype I grew up with and highlight its strengths:

Women are too emotional: Emotion results from feeling things deeply. Being able to feel deeply is a gift; like any gift, it has a dark underbelly, but its bright side is an ability to be passionate about ideas, causes, people. Passion is what gets things done. If nobody was emotional, we’d end up with a world of economists, and TRUST ME, that would be tragic.

-Women are too sensitive: Like emotion, sensitivity can be problematic if overindulged, but it’s a necessary ingredient for successful relationships. Being sensitive may mean that you’re easily hurt, but it also makes you more aware of the feelings of others.

-Women are too talkative: Sorry, but as a writer I don’t have a problem with this. Aren’t words the essence of life? Isn’t the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel that, without the ability to communicate, our cities end in ruins?

Women are bad drivers: I don’t really know where this one came from, but I DO know that when I’m a bad driver, it’s usually because there are three little people screaming at me from the backseat. Which gets at something that I think is a female strength: the ability to multitask. Just about every woman I know thinks nothing of talking on the phone while preparing dinner with one hand and bouncing a baby on her hip. Or writing her PhD dissertation with one side of her brain while simultaneously solving her best friend’s relationship troubles with the other side. So pardon us if we’re distracted! (In contrast, when my husband watches the girls, he’ll get dinner cooked…while the girls run around naked setting small fires in every corner).

-Work vs. motherhood: This is a whole can of worms, but the WONDERFUL thing about being a woman is that you GET a choice. You can become a MOTHER, for crying out loud! That’s an amazing thing that only women can do. But, thankfully, in this day and age, you can also choose a CAREER! The world needs women represented in all fields — and with fewer and fewer restrictions, you can do what you love. Nowadays, there are creative ways to cobble motherhood and career into something that works. But it’s NOT easy: it’ll never be easy to be a mother, it’ll never be easy to carve out a career, it’ll NEVER be easy to balance both. But women do it, and have done it forever — since back when “career” meant “keeping a farm running.” And that’s why the toughest people I know are all women.

Those are a few strengths that I’d claim for women. But what makes me PROUDEST about being a woman is the company in which it puts me. Powerful women have surrounded me my entire life, it’s just taken me a while to notice. There are the women in my own family. There are the six years’ worth of students I taught at two girls’ schools (two of them recently re-introduced herself to me here; they’re students at Middlebury — talk about feeling old!). There’s the Pakistani woman I tutored for six years in Manhattan, who’s currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree. And there are my friends across the world: women who have amazing careers, women who are mamas, women who have careers and are mamas, single women, partnered women. Women who stay in hard marriages; women who leave impossible marriages. Women who show up with a meal at the perfect time (because it’s always the perfect time!). Women who create things of beauty. Women who tell the truths you need to hear. Women who raise the children — and not just their own. Women who care for the sick and comfort the grieving and fight for justice.

These women are beautiful. They make the world more beautiful. They keep life going. I’m so grateful that my own little girls can grow into women, surrounded by women like these. As my oldest daughter said the other day, “Every girl’s a princess, even if she doesn’t live in a castle.” Amen, and Happy International Women’s Day!

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