Pip and Polly are the proud inheritors of Ava’s childhood collection of 1980s Cabbage Patch dolls, and last week they decided to take each doll in for a visit to the doctor. They do these visits periodically, designating one of the tables in our living room as an exam table and pulling out various utensils from the kitchen to serve as a stethoscope, an x-ray machine, etc. Pip usually takes the lead in this process, handing out roles to Polly and me and telling us what we should say at various points throughout the examination.
This time, Pip told me that I was to act as each doll’s parent and that I should bring them into the examination room and explain to them what will happen during their visit with the doctor. He then handed me the first doll – a girl with stringy blond hair who we’ve named Olivia – and led us into the living room. As I walked in and sat down on the couch with Olivia on my knee, I was thinking ahead to naptime and how I needed to get a lasagna made for dinner, put a load of laundry in the wash, clean up the dishes from breakfast and lunch, and do some writing for the week’s blog post during that time. After waiting in silence for a few seconds, Pip impatiently prompted me to start explaining to Olivia what he and Polly were going to do. Stuttering a bit to get my words out, I quickly said, “Um, Olivia, this is, um, Dr. Pip and Nurse Polly…”
Then I stopped, remembering as soon as the words had come out of my mouth that thirty-some years of enculturation create habits which are annoyingly hard to break.
Polly and Pip looked over at me in confusion. I took a breath, paused for a moment, and then made a correction: “I’m sorry Olivia, this is Dr. Pip and Dr. Polly.”
Taking care of Polly has brought me into direct and immediate contact with the mysterious world of women. While I thought I was ready for this, it turns out that, much like in rock climbing, there is a distinct difference between visualizing a route and executing the climb. From the ground it can be relatively easy to pick out the series of points one wants to hit, but up on the cliff, getting through those points is never that simple. With each move upward, new details emerge and new options appear, creating questions that challenge and complicate the previously established choices.
With Polly many of the daily questions are sartorial in nature. Dressing Pip each morning is relatively simple: I pull out of his drawer some variation of the same button-up shirt and khakis that I wear most days, throw on some athletic socks and tennis shoes, and run a brush through his hair. Polly’s wardrobe choices require a whole other set of considerations: Is today a dress day or a pants day? Do I put bloomers on if she’s wearing tights? Which pair of shoes is supposed to go with this outfit? How do I get these hair clips and hair bands in without her screaming in pain?
The questions take a more serious turn as intimations of sexuality appear: How short a dress am I willing to put on her? How low a top? Do I really want decals or words on the seat of her pants? What if they’re just flowers? And why do some people insist on putting halter tops on two-year-olds? Do girls become sex objects the moment they can stand on their own two feet?
Even more seriously, Polly’s presence in my life has made me hyper-aware of how many historical inequalities of power between men and women are still present in our lives. For example,
- In 2007, women in the United States earned an income that was only 80% of that received by men.1
- In 2008, only 35% of science and engineering positions in business or industry were held by women and only 15% of top-level managers were women.2
- Of the 535 seats in the 112th edition of the United States Congress, only 93 (17%) are held by women. 3
- 1 in 4 women will become a victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. 4
Every day I think about these statistics and contemplate what they mean for Polly’s future. I wonder how I might prepare her to face these realities and what I might do to help her overcome some of the obstacles that create them.
My first instinct in this regard was to avoid making her excessively feminine. Driven by the idea that being “too girly” leads people to dismiss a woman or treat her as weak and incapable, I hypothesized that by keeping the pink to a minimum, avoiding the plague of Disney princesses and fairies, and cultivating interests in trucks, sports, construction equipment, LEGOs, electronics, and other ‘boy’ topics, I could somehow make Polly immune to all the statistics. I imagined that as she grew up people would recognize that she was different, that she was better than all the other girls, and consequently they would not subject her to the same indignities that all the rest wind up suffering.
This hypothesis, of course, is ridiculous. Trying to essentially raise Polly as a boy is not the answer. For one thing, intentionally creating significant discord between what Polly understands about herself and what things are socially and culturally expected of her as a woman is unfair to her. This discord would only make things more difficult for Polly as she navigates through the world outside our door. For another achieving equality among men and women cannot be accomplished through the creation of sameness. Such attempts only instigate further oppressions by limiting everyone’s life to the simplest and most linear of existences.
In the face of this false choice between Polly being too girly and not being girly enough, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that the best thing we can do right now for Polly is to create within our household small interventions in the dominant patterns of the world beyond. My hope is that through these interventions she will eventually become aware that the inequalities of power between women and men in our society are not natural and unalterable properties and that this awareness will allow her to negotiate the inequalities she encounters with some sense of ironic separation between herself and her cultural position as a woman. As such, I don’t want to, for example, regularize the doctor = male, nurse = female equation in Pip and Polly’s role playing. This equation reproduces a relationship in which the highly paid man holds final decision-making power and the lesser paid woman is responsible for following his directions. I’d rather have them enact the other possible combinations: Pip and Polly as doctors, Pip as nurse and Polly as doctor, Pip and Polly as nurses. She will see plenty of the first combination during her real visits to the doctor.
The other conclusion I have come to is that such interventions may not be as important for Polly as they are for Pip. As Ava has brought to my attention repeatedly, it’s easy to think that addressing the patterns of gender inequality means altering how women operate in the world. But the reality is that the practices and habits of men drive the reproduction of these patterns. As beneficiaries of these inequalities, men bear greater power and responsibility for acknowledging and changing these patterns than is often recognized. For me living up to this responsibility means creating our interventions with Pip in mind as much as Polly. If Pip grows up sensitive to the historical practices of exclusion and obstruction that determine the unequal nature of the opportunities with which he and Polly are respectively presented in life, then perhaps he can further contribute to the type of cumulative cultural adjustment necessary to eliminate from our world the specter of the false choice and all the associated injustices that still haunt women today.
After my slip that morning, I spent the next hour or so making a point of talking to Dr. Pip and Dr. Polly as I brought each of the dolls out for their turn in the examining room. Much to my relief, Pip eventually began parroting this manner of address as well. In some respects it seems like such a little thing, but at the moment these little things are what we can do. One day Ava and I will be able to have those conversations with Polly and Pip where we will talk about history and statistics and the reproduction of inequalities. For now, though, we have to try and show them what could be possible and hope that through this showing they learn to imagine and work for what the world should be instead of accepting as good enough what the world has already been.
1 See this report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2 See this report from the National Science Foundation.
3 For the current list of women in the US Congress, look here.
4 See the Department of Justice’s webpage for the National Institute of Justice
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