As my 8-year-old daughter threw the football with her father, another unfamiliar father walked by and made mention of her impressive ability. Whether or not he was impressed by her ability because she was a girl wasn’t known for certain, though it was certainly implied. Following this “compliment,” I heard my husband say, “Yeah, she’s got three brothers.”
Immediately, I flinched. The implication that Emily’s football prowess was impressive because she is a girl and the response that it was somehow related or thanks to her brothers hit me in a spot that was decidedly not so tender prior to motherhood.
As a girl, I lived with a set of expectations different from the set that was put upon my brother. As a teen, I listened to the warnings that my parents often repeated to me and my sisters but not to my brother. As a young woman, I knew I would likely earn less than my male counterparts, heard daily catcalls and hollers while I walked to work, and again I heeded the parental warnings I was sure my brother wasn’t hearing on weekly phone calls. I didn’t consciously mind the disparity and appreciated my parents’ concern. Looking back, I was bothered that I repeatedly heard how cute I was, yet I was very hard-pressed to remember praise for something I had achieved. Being small and cute with curly blond hair was merely genetics, but that was as far as my annoyance went.
I accepted the ways in which women were not equal to men in our society—they were never too overt in my life, though at times they were more blatant. It was always a discussion somewhere on the fringe, yet never the focal point of conversation in my group, in my family, or in my life. The injustice, the imbalance between the sexes had never moved me into action and had never motivated my professional course or personal path in life. Gloria Steinem, I was not.
And then I became a mother of a daughter.
Admittedly, I will likely tell my daughter, Emily, to be careful more than my son, Ben. I will repeatedly warn her of dangers lurking. Some of the same dangers face my son, but merely for the reason that he is male, I will worry less about him. This I know, and I won’t pretend otherwise. I will teach my daughter that she can achieve in arts, business, science, politics, finance, medicine, academia or sports. I will ensure that she has a voice and that she demand equal treatment. I will teach her that when someone offers praise cloaked in sexist surprise, her response can be “thank you” or “I’ve been practicing.” I will teach her that her response does not require further explanation.
I’m not totally living under a rock. Growing up around boys who play catch can help a younger sister hone her skills–as it could for any younger sibling. But not all boys like sports, and not all girls play with dolls. You can’t force a child to want to play, and you can’t lay claim to your sibling’s (or anyone else’s) abilities and achievements. Plus, I’m fairly certain fathers of young boys rarely qualify their son’s athletic prowess.
My daughter can throw and catch a football because she has practiced and can now adeptly throw and catch a football. Her ability has nothing to do with having one, two, three or even no brothers at all.
She does not need to be qualified. Of this I am absolutely certain.
I steer clear of weighty labels and propaganda. But if knowing this and teaching this small and enormous lesson to my lovely, sensitive, strong, artistic, athletic, sweet, funny, smart and undeniably cute daughter bears the label of feminism, that’s fine with me.