Because today is International Women’s Day, I am sharing a paper my oldest daughter wrote for her Women’s Voices college class. She wrote it in a letter style and needed to write about the “social construction of gender” and how it applies to her own life. Manny and I have been pleased to see how Scarlett has responded to this class. She believes women are equal to men and also believes men and women are different and those differences should be valued. She illustrates her belief in this paper. I hope I do not come across as bragging by sharing her praises of me in this paper; my reason for sharing is because I think young women like Scarlett have articulated views which need to be heard.
I want to tell you a little bit about what I’ve been learning this semester in my Women’s Voices class. You see, for the past six weeks, I’ve been observing the social construction of gender and how it may apply to various texts or even my life. An example of this statement, the social construction of gender, could be how we begin to identify our children from birth. When a child is born with the anatomy of a girl, and we swaddle her up in a pink blanket, put pretty flowery headbands on her and off she goes. When a baby is born with the anatomy of a male, we wrap the baby up in a blue blanket, dress him in dinosaur t-shirts and off he goes. This is how we’ve managed to create a system that says this is male and this is female. Now in some ways, the social construction of gender takes it a step further by also “selecting,” or rather declaring, what roles a person may or may not have based on their sex. For example, little boys are given play tool bench sets, cars, dinosaurs, and robots. While little girls have kitchen toys, tea party sets, toy baby dolls, and stuffed animals. By giving children toys that have been categorized specifically by their gender (dinosaurs for boys and dolls for girls), we begin to shape the way a person will view behavior that is “girly” and behavior that is “boyish.” And it’s been through my class I’ve had the chance to briefly observe the way social gendering may occur and be applied through class activities and readings such as “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.
During my first day of class, everybody was given colored sticky notes to write down stereotypes for the male and female genders. For male stereotypes, men are commonly believed to be rough and abusive; they only cook when they “grill out,” they need to be courageous and strong. These stereotypes fell mainly on the side of behavior and virtue. When it came to women the stereotypes swapped virtues for expectations; we’re expected to be motherly, to cook, to clean. We love shopping and are overly emotional. Now obviously not every woman is motherly or loves going to the mall, While every man may be able to cry watching “Marley and Me” and can be a loving person. Society, however, wants us to act according to the rules it laid down way back when our children are given their first kitchen or tool-bench sets.
My class was given a chance to observe some of the roles assigned to women through Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” This is a short story revolving around a list of “do’s and don’ts” given to a young girl by the narrator. The entire first paragraph of the story is a list of household chores: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk bareheaded in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little clothes right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well in the wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it” (Kincaid, Girl). Told through what we assume to be the mother’s perspective we see how everyday chores, such as cooking and doing laundry, are categorized and deemed as women’s work.
Within my family, we typically practice traditional gender roles. Throughout my life, my father has been the main source of income and male advisor for things outside of the home. It is my mother who prepares meals and provides nurturing in our family. By far the best cook I’ve ever known, my mom taught herself how to cook when she was around nine and has been perfecting her skill ever since. Originally my mom wanted to be a fighter pilot; she almost finished earning her private pilot license when she was a teenager (she had her first solo flight at 15). When I was born, she gave up her career aspirations to stay home and look after me and eventually my other siblings. Some people believe that my mother wasted her talents as an excellent cook, a fantastic writer, and a potential pilot by staying at home instead of pursuing any of these careers. However, in my family, we do not look down on female roles, but rather value them as much as male roles. My mother would not trade a career for the blessing of staying home and raising a family.
Because we value traditional female roles, one of my brothers has learned how to cook, and that same brother loves taking care of the baby when the child is crying. And while this boy has also learned how to take care of plumbing, a job that he’s given based on his gender, he also learns and appreciates traditional female jobs. My sisters and I do learn traditional female jobs, like changing the diapers of the crying baby and have also helped with what is considered male jobs, like moving furniture, yard work, and trash duty. We keep to the traditional roles overall but can venture out when needed. We like it like this (I, for one, do not want to do plumbing!)
In my opinion and experience having a combination of social standards for gender and a certain point where the rules don’t quite apply is a good thing. Our society tells us those female roles are not to be taken seriously and are something to cast off. According to the social construction of gender, we should all remain in our cookie cutter ways where all house duties are the responsibility of the female. But I believe having a sense of how valuable the roles of both genders are, and why certain things may be male or female categorized is something the world needs right now.