Every so often, some occurrence comes along that throws life into a new orbit. My trajectory was recently shifted by such an event – I fell in love with a girl. She’s much younger than me: not even a week old, in fact. And she happens to have half of my chromosomes, as daughters tend to do. She is healthy, and both she and her mother are doing well. I find myself carrying her around the house, just staring at her face. When she’s awake and looks back at me, which is mostly late at night unfortunately, it’s magical.
Obviously, we knew this day was coming. We’re not ready to plan her entire life out for her just yet (not until she’s at least a month old). But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to be a father to a baby girl, and all the possibilities and challenges life has before her. She has two older brothers, who are crazy about her, but there are things that I worry about for their sister that I didn’t have to think about for them, at least not as much. Forgive me for how naïve this is about to sound because I know I’m behind the curve, but I’m trying…
It’s not that I’m completely obtuse about the existence of gender discrimination or harassment. On a theoretical level, anthropology is about awareness of human variation in all its forms – biological, cultural, temporal, etc. But I’ve never been a woman before. I did begin life as a female (that’s not a revelation – we all did), and I’ve been surrounded by women my whole life. My wife is a woman, and my mother is a woman. Actually, now that I think about it, about half of the people I know are women, and as it turns out almost half of the world is female too. One would think that with all that familiarity we’d be farther along in terms of recognizing gender equality. I guess history has inertia. Personally, I know I am buffered by the privileges that come with being a man… and a white man at that (how many advantages can one person have?) My wife and I also met as teenagers, so she doesn’t have a lot of first-hand experience with being a single woman (and all of the challenges that entails) to share with me.
Anyway, all of this is to say that I’ve been somewhat sheltered about the full extent of gender discrimination and harassment. But I am catching up. I am grateful to those who have raised my consciousness, not only for the sake of being more aware, but for selfish and practical reasons: because they help prepare me for our daughter’s future and how to better raise our sons (there are too many examples to mention here, but Sandra, Kate, Robin, Julienne, and Katie, thank you).
For our sons, we teach them that kindness comes first. If you were to distill the most athletic, attractive, popular, wealthy person down their core and not find any kindness there, then the rest is a waste. But kindness and empathy often fall short, and too often we’re left disappointed by “the imperfections of human justice (and) the inadequacy of human compassion” (link).
Despite those recurrent disappointments, I want for my daughter the same things I want for her brothers – and for everyone, really – to be kind of course, to be curious about the world, to love whomever she wants and be loved in return, to have a life as free from pain as possible, to have a strong sense of self-worth and dignity yet remain humble and empathetic; and to be able find her own way to happiness and meaning. Most of the other aspirations in the cultural ether –celebrity, beauty, wealth – seem trivial by comparison, even though they are promoted so heavily.
I’d also like her to know that traditions are sometimes signposts of accumulated wisdom. At other times, they are shackles (as Boas wrote), and it takes more courage to seek out one’s own path than to conform to certain cultural and gendered expectations. Change is possible. When I was a boy, our Catholic school had two separate entrances: one marked ‘Boys’ and the other ‘Girls.’ These were inscribed when the building was first constructed, but by the time my generation came along, all students entered through the same door. I drove by the school recently. Now, nobody goes through those doors because no one goes to Church anymore either.
Unfortunately, we will one day have to prepare our daughter for some things that her brothers likely will not have to encounter. She is perfect now (at least in our eyes), and although we can’t see the future she will probably end up inheriting her mother’s beauty (at least in my eyes). We want her to be valued for more than her appearance. And we want her to know that there are things that men are not allowed to do, particularly in professional settings.
There are other things I wish everyone, especially those with privilege, would consider. I’ve liked this passage from Matt Ridley’s book “The Agile Gene” for a while:
“Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their differences from another; or different by one’s similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be very different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike the eye – the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. A chimpanzee, in turn, is similar to a human being when contrasted with a dog; the face, the hands, the 32 teeth, and so on. And a dog is like a person to the extent that both are unlike a fish. Difference is the shadow of similarity.” (p. 7)
These are not groundbreaking observations, just reminders that two things can be alike and dissimilar simultaneously. To me, the important part is to be aware of which we hold at the forefront of our consciousness when thinking of other people. Both are obviously important. When we are born, we hit the ground running and are dropped into circumstances we didn’t choose, which then become part of our identity. You have your ancestors, genes, and traditions; I have mine. It sometimes takes some effort to see beyond our ascribed circumstances (gender, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, etc.) to see similarity first. But not too much effort. If you can’t see similarity, if you lack any sense that other people can suffer just as you can even if they don’t look or talk exactly like you, then you may be failing as a human being. It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that life is really, really short (but so beautiful). Lives are fragile; life is not. It will go on without us no matter what we accomplish. Why spend it by creating suffering? Stifling human potential for women, or anyone, through oppression, intimidation, or harassment is a way of creating suffering, which begets more suffering. This isn’t rocket science, but I think my life would be better if it were surrounded by as many happy, fulfilled people as people as possible, not people who feel held back.
For my daughter, I’ll also tell her that social connection is a key (maybe even the key) to happiness, but that she shouldn’t settle for just any connections in order to fit in. It’s more than OK to be unique, weird, or different, and to love herself for who she is. It’s a tautology that we are all weird in some way, since none of us are clones of each other, not even twins. Variation is the only reality; what seems like ‘the norm’ is merely an abstract concept. It’s been said that “all human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” I suspect that for most of us, our private and secret lives are interspersed by insecurities about how we differ and how we fall short (I may seem like I have my act together, but I have my moments of self-doubt. I’m not obligated to share them here, however). For the ultra-confident among us, whether it is deserved or not, good for you. How will you use that confidence? To create suffering, or minimize it?