It was a special moment the other day when Iris came down the stairs with her book tucked beneath her arm, proclaiming, “I wish we didn’t have to leave yet because I’m so excited to keep reading Magic Treehouse.”
But this was not the point, and I could see her wheels turning as we descended the front steps and climbed into the car, buckling in. “But I have a question about my book.” Her sense of justice is so sensitive and was disrupted. “The Magic Treehouse took Jack and Annie to ancient Greece, and now guards took Annie because she is a girl and they said she couldn’t be in plays or be in the Olympics or hardly do anything.”
I shut the car door and slid into the driver’s seat. And as we snaked along Upper Bear Creek, so I began revealing, with pride and admiration, the history of womanhood. There were so many triumphant moments, detailing each little right gained, each ceiling shattered; and the irony of it is, I delivered all of this with great intention, as straightforwardly as possible, so as not to embitter my seven-year-old.
Still, when I reached the end, I was enraged.
I was angry because my body bleeds and is vulnerable and soft, and as such, my mind is perceived as soft as well. I was angry because I have done this practically incomprehensible thing—grown and produced two living, breathing, functioning human beings unto the world—yet this miraculous feat is relegated to a man, whom I barely know, calling me “Mama” whenever he sees me about town. He has no idea that I have a master’s degree or that I am a writer or that I was once entrusted with tens of thousands of dollars and the political persuasions of some of the most powerful financial leaders in our state. I was angry because the very existence of mankind has always been dependent upon womankind; that in the very literal sense, men would not exist were it not for women; that we have all been produced by women, very many of us nurtured and supported our entire lives by women; and despite that, women are considered less than. I was angry that for my whole entire childhood, I felt these biases didn’t exist and that I lived in an age when girls could do anything; but when I came of age, the range of expectations and opportunities shrank—continues to shrink.
I was white-knuckled, gripping the steering wheel, calming the fury in my chest, and Iris asked me, “And girls can do all the same things as boys now?”
Why do we deny how softness is a strength? Why is my femininity considered so fragile? In a single moment, I carried the ugly weight of historical oppression and a tenderness for my own daughter so immense I could burst; but on my face I wore a serene smile as I told her, “You can do anything you want to, and there’s still work to be done, so you can use your voice to do it.” How is that not strong and controlled and wise?
Never have I considered myself an angry person, and certainly not an angry feminist. As a young, academically-minded girl, I just wanted a fair shot, and I guess I thought I had that. But now, the days of my adult life tick by one at a time, and I feel myself a little angrier. Oh, I know I chose marriage and I chose to be home with my children. I feel empowered to have had the chance to make those choices rather than someone else making them for me. But hosting a dinner party several weeks ago, I sat silently, politely, listening to all of the conversation our “young professional” guests made with my husband. When the sole question presented to me was, “So, what do the girls have going on this summer?”, I felt my stomach lurch and I summoned the strength needed for placid facial expressions, all the while wondering, Where did I go?
To be totally honest, as a mother of daughters, one of my greatest fears is perpetuating a lie. Every day, I hope to infuse them with strength and ambition. I hope to keep them curious and focused, hardworking and strong, knowing that those traits will serve them well in whatever life paths they choose. And the fear is that, regardless of this effort, maybe one day they’ll find themselves at a dinner party also asking themselves if they are disappearing.
I’m trying to conjure up the words that capture the marvel that is womanhood, when society doesn’t even bother with it in vernacular. Shouldn’t we be talking about this every day? Instead, these roles we play, and the grace with which we do it, it’s all unspoken expectation. I guess I am looking for the redemption, and I don’t think in my lifetime it will come as culture-wide recognition and exaltation. There’s certainly a Boys Club making a lot of rules.
Still, they are only boys. To be a woman is to join a network of individuals made of untold strength. What a privilege to grow up and look back and learn that my mother and her mother and her mother, did more for me than I ever could have comprehended when I was young. Maybe we’re not disappearing; we are uncovering the greatness and the overwhelming sacrifice of each woman who came before we did, hoping that our daughters do the same for us.
So as I glanced at Iris’s face in the rearview mirror, and she was nodding along with my response, I was timid but also honored to induct her into our own club. And since there is more work to do, and I can use my voice to do it, to all the women out there, and to my own mom especially, I see you and I am amazed.