I’m being deliberately provocative with the title of this blog post. I am a female and, as such, I was a girl when I was younger. However, I was not raised to think of myself as “just a girl”. I decided to write this post after reading an article a woman wrote about gender expectations and American Gods. This got me to thinking, pondering if you will. Why have I never felt the weight of gender expectations? In fact, I clearly remember a very vehement argument I once had with a former friend about sexism and gender in the workplace. It’s entirely possible that I have been denied promotions or suffered a lower salary because I am female, but if that’s the case I was as oblivious to it as I was to the Stations of the Cross in my childhood church. I simply plowed forward and did my job. If my behaviors upset or offended supervisors because I didn’t act in a typically female way, I either addressed it head on, was oblivious to it, or ignored it.
I have never been told that I could not achieve something because I’m “a girl”. I was never discouraged from trying or accomplishing something because “girls don’t do that”. Sure my parents tried to civilize me and teach me to behave but they also encouraged me to be independent and strong-willed. They regularly gave me the “would you (fill in the blank) just because everyone else does?” speech. I was never encouraged to downplay my intelligence because boys don’t like smart girls. I was never told I was too aggressive for a girl and should tone it down (in fact my father preferred to teach me the correct way to throw a punch). When boys touched me in ways I did not want, I punched them or kicked them in the balls. My nickname as an adolescent was “the Nutcracker”. At the same time, I accepted that if I was going to hit others I might get hit back. I couldn’t use the “I’m a girl” excuse. I was fine with this. Looking back, I was truly blessed to have two parents who never, ever fell victim to gender roles and stereotypes – at least not when it came to me. I remember one Easter my grandmother bought my sister and me matching outfits – they were royal blue pantsuits (think polyester button-down shirts and pants) with T-shirts that proclaimed “Anything boys can do, girls can do better” and a graphic of a girl in a baseball outfit getting ready to swing her bat. We LOVED those shirts and proudly wore them every chance we got. In fact, that saying became our unofficial motto throughout childhood.
I was also influenced by Greco-Roman and Norse mythology as a child. I identified with Athena, the wise virgin who owed nothing to a man (okay, I’m oversimplifying because that’s what I believed as a child). I loved Freya who was the leader of the Valkyries and free to sleep with whom she chose, even if they were dwarves. It wasn’t just independent female goddesses that appealed to me – they had to have a fierceness to them, a martial aspect as well. I loved goddesses who bowed down to no man or god. As I grew older and learned about Irish goddesses I felt a strong connection to many of them too. Once again, fierce feminine figures who were not bound to a male.
Looking back, I am also a product of my generation. I grew up in the 70s and clearly remember the hoopla that following the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. I remember how excited I was when Charlie’s Angels premiered! Yes, in retrospect it was a T&A show but as a young girl, all I saw were these tough, independent women who took on bad guys every week and triumphed. I was a fan of both Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter, Isis, and Electra Woman & Dyna Girl. I read Wonder Woman and Supergirl comic books. I remember being vaguely disappointed when the ERA was defeated. I didn’t fully understand what it was or why I wanted it but I knew that its failure was not a good thing for me. I remember having an epiphany during a religious class in Catholic high school when our teacher while conducting a cakes & wine ritual, informed us that ancient frescoes showed that women administered the sacraments in the early Christian church. I was floored! It never occurred to me that women could serve as priests. I often think that this was the pivotal moment that ultimately led me to pursue Paganism.
So, it occurs to me that if we don’t want to raise our daughters to be “just girls” we need to reinforce that message. We need to support them when they show interest in traditionally “ungirly” things or behave in non-girly ways. We also need to let them know that if they choose to pursue traditionally feminine pursuits, that is wonderful too. It’s so easy to denigrate traditional feminine pursuits, interests, and behaviors but that’s just as damaging as only allowing them to pursue these things. Some girls want to be fairy princesses and some want to be G.I. Joe. Some want to play with dolls and some want to play with toy guns. Some will do both and all of that is great and should be encouraged. For that matter, we should use the same approach with boys. I guess the important thing is to focus on what the child wants and needs and make sure to nurture and support them. Sounds easy and yet somehow we make it so complicated.