Susannah The First
I wanted to hang out with my daughter the other day but I was really really tired.
So I offered to watch TV with her, the exhausted mom’s activity of last resort. We scrolled through Netflix and finally settled on a something we’d never seen before – Disney’s “Sophia the First”. It looked cute. It was purple. Princesses. We were in.
The first episode of “Sophia the First” features a plot where Sophia’s stepbrothers enter a horse race. Sophia wants to be in the horse race too, and even has a horse she’s trained, but girls aren’t allowed to participate. Sophia demands to be allowed to enter the race. The boys are horrified. The adults are scandalized. And the other girls, including Sophia’s stepsister, make it very clear that they have no interest in such things and prefer to look pretty and not get their dresses rumpled (in a way that seemed to imply that girls who want to look pretty and remain unrumpled are obviously inferior to girls who prefer to go in horse races).
As this story unfolded, my daughter looked at me with an incredulous expression and said, “Girls can’t go in a race?”
If Mickey Mouse had been there with us, I would have throttled him.
This came to mind because Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said this week that “…growing up in the ’70s, in the middle of the country, I don’t think a lot of people thought a girl could be president.” And I realized it was a “Sophia the First” moment for adults – an authority figure throwing a banana cream pie of sexist discouragement into the face of women.
Whether from intellectual laziness or from Machiavellian self-interest, demagogues and politicians just love to pretend women are facing constant and unremitting repression. I’ve seen them repeatedly claim that girls couldn’t play sports or take math or go in horse races or run for president because they had to look pretty and not get their dresses rumpled until 5 minutes ago, when the boys suddenly decided to let us.
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, in the middle of the country — the Red Zone. Girls played sports – I played flag football, basketball, tennis, softball, and took tae kwon do. We studied math and science and took AP classes; indeed, most of the people in my school who were in upper-level classes, were girls. There were girls in shop and girls in the computer lab. Girls ran for class president and edited the school newspaper – I was the Features editor of the school newspaper – and the yearbook and ran DECA and the FFA and the National Honor Society. I went to a special camp for politically-oriented kids where boys and girls worked together to draft a constitution for a space colony (funnest camp ever) and visited Washington DC as a part of the CloseUp Foundation where I met metric tons of women working in politics. We girls did ev-er-y-thing the boys did. No one ever prevented us, or even discouraged us, from joining in any program or activity that we wanted to.
No one ever told me I couldn’t grow up to be anything I wanted to be. Matter of fact, I actually had rather the opposite experience – my highly ambitious and accomplished parents wanted so badly for me to excel in every arena that they were actually kind of tyrannical about it at times.
As for a female president, I knew that just because it hadn’t happened yet, didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen soon.
But I wanted to give Amy Klobuchar the benefit of the doubt here. After all, she’s older than me, she lived in a different part of Middle America – maybe she really did experience that sort of prejudice firsthand. So I took a look at her life and here’s what I found out. Amy Klobuchar graduated as valedictorian from her high school in 1978 and then went directly to Yale where she graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1982. At Yale, she was a member of the Yale College Democrats, the Feminist Caucus, and an improv troupe – comedy, notoriously a girl-free zone. She started working for Walter Mondale (you know, the guy who had a vice presidential candidate – a heartbeat away from the presidency!!!! – by the name of Geraldine Ferraro running with him only a couple years later in 1984) during her time at Yale.
This does not sound to me like the actions of a dejected, downtrodden person surrounded by people who did not believe in her. This does not sound to me like a person who grew up ensconced within a cocoon of sexism where she and everyone around her really and truly thought that women weren’t allowed to be president. This does not sound to me like the behavior of a person who was surrounded by naysayers and groping boors her entire life. It sounds to me like Amy Klobuchar was raised in the ’70s just like I was, to believe she was strong and powerful and could do and be anything she wanted to be, and she went out there and made that happen because she knew that she could.
I can’t draw any other conclusion from the life of Amy Klobuchar other than that she’s grossly exaggerating the position of females in society during the time we grew up. Why? Why on earth would she do such a thing? My assumption (probably obviously, since I do lean a bit to the right) is that the Democrats promote a vision of the world as the “Oppression Olympics” where everyone is oppressing everyone else constantly and all of us are victims. They have reasons for doing this, some of which are completely legit and based entirely in fact. But after hearing many Democratic politicians say things about female achievement that I know based on personal experience are patently untrue—well, it feels to me like the Walt Disney Corporation telling my daughter that people think she can’t be in a horse race. It’s the work of a bad writer resorting to a tired trope – that the world is chock full of villains is out to get me all the time and I have to trust in the Democrats because they’re the only ones looking out for me.
This matters because of free range parenting. One of the main concepts underlying free-range parenting is that the world is actually quite safe for children, but parents hear so many terrifying stories about freak accidents and bizarre occurrences that it makes them think their children are in mortal peril constantly. Hearing lots of stories about terrible but thankfully rare things happening causes people to overestimate the prevalence of rare events. It causes people to blow minor near-misses out of proportion (“Jimmy scraped his knee when he fell down the steps” becomes “Jimmy nearly died when he fell down the steps” in our heads). People even alter their behavior based on this misinformation, acting as if rare events were super common instead of lightning strikes. It’s a trick of the human brain. So with the best of intentions, parents mess up their risk assessment so badly they end up basically locking their kids in a padded room for their protection, with nothing but very finely chopped grapes (no choking) to snack on and an Xbox for companionship.
Hearing that women were, even ARE oppressed constantly also causes people to overestimate the prevalence of rare events. It causes them to blow minor experiences with the occasional a-hole entirely out of proportion. It even causes them to alter their behavior as if these rare events were super common. Hearing about freak accidents and bizarre occurrences makes you feel that you and your children are in constant danger. Hearing about sexism all the time—even when the sexism happened decades and centuries ago, even when it’s the act of a random crank and not the average person – makes you feel like you are at constant risk of encountering sexist behavior. And in my experience, when people start looking for something, they invariably find it, whether it’s sketchy kidnappers at the grocery store (who are just looking for the asparagus) or supposedly sexist happenings in the 1970s, 1980s, and even today. Minor events are blown out of all proportion.
This constant barrage of Oppression Tales does nothing to make girls feel strong, powerful, and capable of anything. They make girls feel scared and small and weak and powerless, undermining their sense of accomplishment, of achievement, of possibility. I know this because even I feel that way sometimes. If the bad guys are everywhere and they control everything, if the deck is stacked so heavily against us, surely any woman’s success was probably little more than a gimmie or a miracle and it all could be taken away by the stronger and powerful-er men at any time. Why even bother to try? According to everything I’ve ever heard, it’s a man’s world; they control everything! If so few women through history were able to do anything, well, how could one individual little girl do anything??
If you want girls to succeed, give them inspiring stories about successful women. If you want girls to succeed in a man’s world, don’t tell them about all the women who struggled to succeed in a man’s world, tell them about the women who succeeded anyway. And NOT through a lens of “the men were sooo mean to her” but through a lens of “look what this amazing woman did.” Maybe, just maybe, you could even tell positive stories about women who did amazing things in their own lives, lives that history never recorded. Stories of women who lived and died while raising families, taking care of homes and working as teachers and secretaries and nurses and midwives because doing those things never represented defeat. Tell them about women who endured, like our grandmothers and our ancestors have forever endured. Don’t write any woman off as a victim or a stereotype. Women are strong and powerful and do amazing things, always have and always will, in countless arenas.
Girls aren’t being told these stories and I know that they aren’t because a whole lot of women truly thought they never had a role model on Planet Earth before the movie Wonder Woman. Our youngest generations of women—the women WE, the feminists have raised— truly, truly believe that a fictional character is more inspiring than the actions of actual women who actually lived, mainly because they don’t know any of these actual women who actually lived. They have never heard the stories. They don’t know who Clare Booth Luce is. They don’t know who Jessie Benton Fremont is. They don’t know who Dame Eugenia Charles is. They don’t know Golda Meir or Margaret Chase Smith. They never even heard of Sarah Josepha Hale or Helen Gurley Brown or Katharine Graham or Lynn Margulis or Benazir Bhutto. Sojourner Truth – didn’t she give a speech or something? They don’t know. All they’ve ever heard was that only a couple decades ago women were all oppressed and everything sucked. Then Hillary was born and the glittering unicorns of justice kicked the boys in the peenies and suddenly girls were allowed to do stuff because they’d never done anything important whatsoever before since time began.
It is no mystery to me why younger women feel like a pretend character like Wonder Woman – a comic book character that is not even meant to be human, mind you – is like, sooo totally inspiring or whatever? Because absent the stories of all the actual women doing actual stuff throughout all recorded history, women’s sudden “liberation” probably does feel downright supernatural. Important people like Amy Klobuchar keep telling younger women that in the ’70s barely anyone thought a girl could be president, but in 2016 a girl very nearly was. If it were only true, it would be utterly magical. It may as well have been caused by a fictional character because if you don’t know nothing ‘bout history, it would appear to have come from a storybook.
Sexism is real. It’s why I write about it sometimes (ok, a lot) because it’s a real thing that actually still exists and certainly existed in gross amounts historically. I don’t pretend it doesn’t or didn’t, nor do I propose letting men off the hook for bad behavior. We’ve all got our #metoo story. We’ve all got our tale of the teacher who said we should sit like a lady or the guidance counselor who asked us “have you considered secretarial school?”* We can all go back and dig up some crazy terrible sexist law on the books that were in place until 2006 or whatever.
But these are lightning strike events. Just because life isn’t immediately and constantly perfect, it does not, therefore, translate into oppression. All of us gals walking around America today, from Amy Klobuchar to me to my daughter Susannah, were born in a time and a place where things were going from bad to better. Way, way better. Not perfect, but better. And the best is yet to come. Yet, some people have so much invested in maintaining this fiction where a sexist pig is lurking under every rock that they are deliberately undermining girls’ confidence for their own benefit. To promote their political agenda, to make their candidate look more sheroic, to sell girl power merch, these charlatans continue to promote false mythology where they lie to young women and girls about history and reality in ways that actively harm and undermine those young women and girls in the future.
If girls can do whatever they want (which they can), if women are strong and powerful and know their minds (which they are), and they always have been throughout history (which they were, even though they’ve lacked equal opportunities) then guess what, it’s not at all helpful to continue drumming sexist and negative messages into girls’ heads. “Guess what, kid, some people think you can’t do that. Some people think you shouldn’t go into a horse race. Some people think you shouldn’t be president! Isn’t it terrible that some people think you aren’t smart enough, good enough, strong enough to do those things? Prove em wrong, Slugger!”
Prove them wrong? Who, me? I’m just a girl. I couldn’t possibly.
My daughter NEVER even had the idea in her mind that some people think girls couldn’t do things until she saw it on a show that was supposedly teaching the message that “sexism is bad”. She didn’t know that a person on earth had ever thought girls were in any way inferior to boys. That would not even have been on her radar screen for a good long while if not for the people pushing their agendas onto unsuspecting little girls. So thanks for that.
As the Disney Corporation says, “Let it go”. Let it GO, Princess Elsa!!! Life ain’t perfect but I am not oppressed and Susannah is even more not oppressed than me. We can acknowledge how good things are for us without surrendering the good fight. We can acknowledge how far we’ve come without forgetting the women who came before us who fought the battle on our behalf and without forgetting our sisters around the world who haven’t won yet. We can keep working to make things better and fairer without demanding special treatment – because we don’t need special treatment. We can call out male bull– when we see it without embracing a victim narrative.
Ladies, we’ve GOT THIS.
There’s gonna be a female president within my lifetime, I’ll wager. Maybe not Amy Klobuchar, but some person that identifies with the female gender will stepping into the Oval Office whereupon she’ll immediately begin to Pinterest lots of ideas about how to perk it up a bit in there.
For all we know, it may even be Susannah. I wouldn’t bet against her. Because she may be little, but she knows something some adults don’t seem to – that girls not being allowed to go into a race is straight-up nonsense.
*My juiciest sexism story is this: in 1988 I was a senior in high school and my speech teacher (female) was telling the class all about how important speaking skills are. She said, “Boys, if you’re an army officer, and girls, if you’re an army officer’s wife…” And I, being just as much of an insufferable Hermione as I am 30 years on, interrupted. “Couldn’t the GIRL be the army officer?” And she laughed in my face and said “Oh, we have a women’s libber in the class!” It was outrageous, and it was outrageous because so few people would ever have dared to say something so ridiculous and outdated in 1988!
I could easily, easily have made a national incident of it because the school administration and my parents and the press and the vast majority of all humanity would have immediately taken my side. The fact is, she was the outlier. She was a lightning strike. She was NOT the data point, she was the exception. She’s not evidence that open and unabashed sexism was rampant, because it wasn’t. She was a nutball. The world would have been against her, the world would have been on my side. She was an anachronism and my anecdote proves absolutely nothing about the opinions that most people held at that point in time. (but if I had a different agenda to prove, it would be one hell of a story!)
Photo by sixpounder