Gender Equality: On Showing Early, Not Telling Later


One of my most vivid early childhood memories is listening (the beginning of a life-long love of music) to "William's Doll" on repeat. A part of the '70s gender equality project Free to Be... You and Me, it is a song (sung by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas) all about a boy named William who, for his fifth birthday, simply wants a doll. The other kids yell and tease him for this desire, and his father is initially disappointed to see William's grandmother give the young fellow exactly what he requested: a baby doll. But as the grandmother explains to her son, William wants a doll so he can grow up to be a great father, just like his dad.

I absolutely adored this track growing up, and certainly wouldn't have batted an eyelash if I'd seen a boy with a doll. But I never did. While I was playing with my brother's massive LEGO collection and all the stuffed and plastic animals that could fit on my bed or in the tub, respectively, many others weren't. By the time I got to elementary school, there were no boys playing with dolls to be found - only "action figures."

There's a lot of discussion these days about gender, feminism, and everything in between (and a whole lot of misinformation and confusion, too). Certain industries, such as tech, are plagued by sexism and gender inequality, and girls across the country are still told no when it comes to succeeding in math and science, continuing the cycle.

It's fascinating to see all of this anger and frustration spill out into the media, both social and traditional. But in my humble (and very debatable) opinion, by the time we're old enough to talk about this issue with authority, it's too late.

To illustrate this point: one of my least favorite classes in college, where I was a political science major, focused on women in politics. I took it to fulfill a requirement, and hated every minute of it. There I sat, ready to be a woman in politics (behind the scenes, mind you, although not because I was afraid to run for office -- just because it seems like a terrible thing for someone of any gender to put themselves through... but I digress), and all I was told was how rare it is, and how we need to fight against the traditional establishment, and how difficult that is to do, etc.

It was as though you'd sat me in a university-level course telling me we need to allow boys to play with dolls. All I could think of was, stop talking about it and go do it.

This mindset is because a very open family and a progressive public school system taught me at an early age that I could do what I wanted -- just as the boys could -- not through lectures, but by simply making it a part of life. I didn't love Free to Be... You and Me because of its gender equality, but because it was catchy and fun for a toddler, so I latched on to the message. I never realized it was weird for girls to play with LEGOs until I went into a LEGO store and saw the "feminine" building kits, which confused me greatly. And I loved math when I was young, due in large part to a male teacher who made it fun and cool for all.

Yet even I suffer from gender misconceptions learned young. I have several good friends today who were homeschooled, and it is incredible to see what not attending a traditional middle school can do for a person. My preconceived notions about cliques and seedy "girl behavior" don't exist for them, and they're enormously friendly and genuine people with anyone and everyone they meet because of it. No matter how many presentations we were given on bullying and being friends with all in middle and high school, none of it mattered, because we were witnessing something else.

In closing, my point in writing out this overly-saturated issue is to simply say: teach kids young, not with words, but with actions. The coolest kid I ever worked with back in my "camp counselor" days was a four-year-old girl who rocked her brother's board shorts and old superhero t-shirts every single day, and the best thing I could do for her was to tell her she looked great and move on. Kids, when they're young, don't know what is "right" or "wrong" when it comes to gender roles. So let's help them have an open-mind by showing them that they can be whoever they want to be, sooner rather than later.

And with that, I leave you with this great little mini-documentary, about what happens when you get a group of young girls to play Dungeons & Dragons with a bunch of boys. Enjoy!