Parents

Why Are Girls So Special?

I’m struggling to explain sexism to my 9-year old son.
02/03/2017 11:31am ET | Updated February 3, 2017
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It’s complex to help an American girl foster the depth of awareness she will need as a woman. But I feel well-equipped to do that work with my daughter.

Where I’m struggling is with my 9-year old son, Nico. He read Past First Lady Michelle Obama’s comment: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” He saw the marchers with their signs. Observing these things prompted Nico to ask: “Why are girls so special?”

When he posed this question, Nico joined a conversation long in process. A sporty guy, he has a competitor’s mind. He’s a man of duty; he knows how it feels to win and to lose. He understands the natural consequences of things.

But Nico was confused about this, because in his estimation, women and girls were getting special treatment because they were mistreated in a way he didn’t recognize. He didn’t see the suppression to which this is a reaction.

My son is a practical person, so I thought that presenting data would be a good way to illustrate the point. I explained that in the U.S., women earn 76 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, and that men earn more than women in nearly every country. My explanation made Nico defensive. He said “So?” I felt like I was back in school debating with male classmates.

In my son’s worldview, he didn’t do anything to achieve privilege, just as he didn’t do anything directly to subvert anyone’s rights. So he couldn’t absorb this information because it vilified him by making him aware of privilege that he never requested and for which he felt uncomfortable being implicated.

I was never sympathetic to this point before. I faulted my male classmates for not recognizing their own privilege, but from this vantage point I saw it so differently. My son and I usually communicate well, but we were landlocked in this conversation.

Historically, I’ve never been a sports fan, but I love playing every kind of ball with Nico. Sports has become something we share. I took him to a sports bar for lunch-the family friendly kind, with a kids’ menu. We were watching football and eating wings, when a couple of guys started talking loudly and rudely about the female sportscasters.

“These bitches are stupid. Why do we have to listen to this?”

“Who decided to give chicks these jobs? We shouldn’t have to listen to their annoying voices.”

“They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

It was awful. But it also gave me my “in.” It gave me the chance to explain that talking about women in this way used to be common, and it continues to be in some circles.

I told Nico that before his grandmothers retired, when they were training as professionals, this kind of reductive talk about women was considered culturally acceptable. This is what we are trying to get past.

Women still have to challenge this-the pervasive perception that we aren’t as worthy as men or that our work isn’t as good as theirs.

I explained that women and girls have all the same dreams as men and boys do: Of course we want to be sportscasters. Of course we want to be CEOs. Of course we want to be scientists. But, just a couple generations ago, it was culturally acceptable to trample our ambition just because we’re girls and just because we’re women. The pay gap is one demonstration that this hasn’t gone away.

We need our men and boys to get this, and to stand with us when people try to put us down. Two generations ago, if society was measured by how it treats its women and girls, American society would have measured pretty poorly. But we are changing this, and we need enlightened men and boys, like Nico, to support us in our ascent.

Observing this disrespectful conversation about women changed something for Nico. It made the abstract very real.

Thank you, sports bar jerks, for showing us how much work we feminists still have to do. Nico and I are on it.

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