Should We Still Worry About Gender Roles?

This question has been on my mind this past week since visiting family in Nashville and watching my niece’s adorable 3-year-old daughter play with Barbie dolls. I have three grown children--two sons and one daughter--and I pride myself on being part of the baby boomer generation of women who considered ourselves to be equal opportunity mothers. I did my part. I gave my sons dolls and strollers to play with and my daughter a soccer ball to kick.

 Nick - (Now age 21) at age 10 mos.

Nick - (Now age 21) at age 10 mos.

 Beth - (Now age 30) at age 6.

Beth - (Now age 30) at age 6.

But I also gave my sons the boy toys, too:  baseballs, footballs, basketballs and (dare I admit) toy guns. My rough-and-tumble daughter got soccer balls, access to all her brother’s boy toys, and ballet lessons and Barbie dolls. However, my sons did not have ballet lessons. And, now I wonder, should I have given them ballet lessons?  It never occurred to me to even consider it, and, honestly, they really were not the least bit interested in watching ballet, let alone taking lessons. As it turned out, neither was my daughter. She much preferred the soccer ball to ballet, and was indifferent to the numerous dolls she had, preferring to play with her stuffed animals and juggle her soccer ball.  Eventually, I gave up trying to make her into a ballerina and signed her up for a soccer team.*

 Beth - Age 12ish

Beth - Age 12ish

 Beth - Age 30

Beth - Age 30

I remember feeling conflicted and unsure of how to handle all this gender role business.  Why did I assume she should take ballet lessons and not my sons? Was I really all that progressive? After all, I’d been a “tomboy” myself growing up.  I absolutely preferred to play baseball and army with my brothers, than Barbies with the neighborhood girls (although I was secretly a little jealous of the Barbie fashion show that my friend possessed).  It was also the time before Title IX and I remember fuming as I sat on the baseball field sidelines watching my twin brother play Little League baseball (Double humiliation. Try competing with your boy twin in the 60’s), that I was not allowed to do because I was a lowly girl.

I survived those brutal times, grew up and went to college, married and had three kids, all the while doing the juggling act that women are so familiar with. I have a career I love, although I’ve also carried around the mother guilt that we women still can’t seem to resolve.  My kids are grown now and I see my daughter struggling with some of these same issues.  Yes, she was the first generation of girls that was protected by Title IX.  She played soccer from age 8 through her first two years of college.  She married and had her now 3-year-old son, and started graduate school when he was 9 months old.  She just graduated last month, and we all survived (believe me, it does take a village when there is a baby involved and a parent is in an intensive graduate program), but I’m not sure there has been that much progress since I was in graduate school with three children and a husband to worry about.

So, should we still be concerned about gender roles?  I think the answer is yes; no, of course the answer is yes!  Women still make less than their male counterparts.  Mothers still feel guilty when they work, and fathers don’t.  Women still carry the majority of the home work load, although I believe it’s improving and enlightened men are making an effort toward egalitarian roles.  But sometimes I think we go overboard.  Why should we feel embarrassed or worried if our daughter wants to play with a skinny doll and our son loves his pirate sword, as long as our little boys can play with Barbie dolls and our little girls can play with toy weapons if that is what they want?  What is more important is if they see us comfortable with their play choices.  Let’s teach and show them what a truly egalitarian world looks like, beginning with their toy choices, as they negotiate their world and try to figure out who they are.  As Carol J. Auster, a professor of sociology at Franklin and Marshall College and her daughter, Lisa A. Auster-Gussman wrote in a op-ed letter in the New York Times, we should “encourage play and toys that provide children with opportunities to develop skills congruent with their talents as well as the wide range of behavior needed for their future occupational and familial roles.  I hope that more toys will be marketed for children rather than for boys only or girls only.” (Source.)  It goes without saying that this also includes our kids’ educational and extracurricular activities as well.  Let’s stop worrying about what toy or activity our child is interested in as long as it promotes healthy development.  We mothers (and fathers) have enough guilt to keep us occupied full time without worrying that our daughter, or son, wants to play with Barbie…or Ken.  It just doesn’t matter.

*Side note:  my sons would have nothing to do with the stroller and doll business, although my oldest son did use his doll stroller to tote his hot wheels cars around.