My daughter is 13. She has refused to wear pink or play with anything resembling a doll, household appliance or a plastic horse since she was two. I can count the number of dresses she’s worn in the last 8 years on my thumbs – two, both bridesmaid dresses which she wore because she loved the people getting married, she hated both dresses with a vengeance.
Me? I love pink, I love make up, I love shoes and I love sparkles. If there’s a unicorn option for anything, I’m in. When I found out I was having a girl I was overjoyed at the thought of hair ribbons, fluffy wings and princess dresses, but it very soon became clear that my strong-minded toddler was having none of it. Her heroes growing up were Mario and Luigi, Batman, and Jeff from Casualty (RIP Jeff, you were taken too soon), and she and her younger brother played adventure games involving pirates, dinosaurs, aliens and plumbers (the Super Mario phase lasted for many years and still endures).
Today, as she battles a chronic medical condition, she does it with the steely determination of Bear Grylls. She scouts, she hikes, she competes, she challenges herself, she spends more time outdoors than is surely healthy, and she does so in sturdy boots and camo trousers.
It’s who she is. She eschews the ‘handbag girls’ in her school, the ones she describes as having brain-squeezer buns on their heads, black slug eyebrows, painting-by-numbers contoured cheeks and T-Rex arms, withered by the weight of carrying fake designer handbags. She doesn’t dislike them, she just has no idea why they all want to look like someone else.
So when the whole #GenderEd debate grew wings this summer there was me thinking “how does that work then?”. If gender stereotyping is entrenched, how come my girl isn’t painting her nails and hoping to marry a footballer? (She wants to be an RSPCA inspector. Well actually she wants to run the RSPCA but she understands the need to work her way up). And I think I worked out, through reading blogs and #WomedEd pieces online, that it’s not about what expectations are placed on our children, it’s more about what opportunities we put on the table for them to chose from.
We never bought her dolls and fluff – we took her to the shop and let her pick the toys she wanted. We didn’t paint her bedroom pink and fill her wardrobe with dresses, we let her decide which colour she wanted (within a pre-approved selection – who wants a hi-viz orange bedroom after all?) and pick out the clothes she liked. If the Super Mario t-shirts were in the boys section, then we went to the boys section, the placement and packaging is irrelevant to me, if I want it, I go and get it.
And I guess that’s where I’m heading with this; I’ve always tried to fill my children’s minds, lives and imaginations with limitless opportunities – there’s nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t aspire to and nothing that should hold them back. Someone wise and important once said that if you tell a child what they are, they will almost certainly become that thing. To my mind, if you tell them they can be anything, they’ll want to discover the universe to find the treasure that’s out there.
I’m lucky, I’ve never knowingly suffered gender prejudice. My husband has though. As an older stay-at-home-dad to our children when I went to work, he experienced abuse and mistrust from the school gate mums, but he never really cared, we never held the standard family stereotype in high regard, we did what was best for us. If society didn’t like it that was their look-out, not ours.
But as I read the blogs by women who have been held back, judged, stifled and discriminated against, it makes me angry. It makes me realise the enormity of the problem and feel naive that my bubble life has managed to miss so much, by simply ignoring it and refusing to let it impact on my own life and my own choices.
We don’t, as a society, have the language right yet, the gender-neutral pronouns, adjectives or even the colour schemes to get it right, but we’re working on it. Girls and boys in our schools are at least being given options, if not the active encouragement, to explore the wealth and breadth of the world’s pathways, but at least we’re talking about it, pushing envelopes, breaking ceilings and smashing moulds. We have a long way to go, but we also have a very large army.
My daughter and I were looking at films to watch over half term last week and we came across Rapunzel. She said “Rapunzel? She needs to seriously sort her life out. Sitting around in a tower waiting to be rescued? If that was me, I’d have abseiled out of the window, kicked that prince bloke off my property, got my hair cut for cancer research and turned the tower into a something useful for goats.”