Note/warning: I started writing this post, intending for it to be some sort of feminist diatribe about the double standards applied to daughters and sons, using my own experiences as examples, but it turned into more of a personal retrospective look at my life and trying to understand the origin of my own parents’ double standards. Read at your own caution.
I’ve been reading a lot about women in the news. The politics of women’s reproductive health issues. Underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, as college presidents, as film directors, etc. Whether or not women can ‘have it all’ (‘it all’ being a family and a career). What it means to be a modern feminist.
But sexual inequality doesn’t have to be an issue of national scale, it can be as small as a town, or even a family. Growing up, I first noticed that my parents treated me and my brother differently, often justifying their different treatments by saying, “he’s a boy,” or “you’re a girl.” And I’m not saying that girls and boys should be treated exactly the same – because they shouldn’t. I’m not advocating that parents buy tampons for their sons and electric razors for their daughters for equality’s sake, but in my own experience I often found the distinction between what was allowable for my brother, and what was allowable for me (based on our gender) to be unfair.
I was in middle school when I first realized that there were things only my brother was allowed to do. Of these things, the two that upset me most were that my parents prohibited me from attending school dances and staying overnight at friends’ sleepovers. My first school dance wasn’t until the senior prom my junior year (as someone’s date). And as for the sleepovers, my mother would come pick me up at midnight, every time without fail. As my brother lags two years behind me in age, a lot of my firsts became his firsts two years later. But my parents were always more lenient towards him. They let him go to school dances, even if they did pick him up right after. They allowed to him to sleep over at friends’ houses, but would take down the address and home phone number.
Every time my brother was allowed to do something I was not, I would always get angry and throw a fit, but my parents were unshakable. When I cried and screamed “Why????” they would say, “because Larry’s a boy and you’re a girl. End of discussion.” No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see why my gender should stop me from staying out late or going on dates.
Things didn’t get much better until I got to college and was no longer living under my parents’ roof. But even living (mostly) independently, often my parents would say things that reminded me of this double standard they held for me and my brother.
About a month ago, my brother went on a road trip with two friends, driving down to South Carolina, hiking and camping along the way. Before he left, my mother acquired phone numbers for my brother’s friends as well as their parents, making my brother promise to call her every day. On days when my brother was somewhere in the wilderness and without phone service, my mother would panic, asking me to text him or even to text his friends. But every time my brother failed to pick up the phone, she would turn to me and say, “If it were you out there and I didn’t hear from you every day, I wouldn’t call the other parents. I would first call the police. And then I would buy a plane ticket to South Carolina.” And she was completely serious. It took a lot of self control for me not to scream at her.
So far, I’ve described some of the decisions of my parents that I’ve considered bluntly unfair*, but to be honest, I haven’t been completely blind to their motivations. Looking beyond the “he’s a boy, you’re a girl” reasoning, I’ve deduced two ‘real’ (real as in they really believe these things) explanations for why my parents have acted the way they have:
1. The protection of my virginity/chastity/purity (which is one of the measures of my worth as a woman).
2. The belief that as a girl I am more physically and emotionally fragile and thus I am more in need of sheltering and protection.
Concerning the first point, my mother strongly believes that no good man will want to marry a woman who is not a virgin. Since I think it’s beyond her to imagine that I would ever willingly have extramarital sex, and thus jeopardize my chances at a good marriage, I think she is legitimately afraid that I can get raped/sexually assaulted anywhere: if I stay out late at night, if I sleep in strangers’ (friends’) homes, if I travelled to another state and went beyond her reach.
At the same time that my mother preached independence and inner strength to me, she scoffed at the idea that I could be strong and independent alone, at the idea that I *might* never want to get married or have kids. “You’ll see,” she’d say, “Every woman eventually needs a family.”
I understand that there is a very large (40+ year) generation gap between me and my parents, and opinions considering gender equality were very different when they were growing up. I also understand that often it’s much easier to be close-minded than to seriously consider ideas that make you uncomfortable and threaten your parental authority or even moral foundations, but the modern and progressive view favors equality between men and women. The majority of American society has slowly come to adopt the belief that men and women are equally intelligent, and equally competent, and deserve equal compensation for the same tasks. That a sexual double standard is unfair. That female boldness and independence are something to look down upon.
Yet despite the prevalence of these beliefs, gender inequality is still an issue. A lot of people might advocate gender equality ‘on the record’ but at the same time, fail to carry out these beliefs in practice. They may not even realize what they’re doing. I wish my parents had raised me to think of my self, as the other sex, but not the lesser sex. I haven’t exactly bought into what I described above as their reasons one and two, but I could have spent much less time searching for validation that I wasn’t wrong to feel disconcerted about this double standard.
*I won’t say that being the girl/daughter was completely without its ‘perks.’ I say (with only a small amount of sarcasm) that I enjoyed being able to spend more money shopping for clothes and shoes, and that occasionally my parents would excuse me for being a picky eater as I didn’t have to grow up to be a “big strong boy.” Hey, I figured that since I was stuck in the system, I might as well exploit it for what I could – there’s no suffering nobly. But as for who got the better deal (in terms of the advantages of having more personal freedom and leniency with mistakes), the balance strongly favored my brother.