I’ve just finished reading a special chapter in a special book* – and it still shimmers in my consciousness. Chapter One – Dancing in the eye of the Storm – was written by Kathy Witterick, someone I’m proud to call a friend. She is a co-parent with David Stocker** in a family you might have heard about. Certainly, many regulars at the late, lamented Alternative Grounds would recognize them.
They were talked about around the world – often angrily, emotionally, judgmentally, critically – when the Toronto Star published an article** on their approach to parenting what I think of as ‘gender-free’ children.
People would stop them in the street, lecturing them right in front of the children. When I remember the anger of strangers around the world accusing them of inflicting a harmful ‘experiment’ on their children, my mind instantly goes to a memory I have of Jonbenet Ramsey, the miniature ‘beauty queen’ of front pages in the 90s, murdered at 6 years of age. In all the newspaper or television coverage, I don’t think I ever saw a picture of her as a ‘gender-free’ (i.e. ‘natural’) child. Quite the opposite: she was — along with countless other tiny, innocent American princesses — obviously being groomed to role-play ultimate “feminity”, as early as possible after birth.
Now I do believe parents who gender-stamp their kids don’t intend anything anti-social or destructive. I believe they just don’t know any better. I imagine they just feel that if their daughter is female, they should do everything they can to ensure she is among the best in that role. And role it is — for the most part learned, not biologically determined. We don’t think of that as a harmful experiment, for the simple reason that ‘we’ve always done it’, so we don’t look at it objectively.
As Kathy Witterick says, “Children should learn that the gender status quo changes based on historical period, geography, family environment, community, culture and context.” So social context has a huge impact. Our role as “female” varies. Likewise, how any given individual feels about gender depends on his or her own experience – and reaction to it.
I wish someone told me this when, as a 20-year-old, I totally believed that my 17-year-old brother would learn to drive easily and that I, being female, would find it difficult. Starting around puberty, I became increasingly frustrated with my gender ‘limitations’ and a resulting sense of general unfairness in life. This kind of powerlessness often produces depression and self-defeating behavior in people, and so it did with me, in a classic example of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
When I remember those days – the ‘fabulous fifties’ – I am torn between laughter and tears. Those memories are balanced by the 70s – when I had the luxury of going back to school full time. At the forefront of social awareness – and my own education – were women’s rights, the history of it all. And above all, opportunities like we women had never experienced. Life seemed full of the excitement and potential. We were changing, and I was confident we would keep changing. My mother, who didn’t work because father felt it would make him look bad, didn’t live to see those changes.
Often referred to as a “women’s libber”, I didn’t care. What I was learning about women, ‘the movement’, the history, and theories in both women’s studies and psychology, were all so exciting. I was sure the human race was in a progressive trajectory that would make all things possible – above all that people would be free to be the unique beings that they are. Certainly, it should be possible to raise children unhindered by social attitudes towards their gender. I certainly came out of it ‘determined’ to raise my own children with the confidence of ‘equality’, and the new career opportunities. No doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t have to be a nurse, secretary or teacher. No, astronauts and presidents, should they choose to be. But naiveté goes hand in hand with optimism. (Probably of necessity). I didn’t anticipate a backlash.
A little pocket of learning does not a revolution make. I guess all the social changes, perhaps personified in Woodstock, some counter-culture ‘in your face’ attitudes, then in “change” periodicals like Ms. Magazine, provoked a steadily increasing negative reaction. Social change has to happen more subtly, more gradually, so the rest of society won’t feel threatened or angry. Eventually, the reaction was overtly hostile, and people with alternative ideas and dreams stopped being open about it. I guess that’s always a bad sign – when people don’t speak out, debate, or challenge power — in a supposed democracy.
Having won legal “equality” we made the mistake of taking further progress for granted. We didn’t anticipate that Hollywood and television would influence a new over-sexualization of our children. Much of it in the name of “freedom of speech”. Instead of instilling in the next generation pride and confidence in one’s unique qualities.
We didn’t even get it, when the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, begun in 1971 as a feminist lobby group, shape-shifted subtly into more of a poverty action group. Movements or trends are sometimes hi-jacked by well-intentioned people with a somewhat different agenda.
I was reminded of all this when I read Kathy’s chapter. Social values, of course, don’t just change, and remain changed. For that to happen, they have to be actively transmitted to every generation. That doesn’t happen if a movement goes virtually underground.
In the heady days of the women’s movement, people, partners, parents, changed their behavior spontaneously and openly, at least in urban areas, in universities, and in a few laws. But as the backlash became more overt in their criticism and disapproval, many in the new movement lost some confidence. Even those who understood the need for change, and wanted to raise their children with a broadened consciousness, did so much more subtly and cautiously. Experimental living and schooling and programs of the seventies and eighties reverted to a diminished shadow, buried under shouts about ‘saving hardworking taxpayers dollars’. We’re still hearing those shouts.
Huge cutbacks in spending for social programs, education, housing, and so on, occurred. Almost any kind of ‘study’ or ‘experimentation’ in living became sneered at. So when Kathy and David, in this reactionary period, dared to go public with their intelligent child-rearing approach, I wasn’t that surprised at some of the vitriol that rose up. Just disappointed, once again. The low proportion of thoughtful or encouraging reactions seemed to me to be another depressing indication of a ‘dumbed-down’ western world. Or perhaps it’s always been relatively narrow-minded and un-receptive to different perspectives – just a little more so these days.
It’s a scary time to be open about any ‘alternative’ perspective, so I doubly admire those who do. It’s essential to have some with that courage, if society is to evolve. And as George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change.”
I am inspired by all this, and ask myself: “What can I do more courageously to support this need for change?” Until I figure that out, I’ll keep on blogging.
* Chasing Rainbows: exploring gender fluid parenting. Ed. Fiona Joy Green and May Friedman. Demeter Press, 2013.