Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference.
– Women Under Siege
As international outrage continues to grow over the Pakistani Taliban’s assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy of girls’ education, calls to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child – declared by the United Nations to be October 11, 2012 – are also multiplying. The announced theme of this year’s Day is child marriage, and top world figures such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu are working to shed light on and end the epidemic problem. Archbishop Tutu met on Wednesday, October 10 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced initiatives both “to prevent child marriage and to promote the education of girls.” (Lisa Rein) Still, in our current state of shock and with Ms. Yousafzai’s life still hanging by a thread, one can’t help but focus attention on the continued need for and benefits of girls’ education.
In the movie “Steel Magnolias,” Julia Roberts’ character Shelby says of her husband, “He’s so excited. He says he doesn’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, but I know he really wants a son so bad he can taste it.” (IMDb) Such a preference for boys, undeniably present in our society if not universal, can bring frightening results elsewhere: the organization “All Girls Allowed” estimates that there are over 100 million missing girls today, over half of whom should have been born in China. The natural ratio of men to women should be 10.5:10, but in China it is projected to be 11:10 next year and 12.5:10 by the late 2020s. As Chinese parents contemplate sex selective abortion, they view a first-born son as having 4.3 times the value of a girl. (All Girls Allowed) Similarly, the United States apparently values the work of women less than that of men, as women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, all other things being equal.
As my seventh grade students are starting the transition from girlhood to womanhood, such issues are never far from their minds. One of them recently initiated a conversation with me about the extent of the gender wage gap, and later shared her free topic independent writing with me and a number of her classmates, under the subject header “READ READ READ…” In it, she shared a link to unemployment statistics and added, “As you can plainly see, there is an obvious difference and constant fluctuation between racial unemployment rates, which to me is an imbalance of power in a disguise that is no longer fooling anyone.” (Julia) At the age of 12, she has clearly understood the deeper issues behind a variety of imbalances in society: power, who has it, and how it is used.
One of the most important tools in maintaining those power imbalances is a fundamental gender construct in which men are often seen as “aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective” and as valuing “power, competency, efficiency, and achievement”. Women, meanwhile, are often seen as “passive, intuitive, submissive, and subjective” and as valuing “love, communication, beauty, and relationships.” (Trigiani) In her essay “Masculinity-Femininity: Society’s Difference Dividend,” Kathleen Trigiani goes on to explain that “Scientists have discovered that sexuality has both biological and sociological aspects, thus, they often speak in terms of sex and gender. Sex refers to immutable biological traits while gender is the social meaning given to sex differences.” (Trigiani) By definition, then, society alone determines gender: we as a culture then act in ways that exaggerate perceived differences between men and women and assign arbitrarily-determined value to those differences.
My students appear to have an intuitive understanding of this as well. Recently, I subbed for Ann Sorvino in her Dance 7 course. When this came up during Morning Announcements, somehow the seventh graders became obsessed with my wearing one of their white dance skirts while I taught. I demurred, and we focused instead on the main goal of the class: their performing the dance and working to learn it more fully. But later, in looking back on the afternoon, one of them asked why men couldn’t wear skirts. “I have no idea,” I said, pointing out that girls won the right to wear pants nearly 50 years ago. They looked thoughtful for a while, perhaps considering how “masculine” traits may be more readily adopted by girls than “feminine” traits by boys, and in the end left the conversation there… for the moment.
Of course, it must be added, assuming that gender is binary in the first place marginalizes and renders invisible an entire subset of our population.
In such a context, the value of girls’ education should be undeniable. In an ideal world, there would be no need for girls’ education, but our world is far from ideal. We know from research such as a 2009 study performed by UCLA that graduates of girls’ schools show higher levels of academic engagement, greater self-confidence, an increased likelihood of continuing their study of science and math in college, and a greater likelihood of being politically engaged and involved in social activism. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has also written and spoken of research that shows “One of the most cost-effective ways to bring about change, no matter the issue, is to educate girls. (…) To bring them into the workforce, to bring them into the economy so they can truly benefit themselves, their families and their communities.” (Kristof, quoted in an article by Morgan Jarema)
The need to speak truth to power is clear. The potential power of girls in speaking that truth is also clear; as Kristof points out: “The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn’t American drones. It’s educated girls.” (Kristof) But it should not and must not only be girls speaking these truths. Nor is the necessity for speaking up restricted to women and girls both. All of us, of all genders, need to speak up and work to redefine the gender constructs in our society. For if they are indeed the lens through which difference is understood, only by achieving equality for all genders will we ever achieve true equality for all people.
- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean