If you’re interested in reading a refreshing burst of honesty today, you could do worse than Aaron Traister’s piece about the different reactions he received from people when he told them he was expecting a son and when he told them, a couple years later, that he was expecting a daughter. Americans tend to think we’re above the prejudices that drive people in China and India to use sex-selective abortion, but, as Traister’s piece shows, we’re far from the angels we’d like to pretend we are. In fact, it seems we start the process of giving little girls an inferiority complex before they even have a chance to be born.
Reading Traister’s piece, I was never so glad that I never had a brother. I recall, as a small kid and even as a teenager, feeling like I benefited from not having a boy around to suck all the oxygen of adult attention out of the room. My father never seem resigned to having girls, but he did do stuff with us that I feel we wouldn’t have had a chance to do if a boy had been there to do it instead. I was put to work in the woodshop, in the yard, on the car. The seeds of a budding feminist were planted in the boy vacuum. Being able to do son things because there is no son means learning that you can do all sorts of things our society generally discourages in women. It doesn’t seem to me an accident that now I can find myself in my backyard with a female friend (also brotherless), building garden structures on a Saturday without feeling even the slightest need to call my boyfriend out to do the hard work.
Traister’s article only confirmed some of my suspicions. He relates how, compared with the reactions when he announced his first-born’s maleness, people reacted to the news about his soon-to-be-born baby girl on a range from muted enthusiasm to open contempt for girls. Nothing he relates will be foreign to most readers; we’re all aware of stereotypes about how girls are harder, girls are more shallow, girls are just a disappointment. But I found it revelatory the way that Traister cheekily reminds us how these messages seep into the minds of girls, so that they know how much less wanted they really are. And how damaging that message really can be.
Growing up brotherless, I think I can see why people view girls as a disappointment. Having no boys to focus on, male father figures in my life went out of their way to put male expectations on me. I was told, by male adults, to delay marriage and childbearing until I had a career under way, and that I should bust my ass at school and not let anyone tell me that I was less than. In India and China, part of the hostility to daughters is the sense that you are raising someone else’s family. In India, the dowry system even means you have to pay someone else to take the girl off your hands. But in a muted way, perhaps Americans still think having a girl means running the risk of raising someone else’s wife. Perhaps with boys, we feel more assured that the child in front of us could grow up to be a doctor or a scientist or a famous athlete.
Or course, girls can grow up to be all those things, can’t they? It’s true, but also true that we’re far from expressing equal enthusiasm, as Traister discovers when a friend of his who has gone through the hell of keeping a baby with a birth defect alive crows about how he at least doesn’t have to put up with a girl. Everyone Traister spoke to talked about the other shoe dropping-oh, girls are good when they’re young, but wait until they’re teenagers. This sort of thinking reflects the ugly truth about diminishing returns for girls and women in our culture. Everyone knows about how girls make better grades on average than boys, and more women matriculate and graduate from college than men. But somehow, women still earn less coming out of college , and every year they work they fall behind their male colleagues doing the same jobs. Parents just get less return on their girl investment.
But disparaging female children is exactly the wrong way to fix the problem. The reason women work harder and get paid less is partially sexism, and partially women’s lack of entitlement due to lower self-esteem. We put our noses to the grindstone, never try to draw attention to ourselves by asking for more, and suffer from imposter syndrome . Many of us are easily convinced that our jobs are less important than our husbands’, so if someone has to cut back for family reasons, it’s almost always a woman. And part of the reason probably goes back to what Traister observed-when you’re told that you’re less valuable than boys from the day you’re born, you begin to believe it.