I overheard a high-school aged girl referring to the troop of younger Girl Scouts she does female empowerment work with as “young women.” Somewhere, buried in the good respect and strength and wisdom of that statement, and in the vital work this student is doing, a contrary chord sounded in my ears. Despite environmental pollutants lowering the average age for monthly hemorrhaging out of our bits, and cultural pollutants insidiously sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages, I hold fast against referring to anyone in "the birth to about sixteen" age range as young women and men. Actually, it is because of these too-early arrivals of adulthood that I’m against pre-maturing the children with our language.
There is just too much pressure to be mature once those terms get bandied about. Moreover, I have been in too many situations where girls and boys of the same age are referred to as “boys” and “young women.” I suppose that this stems in part from the great work of the Feminist movement in getting women to love our bodies and ourselves, to respect ourselves, and to demand that respectful love, as well as equal power and opportunity, from the (predominantly male-powered) world. The dominant powers of the world would still, in too many cases, prefer to infantilize women, to make sure we don’t any of us worry our pretty little heads about anything. To that end, I highly support the use of the word “woman.”
But when we refer to the girls as women, and the boys as boys, we’re allowing one gender a longer childhood and demanding maturity of another. It perpetuates the “boys will be boys” and “girls just mature faster” ideas, which are incredibly limiting to everyone. And I just curdle when thinking how we rant and rave about “girl power” and how strong and well-rounded and accomplished and powerful women are (or can be), but we don’t pour quite the same effort into making strong and well-rounded and accomplished and powerful men out of little boys. For all that some cowboy/He-Man stereotype of masculinity is pushed on, oh, about everyone, there isn’t the same care and attention to the mature and empathetic development of men. Girls become Women (or, sexy dimwits with weird reserves of more calm, patience and wisdom than any human ever could possess, if you watch absorb most media). Boys become Overgrown Boys, which is almost a narrower road through the wide world as what we offer girls.
The warp-speed development of children into adults is as objectionable to me as the gender stratification, really. I was a weird kid. I’m forever grateful for that because I think that, having the parents I do, and playing dress-up with my sisters or our various forms of make-believe and exploration in our backyard long after it was cool to say that’s what I’d done with my weekend allowed me to grow up with my own brain in my head. I was shy and socially inept, but able to form opinions and original thoughts. It was also quite fun and funny, which is not to be overlooked. Being childish for a longer time, I think, has made me a better adult thus far. What we need is to find a way with our language and actions and expectations to allow girls to remain girls for as long as we let boys be boys, and to encourage boys to become as good men as we guide girls towards being women.
I’m incredibly fortunate to be friends with some wonderful Feminist men, which I think must be a pretty hard path to navigate at times. Recently, while out hiking at night, one such dude-friend and I came across an exhausted and dehydrated and somewhat lost duo of men. It happens that I’m pretty thoroughly trained and certified and experienced in wilderness medical response. So I trotted over to the ailing man, and my friend stayed a few steps away, getting information from the alert man.
While I am not psychic, I’m pretty sure that the man laying in exhausted fetal position on the trail was not telling me everything that was wrong with him. He just admitted to being “a little tired” and, finally, that he hadn’t eaten or drank in a while and maybe a granola bar would help for that last quarter mile to the road. I, disgustingly, found myself sort of simpering and playing dumb-ish, because he was more receptive to that mode of assistance from me. My friend could hear all this and later said he thought about stepping in to say: “Listen, dude, she knows what she’s doing, so shut it and let her help you!”
His impulse was admirable. In order to make this a more perfect world, we need more strong men speaking up against gender issues and discrimination and violence. At the same time, though, I am glad that he stayed put and let me handle the situation as best I could, as best as Dude-man on the ground would let me. While I didn’t shed a single sniffle over Margaret Thatcher’s death, I did love the clip of her that I heard on NPR: “Being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people that you are, then you aren’t.” If you are a female authority figure dealing with a Neanderthal, then your authority is somewhat corroded by even the best-hearted men on Earth explaining to the dolts that yes, you do have power, along with your boobs.
We need strong empathetic leaders of all stripes and types and genders and “ists” and “isms” to demonstrate to kids (and adults and Neanderthals) the better ways to be in this world, and in the better world we’ll yet make. As Caitlin Moran wrote: “I’m just thumbs up for the seven billion.” Me too. And that includes encouraging childhood, as well as stomping down the dominant patriarchy.
(Photo by Burdah, my wonderful big [huge!] sister.)