My husband went fishing this morning. He came back earlier than expected, his reel having broken. He pulled it out of its bag to show me how the line had jammed, despite having used it without a hitch for the last fifteen years.
The bag is laying on the table still. It’s made of blue corduroy, with threads poking out at the corners, and the drawstring enclosure is simple but tidy. My husband’s grandmother had taught him to sew when he was a boy, and this was his first project.
Growing up, I was a voracious reader, devouring any book I could get my hands on. My favorites, however, were historical fiction novels featuring brave heroines. These books all had similar themes – a young girl, who was told she should sit still and practice her embroidery, would buck tradition and pursue unwomanly hijinks instead. I loved following their adventures, as they climbed trees and solved mysteries, all while pursuing their own path.
Underneath this theme, however, I heard another message: Women’s work is inferior. To be cool, interesting, and exciting – you should be more like a man. Staying in the kitchen is fine, sure, but only if you want to ensure no one ever writes a book about a girl like you. Like the heroines in my books, I loved climbing trees and jumping into puddles, but unlike those girls, I also loved baking cookies and playing with dolls.
The work that has been associated with women for years – raising children, sewing, knitting, cooking, baking – is still seen as less worthwhile than other more masculine pursuits, primarily paid employment. Despite the fact that many of these historically female tasks are highly skilled (have you ever actually tried to successfully embroider a pillow?), they have become cultural shorthand for mindless, unimportant toil. Despite trying to give women more options, we’ve also unintentionally continued the stereotype that women’s work is worth less than men’s.
The implications of this bias are real and measurable. Caregiving – a field primarily associated with women – is still grossly underpaid. For example, a woman working as a child care provider earns, on average $20,000 a year. A crossing guard (someone also working in a physical job that does not require higher education) earns an average of $37,000 per year. Paying women less because of the type of jobs they do causes a wage gap that harms women and their families.
Women have often been blamed for bringing the wage gap upon themselves, with critics claiming that they chose to enter into low-wage, female-dominated professions. The truth, however, may be that workers in female-dominated industries earn less simply because they are dominated by women. For example, when computer programming moved from a mixed-gender to a male-dominated profession, the pay of programmers increased. when more women start doing jobs typically associated with men – as is the case for park rangers – pay has gone down.
We do girls a disservice when we tell them that the only way they can be successful is if they become more like men. Doing so ignores the historical accomplishments of women, and their contributions to art, culture, and society that has too often been overlooked. We also do our boys a disservice.
Twenty years ago, not many boys were learning to sew alongside their grandmothers like my husband, but perhaps they would have been better off if they had. Boys have been underperforming in school – lower grades, lower rates of college completion – for decades now. A 2013 report shows that boys actually do better in school when they are engaged in more “feminine” extracurricular activities, such as music, art, and drama, but boys often disparage these for being “un-masculine.”
My four-year-old son often asks me when I will teach him to knit. “When you can sit still for more than five minutes at a time,” is what I think to myself, but I will cast on a few stitches and let him play around. I like that he doesn’t know this is a skill primarily associated with women, and instead just thinks of it as something neat mommy can do. I like that, if we had a daughter, teaching her to knit wouldn’t be a way of teaching her homemaking skills so she would be able to attract a husband, but rather a way to make art.
As feminists, we often parrot the line that feminism about women making their own choices – whatever those choices may be. In practice, our society still treats traditionally female work, primarily raising children, as a lesser path. Women are still punished in the workforce for having children. Mothers are less likely to be hired than men or childless women, and if they are able to get a job, they are paid less. Telling women that they have career options other than being a housewife is vitally important, but we also must start to recognizing that choices like being a stay at home mom are significant and worthwhile.
For both our girls’ and our boys’ sake, we need to stop denigrating traditionally female activities. It sends the message that although children today have more choices, the only correct choice is to pursue male-dominated interests. Instead, we need to finally start recognizing the important work that women have done for centuries and give women – and men – who pursue it the pay and recognition they deserve. All children should have the freedom to pursue their interests without fear of judgment, whether they choose to climb trees or sew, to play house or to build one, they deserve our support.