Girls Can Be Astronauts, Too
As you may have guessed at reading the column, I'm very concerned both about the opportunities my daughters will have as they grow older, and how they will react the first time they come up against the prevailing sexist attitude that still exists throughout much of the world.
For many years, I was a teacher of science and mathematics. I taught many female students, who ranged in competency just like their male counterparts; but what always struck me was their different attitudes. Many more girls than boys felt that the topics were inherently difficult and that they just couldn't "get it." What shocked me was that even the girls who were brilliant at math and science often felt this way, much more often than the boys who excelled.
I came to realize that this attitude wasn't inherent in them; it couldn't possibly be. Over their lives, many of my female students had internalized the notion that girls either weren't good in math or science or weren't expected to be good in math and science, because other people had told them this, either explicitly or implicitly. When you grow up in a culture that dismisses your abilities, you come to believe that your abilities are insignificant.
I'm grateful that in general the culture in the United States is not nearly as difficult for women as many others, but even here there is sexual harassment. Earlier this week, I read an article from the New York Times, Keeping Women Safe Through Social Networking, in which writer Joe Sharkey begins by stating bluntly that "Every female business traveler I know concedes that she has experienced at least some kind of sexual harassment on the road. Usually it’s verbal, though sometimes it’s physical." This is the kind of sentence that ought to be a revelation to every man who comes across it. No, strike that. This is the kind of sentence that there should be no reason to write in today's world. And yet, there it is.
As I noted in my column, I try to do what I can to combat cultural sexism, such as praising my daughters for being smart as well as cute. (And no question about it, they are smart.) But I do worry about how my own unconscious attitude may affect them as well.
For example, Nomi and I are part of a religious tradition in which men appear to take the dominant role in ritual. Now, I do understand that there's more, much more, underneath the surface. Women actually play an extremely important role in Judaism. The way we practice the tradition, women are seen as closer to perfection than men are, which is why they don't have the same time-bound obligations that men do. Women are charged with making sure that the traditions get passed along in the home, which is just as important a charge as the men's charge to see that the traditions get passed along in synagogue ritual. Furthermore, at least from a Conservative and Orthodox viewpoint, Judaism passes through the mother, and not the father. It is the mother's Jewish status that determines the Jewish status of the children, and not the father's.
Despite all this, though, the surface of our practice can appear unequal. If strangers unfamiliar with Judaism and Jewish traditions walk into our shul, they will see men leading the service and performing almost all of the ritual, while seeing women participate in a more limited capacity. And even though, as I noted, there is much more importance placed on women's roles under the surface, I still feel that this weekly surface presentation can lead some folks to dismiss the underlying importance of women in the tradition, and by extension, in the overall culture.
At the same time, though, my religious traditions are important to me, and I do want to pass them along to my children. More than that, I want them to come to love their traditions in the same way that Nomi and I do, just like I want them to love science and mathematics, science fiction, literature, dancing, good food, politics, sports, music, art – in short, everything. I want them to know that no doors are closed to them. So I strive not just to show my belief in them, but to find them role models to follow as they grow older. And I am grateful that there are so many women role models to present to them.
I ended the Brookline Patch column by noting sadly that I still think we have a long way to go. I'd like to end this post by noting hopefully that we've already gone farther than many people would have expected fifty years ago.