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Brookline Patch Column: Girls Can Be Astronauts, Too

This week, I want to take a slightly different approach in my biweekly announcement of our latest The Brookline Parent column up at Brookline Patch. I actually have a bit more to say than I wrote for the column, so what I'd ask you to do is go read the column first, then come back here. Okay? I'll wait.

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.

Comments

I think the fact of your awareness will help a lot.
In general, Orthodox Jewish women tend to wear skirts or dresses and not pants. I can't speak for Nomi, but my plan is to let them wear what they want to wear at home, and to dress appropriately in other venues. If we send them to a Jewish day school, they'll most likely have to wear a dress or blouse and skirt, as that would be the dress code. But if they wanted to switch to pants at home, in my opinion that would be their decision.

(Also, I've always thought that being able to wear a skirt, especially in warmer weather, would be nice.)

One thing I do insist on is that they dress modestly. But I think boys and men should dress modestly too.
Interesting thoughts. This comment is orthogonal to your post, but it occurs to me you might be interested in a book I read recently about myths and truths of child development and behavior called Nurtureshock. A couple of chapters deal with gifted children and modes of interaction that both motivated and demotivate. One of the arguments in the book that I found interesting was the effect of praise on children. The research found that when children are praised for things that are innate qualities and out of their control, such as "you are smart," that it was very demotivating, and those children tended to give up easily when presented with challenging tasks. The example given was when children were given a test, then given a break with a certain type of feedback, and then given the option of taking another, harder test. Children told "you are smart" tended to opt out of the harder test, whereas children who were praised for working hard relished the challenge of the harder test.

In seeking to empower your daughters, you can make use of those findings by encouraging your daughters in their hard work and accomplishments, as well as occasionally letting them know that they are, indeed, cute and smart. Since I read the book, I've tried to modify the praise I give my son, making sure to tell him that I like the work he is doing, as well as occasionally letting him know he could do better, when applicable.
We do intend to praise them for their specific accomplishments and point out the value of working hard.
I disagree with two of your statements.

The first is on a matter of fact, not opinion. Thoman Sowell demonstrated years ago that men and women are paid equally for their work history. That is, a man who takes two years off to raise a child will take the same salary hit as a woman. He also discusses total family income, the purported earning power of various ethnic groups... it's quite a read.

The second is a matter of opinion. I'm familiar with Soleveichick's (sp?) attempts to square the circle about the role of women in Orthodox Judiasm with an elaborate of justifications and double talk. The fact remains that women have no role in the synagogue, the central focus of Jewish life, and precious little elsewhere.

Have you ever met a woman who was president of her synagogue? Are there Orthodox synagogues that allow women to deliver "sermons" to the congregation? They're scarce as hen's teeth. And I speak of our shared "Modern" Orthodox community; in the right-wing communities, women are utterly invisible -- literally hidden from view -- in every gathering: at services, at weddings, at other civic functions such as award dinners. I once attended the annual dinner of a girls' high school wherein only men spoke, and the award to a particular family was presented to the father and the son; the wife and daughter could not step the podium.

I think you have it exactly backwards. The wide world offers your daughters the opportunity to be anything she wants, regardless of "old Russian women" (of all genders, background, and ethnicity). Your home environment and religion will likely steer them into certain habits of mind that will almost impossible to overcome.
It almost sounds as if you're encouraging us to stop practicing Judaism the way that we do if we want our daughters to avoid those habits of mind.
Obviously this is an issue close to my heart, so I'm happy to hear you and Nomi are thinking about it. Sounds like you're already doing the best thing you can for the girls, which is being aware and teaching them to be aware of gender issues, so they grow up with the tools to identify and combat gender bias when they encounter it.
We're trying.
By the time I have time to comment on this, hardly anyone else will still be listening. I long for the days of usenet or mailing lists.
Once you do find time to comment, I'll do a second post on this issue and thus people will be listening again. Let me know when you have time.
Echoing gwendolynclare, part of the difficulty seems to be that women are socialized to not make people upset. When they succeed in school, especially in math or science, they are often given the cold shoulder by fellow students. When they say no to a proposed salary and make a counteroffer, they risk upsetting a future or current employer. (IMO, this can also contribute to date-rape: girls often feel extremely uncomfortable telling anyone NO clearly; so they soften their refusal and then get pushed into compliance.) The difficulty is not so much telling them they have the ability to do anything, but convincing them it's okay to use that ability, to speak up for themselves.

Careers and gender

I have found the choice between family and career quite painful - I never could make them work together, and since I have had better success with my family, I have drifted away from the career. Some of the most successful women I know have never been able to marry and have children - they simply couldn't find a man who could be flexible enough.
For those who do marry, I have noticed that two things drive who stays home with children - whether the couple believes strongly in nursing for the first year, and who earns more. Biologically most women cannot sustain supply and work full time for an entire year. And couples undestandably tend to prioritize the career of the partner with greater earning potential.
I knew a transsexual IT professional who had applied for jobs as both man and woman (she/he looked quite natural as either gender) and received two responses to the same resume, depending on the perception of gender. As a woman, she was told she was overqualified and/or requesting too much compensation. As a man, he was told he was a great fit and they could discuss salary.

Re: Careers and gender

Fascinating about the IT professional you knew. I wish there were a way to snap our fingers and ensure that the world wasn't like that.
Despite all this, though, the surface of our practice can appear unequal.

Speaking as an Orthodox Jew and a feminist, I have to say this: our practice is unequal. Some of this is down to actual halacha. Far, far more of it is down to tradition that carries the weight and effective inflexibility of law.

The fact is that there are doors closed to us in our tradition, and we as women have the choice of accepting that, trying to change it, or moving to a tradition where that isn't the case. Or pretending it isn't the case. It's not an easy decision.
For whatever it's worth I should note that I am a female business traveler who has never experienced harassment on the road.

As to the rest... not just to strangers and people unfamiliar with Jewish traditions.

I think that there is something potentially problematic about separate but equal even if you posit that the equal really is equal -- one is still saying that one's gender determines one's role.

How feminist would it sound to you if I said that saying women had to stay at home with the kids wasn't unequal, because raising children is just as important as working outside the home?

It wouldn't sound very feminist to me. Even though I truly believe that raising children is just as important as working outside the home, and even though I believe it's feminist to make sure women's traditional work is not devalued compared to men's traditional work.

Because the missing piece is letting women choose men's traditional work if that's what they, as individuals, feel called to, and men choose women's. And that's what this tradition does not allow.

You say you want them to know that no doors are closed to them, but some doors are closed to them -- they can't be rabbis or cantors, at least not and remain within the tradition you're talking about.
"You say you want them to know that no doors are closed to them, but some doors are closed to them -- they can't be rabbis or cantors, at least not and remain within the tradition you're talking about."

It has not escaped my notice that if my daughters were to choose to become rabbis or cantors, they would have to either work to change the tradition we are currently within, or else move to another tradition. Not everyone in my position would say this, but if they chose to move to a different tradition in order to pursue a career as a rabbi or cantor, I would support them.
I've often said that if I had girls, I'd consider an all-girls school for them. I had so many freinds who went to all girl's schools (not religious) because it was an environment where their talents could be fostered, and they could be ecouraged to excel in math, science etc.
we have a long way to go, and true equality will never be reached.
Good luck with the math. My teenage daughter has never considered herself to be good at math, despite the fact that she consistently gets very good grades in it and is in an honors track. It's hard for me to say what the reason for this is, and whether gender plays a role (certainly she's gotten nothing but encouragement at home). I do suspect that part of it may have something to do with the demise of New Math and how they've sucked all the interesting stuff out of the primary school curriculum (which has also had negative effects on the boys).
The question, though, is, has the demise of New Math also made your boys feel as if they are no good at math as well.
I find it intriguing that the Russian nurse hadn't heard of Valentina Tereshkova. I would have thought that the Soviet propaganda machine would have made her famous for weeks after her successful mission. On the other hand, I'd be surprised if anyone too young to remember that would have such attitudes.

I talked it over with a friend from Russia, and he speculated that perhaps she was from a more remote area, where the propaganda was not so active and where people tend to be more provincial.
I didn't specifically ask her about Tereshkova at the time, and it's entirely possible that she did know of Tereshkova. But her immediate thought was that the costumes were for boys, not girls, meaning that although she may have been generally aware that there were women astronauts, women are not what came to her mind when presented with the general concept of "astronaut."
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