From Dolls to Degrees: How gender norms can be hard to see

by Thea Voutiritsas

A close friend of mine is expecting, and she told me she would be raising her daughter as a feminist. On one hand, I thought, “Well, of course!” And on the other, I thought about what it would be like if I had been raised with that in mind. Don’t get me wrong, my mom has always told me I could do whatever I wanted. She always told me to be strong, to be independent. She always told me I shouldn’t have to rely on anyone, but myself. I should never feel stuck. Those words are beautiful and they are true.

So, why didn’t they stick? Why did I scale back my aspirations, my career options, my degree? Because my mom raised me to be a strong woman, but she believed that raising me to be a woman meant I had to first act like a “girl.” I had hundreds of dolls, hundreds of shoes, toy kitchens, toy beauty shops, and so on. But I never had Legos, I never had a Gameboy, I never had a toolkit or a doctor’s kit. I never believed I could build, create, heal, or save anything. I never got the chance to pretend. I got older, and I believed that girls weren’t good at math and that boys should pay for dates. I believed makeup was a girl thing and videogames were for boys. My high school boyfriend had an Xbox, and a game that he let me borrow. I loved it so much, I asked for one of my own. My mom said no. She said those were for boys, and I was a girl. I didn’t need it and I wouldn’t use it. And my boyfriend must be bored without his game.

From my first year at the Women’s Center

So I never played it. I never got good. I never even got to try. I think about all the things I could have been interested in, every stone left unturned. I let it go, and I accepted the idea that there were things I couldn’t have because they belonged only to men. I thought I couldn’t ask for them, either. The careers, the interests, the freedom – they weren’t meant for me. I tailored my interests to what would be marriage material, because that was my end goal: to be married. I thought that was where my life would both end and begin. My meaning would be defined by my position as a bachelorette, and then by my position as a mother. I started college, and this is where my ideal world began to slip away from me.

I wanted to be a teacher because the salary wouldn’t be threatening, but I found I didn’t like teaching. I thought, well, I’m already an English major, so I’ll just stick with that. That’s still an approachable major. I didn’t talk in class. I didn’t talk back. I got good grades and I smiled. Then I worried that I might be missing something, maybe I should explore something else. Then I thought it could wait. Then I believed it was too late. Then I realized the job market didn’t look so good, because I didn’t like the jobs. And all this time, I never believed I was limited. I argued that men and women were treated equally. I thought feminism was too strong of a word.

In fact, feminism was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I found freedom and choice. I had the option to be funny, to speak loudly or to whisper. I had the option to frown instead of smile, and to wear the clothes that made me feel powerful, or comfortable, or both. But it also made me afraid that I became a feminist too late. Maybe if I would have known sooner, I would have chosen my passion instead of choosing a norm. But then I remember, being a feminist is about having choices. I will always have choices. My gender, my age, my education and my ability do not have to define my possibilities. I get to choose those, and I get to choose not to let those norms limit me.