• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Mothering at Mid-Career: Gender balance, again-this time in books

A couple of posts in the last week about gender balance have caught my eye. Both came from Susan O'Doherty, whose Career Coach pieces have spurred all kinds of interesting comments on the blog as well as new ideas for me.

November 16, 2009

A couple of posts in the last week about gender balance have caught my eye. Both came from Susan O'Doherty, whose Career Coach pieces have spurred all kinds of interesting comments on the blog as well as new ideas for me. First was her brief piece calling our attention to Scott Jaschik's longer piece on a possible challenge to Title IX arising out of a perceived problem with gender imbalance in liberal arts colleges, which she followed up with a longer piece on the transformation at her previously all-women's college when men were admitted.

I've seen comments similar to Susan's second piece elsewhere: that when men start attending a previously all-women's college (or simply move into residence halls previously reserved for women, as has happened where I teach) that the differences are striking, with more need for maintenance, higher levels of vandalism, etc. when the men move in. I'm not going to comment on whether these reports are true or not — I suspect there's some truth to them, and some anecdotal exaggeration. But they reminded me of an argument that I heard when my own institution was considering moving from single-sex housing to co-ed housing. Some favored it, believing that bringing men into the women's residence halls (and vice versa) would cut down on the level of vandalism in the men's halls; others, who preferred the system as it was, complained that they were tired of hearing about how women would "civilize" men — tired, that is, of having it be women's "job" to do so. It was an interesting shift from what I'd seen when I moved into a co-ed residence hall many years earlier: my mother, seeing that my door was adjacent to a stairwell that led down to a city street, was pleased that there were some freshman football players living down the hall, surmising that they'd be "protection" against — whatever dangers she thought might come up the stairwell. In the event, no dangers came up the stairwell, nor did the guys break any more furniture (as far as I know) than anyone else living in the dorm.

One hopes, of course, that men and women help civilize each other — we share a world, after all, and we might perhaps learn to do so by sharing living quarters. My husband tries desperately (and sometimes futilely, I fear) to "civilize" me — I am by far the messier one of the two of us, and my mess sometimes threatens to take over the house. Now, I'm not wrecking the antiques or carving my initials into the furniture, like the men in Susan's second story, but you take my point.

Still, though my husband and I may bend the expected gender roles here, there's a kernel of something (I'm just not quite sure it's truth!) in this story of women civilizing men. I'm about to teach Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (just mentioned in Dana Campbell's recent piece on her mother-daughter book club) in my children's lit class. It's the third or fourth novel we've discussed that has at its core a friendship between a boy and a girl.* This is, I think, a popular central trope in children's fiction — it may prevent a book from being typed as either a "boy book" or a "girl book," and it offers a way of talking about relationships that's somewhere between romance and "buddy story." But it's also the case that in all the books with this relationship at its core that I've taught, the girl "civilizes" or teaches the boy — the friendship, in other words, is not really equal. In Bridge to Terabithia, there's a certain reciprocity: Jess gives Leslie a sense of belonging in a new place, but Leslie introduces Jess to a world outside his small town — an introduction that seems, in the end, the far greater gift. We've traced similar movements in other novels we've discussed, and we keep coming back to the question of gender: could we reverse the roles? What would the book look like if we did?

Children's literature is not the world, of course, and there are certainly other models for male-female relationships besides those offered in the books I'm teaching. But at the moment I'm simply struck by the similarity. Would we find books in which a young boy "civilizes" or teaches a young girl impossibly patronizing? Or just impossible? Have I gravitated towards these books because they express something that I've seen in the world, that perhaps I unconsciously think is true, or is the connection a coincidence?

As always, I have more questions than answers. But I think we need to keep raising the questions anyway, to keep asking what we are striving for when we look for gender balance, what aims we hope to achieve with that balance. Until we know where we want to go, we probably won't figure out how to get there.

* Others include Skellig, by David Almond; Feed, by M.T. Anderson; and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The latter has a three-way friendship with two boys and a girl, and only one boy really requires "civilizing." We could also include Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White, on this list, if we take Charlotte's relationship with Wilbur to be a friendship, which some of us do.


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