April 5, 2013 § 23 Comments

Lego advertisement from 1981.

Lego advertisement from 1981.

“Oh mother!” Beezus was all enthusiasm. “Just think. You’re going to be liberated!”
Ramona was pleased by the look of amusement that flickered across her mother’s face. “That remains to be seen,” said Mrs. Quimby. – from Ramona the Brave, by Beverly Cleary

I have two boys and we play a lot of Legos. What I love most about Legos is that they have a life of their own, that while they now come with instructions and in complete kits, they inevitably end up as something different altogether. Oliver recently designed and built two research ships, led by the genius Dr. Invention, and they search the Arctic Sea looking for sick and injured animals while also mining the ocean for potions that cure them.

What I don’t love about Legos is the sets they design for girls. They make me crazy. When I was little, we had a bin of Legos and I remember spending hours in my living room making boats with tiny rooms, spaceships, and little zoos. This was before Lego came out with people, so we even had to make those. I could have been the girl in the photo above with my red pig tails, rolled up Billy the Kid jeans, and Keds.

My sons always have enjoyed playing with girls more than boys, so we have a lot of little girls in our house, often playing Legos or some version of animal rescue or pretending they are cats. And the girls build things too, despite the fact that we don’t have Lego Friends sets, which the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood described as, “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush.”

Of course, I am not the only one who wants to strangle someone at Lego and the debate over gender-specific toys has been going on for years. A little over a year ago, Peggy Orenstein wrote a fantastic Op-Ed for the New York Times on this topic and she writes about it frequently on her blog. But lately, my hatred of Lego Friends and all things Barbie and Disney has deepened. I hate that little girls  seem to be running around in tutus and tiaras all the time. I hate that girls’ clothes so often have a ruffle or something sparkly. I hate when Oliver’s and Gus’ friends ask me if I want to play “princess.” No,” I want to say vehemently. “I don’t want to play princess. Why don’t we play CEO instead?”

Maybe it’s because I am growing closer to these girls or maybe it’s because they are growing up and I am deeply afraid for them. Let me be clear: this is not a post about parenting girls but about being a girl now, which I imagine to be excruciatingly difficult.

I was born in 1973, six months after Title IX was signed into law. And although my mother was about as traditional as it gets (she went to secretarial school and worked as a corporate secretary in Manhattan before marrying my father  and then leaving her job to be a stay-at-home), she was also a bit of a closet rebel and and quiet hippie, even though she would probably say this wasn’t true. Way before Michael Pollen began writing about food, my mom drove us to an orchard 20 minutes away to get local fruits and vegetables, I don’t remember her ever not being politically progressive and some mornings when I woke up, she was doing yoga moves while someone on TV named Joanie wore a white unitard and lifted her knee to her nose. We listened to a lot of Carole King and Simon and Garfunkel growing up, and for a while, we boycotted grapes.

More importantly, she was a feminist, although she might say this wasn’t true as well. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” was a mantra she frequently repeated. She signed me up for swim team when I was four, telling me – as she would for years to come – “If you can jump in that pool (or run that race or take that job) then you can do anything.”

Once, I came home from school when I was eight or nine and told my mom that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up and she laughed at me. “Oh you don’t want to be that,” she said, while zooming one of my brother’s Matchboxes back to him. “You’re going to grow up to do something much more important than that.” It’s a testament to my mother’s love and devotion that I didn’t interpret this to mean she didn’t want to be a mom, but rather, that I was destined for a better lot than she had, that I was supposed to do something in the world.

We were also lucky, because in the 70’s and 80’s we had the Women’s Movement. I still have images in my head of women in jeans and tee shirts  marching in Washington, carrying signs with the initials E.R.A. We had a force behind us, a maelstrom of protection and righteousness and passion for equality that spun around me and propelled me through an ocean of naysayers: girls can’t be doctors, girls can’t run as fast as boys, girls can’t build things. Those comments always lit a fire under me. Oh yeah, well just watch me. 

I don’t think we have those women now and that makes me sad, both because I truly believe the Women’s Movement has completely stalled out and also because the girls who are eight and ten and twelve now are without the role models I once had. I am grateful for Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg (whose new book I have not yet read) and Oprah, but somehow the role models now lack the panache and passion of Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem.

I really loved Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and of course I’m not new to the table on this issue either. In fact I’m about eight months late. But I just love how she seems to describe my life and my choices (although at a much higher level), that perhaps if I wanted to I could have kept the corporate gig going through my kids’ childhood, but I just didn’t want it badly enough. As Slaughter says, I knew I was replaceable at work, but not so much at home. Sheryl Sandberg would probably say I should want it more, that I let women everywhere down by not trying harder, and maybe I have. Maybe this is even why the women’s movement is so stymied. Maybe we don’t want it badly enough anymore. Maybe we’re too comfortable.

Or maybe it’s because we blame each other too much. Maybe it’s because we don’t respect each other’s choices. Maybe we are too busy arguing about whether or not Ms. Slaughter or Ms. Sandberg is right that we are completely missing the bigger picture. A part of me thinks this isn’t what men would do. If men were the ones who wanted to be “liberated,” I have a feeling they would gang up, form a team, order a pizza and then call a lobbyist in Washington or someone on Wall Street who played hockey with someone else’s brother back in high school. They would see that what we truly need is affordable childcare, flexible work hours, job sharing, and the ability to telecommute. They would start a movement with funny YouTube videos, interviews with Jimmy Fallon, and free beer.

Or do I think that solely because they are already in power, and we, as women, are not?  And who is to say those ideas would even work? France, despite having affordable childcare and excellent healthcare is 57th on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, below Cuba and Uganda. (According to the World Economic Forum, the Global Gender Gap measures gender-based disparities based on: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment).

As I read this report, the word empowerment struck me particularly. We as women are just not empowered. As soon as a woman CEO makes a controversial decision, she’s all over the media, critiqued not only for her ideas, but for her suit and her haircut. Perhaps most destructive though is that we don’t have each other’s backs. We’re constantly criticizing each other’s choices, parenting decisions, how often we show up to the PTO meetings or the the happy hours at work.

Finally, here at the end of my rant, you would probably expect some answers or at the very least, ideas, but I am all out. Frankly, I often feel like a sell-out, because I gave it “all” up to marry a guy in the Navy, an organization which does not exactly advocate equal rights for women. As a commanding officer’s wife, I am also the one who organizes meal trains, hosts baby showers, and wears heels when a senior officer comes to dinner or for an event. On these occasions, I am the one who cooks the dinner, or orders the salad, and tries to keep my mouth shut. It’s not very empowering, to be honest, and I have a deep sense of letting Gloria Steinem – and maybe my mother – down.

For a long time, I’ve felt that if we could organize – no, empower – military wives, we could change the world. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy changing diapers and making pb&j’s and trying not to think about too much about what this says about me.

And perhaps that is what is what I am upset about, that I am culpable. That by making a choice that was right for me, I haven’t helped the girls who have come after me. Or maybe it’s the other way around and true liberation means doing what is right for oneself, no matter what it looks like.


§ 23 Responses to Girls

  • Sheryl Sandberg can kiss my (mommy) ass. Thank you, universe! We need ONE more woman making us feel guilty for our choice if we decide to stay home. Guess what, Sandberg? You can LEAN IN to your family but you don’t choose to. And when you die, I doubt it will matter to your co-workers. Oh wait. You were rarely home for your children. So your kids won’t care either.

  • Alana says:

    As the mother of a young daughter who happens to LOVE princesses and pink and sparkly things, I think about this all the time. I don’t buy the sexist Lego’s. She got a hand me down Barbie from my cousin’s daughter that I’ve thought of secretly doing away with but haven’t. She’s seen Cinderella. I’ve had my share of internal struggles about this.

    My daughter also happens to be “pretty” and have ridiculously long brown hair with blond tips that some women will pay stylists to recreate. It’s often the first thing people say to her (You’re so pretty! You’re hair is beautiful!).

    We talk a lot about what true beauty is, that it comes from the inside. We talk about inequality. She’s seen Mary Poppins a thousand times and sings Sister Suffragette (and knows what it’s referring to). We talk about the stories that end in the myth of “happily ever after” and what that really means.

    I hope that by modeling being a mom who works from home, who is passionate about being a force for good in the world AND about being a loving, present mom, I’m showing her that there are options and choices and she gets to decide how she wants to live her life.

    There’s a lot still wrong with our world and there’s a lot that’s going right. There are 17 year old girls winning Google science fairs with mind-blowing, world-altering results. I don’t have any easy answers either, and I often wish I had a magic wand. I’m slightly terrified of what the world will look like when my daughter is 12 but I’m going to help her find healthy role models and I’m going to do my best to be one. And I’m also going to take a deep breath and remember that some princesses aren’t all bad. 🙂


  • Pamela says:

    Alana, you have clearly elucidated the reasons I held off on writing this and after reading your reply I think I should have held off forever. Sometimes I have bad judgement and I’m sorry. I didn’t want to give us moms another thing to feel terrible about, but rather, how frustrated I am with the lack of role models for girls today, and that the biggest role models seem to be the marketing department at Disney.

    I know so many girls who play princess, just as boys often love to play fireman. I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the problem is that they are told how to play princess and what to wear to play princess and that a princess looks like a 16 year old with a microscopic waist.

    I know what an amazing mom you are and Ada is so, so lucky to have you and she is going to be such a force when she grows up. I am sorry if what I wrote caused more unneeded anxiety.

    • Alana says:

      Pamela – I didn’t see this! Oh gosh, please don’t feel like you shouldn’t have written this, or that I’m upset about it. It’s an important topic to think/feel/write/talk about and I think you did a beautiful job. I’m on the same page…just trying to figure out how to do it best. xoxo

  • Kate says:

    oh, the anxiety is just there, its unavoidable as part and parcel of our hopes and dreams for our kids. I had thought I was so cool in raising my boys to be flexible in their pictures of women and what they can do… and upon having a girl, i have realized all the ways in which i have failed. we will not have barbie-ized legos, but it is small fry in the face of the goliaths of our cultural seas. . .
    i do agree about our lack of role models of strong thoughtful, righteous women, and even sesame street has gone all mainstream and blond and fairy. what to do?
    i’m just going to hang in and do the best i can, and keep on saying that to myself, over and over, for every ‘dora the explorer’ episode i suffer through… 🙂

    • Pamela says:

      I agree. I am trying to raise my boys to realize the privilege they have in the world as white males but the pull of our society’s values is strong. I am reading the other comments now, those that remind me of the strong women and super-strong girls on the rise! I think hang in and do the best I can is the definition of parenting:)

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    “what we truly need is affordable childcare, flexible work hours, job sharing, and the ability to telecommute.”

    As much as equal pay for equal work, the issue is provision for adequate childcare, as you have noted. The problem is political and cultural, and needs to be addressed in corporate board rooms as well as in Washington. It isn’t so much a women’s issue as a family issue, so that families can make the right choices for themselves.

  • My daughter is 13 – She was the little girl with the curls who didn’t want to play dolls and wanted to be a firefighter or a ballerina while the other girls wanted to be mothers. She loved playing with large wooden blocks and studying ballet. Now she does rope courses, rock climbing, runs distance races, plays the sax, and studies classical ballet 6 days a week. She is naturally feminin – neither a tom boy or a girly girl, just all – her. While I see the many paints that you raise, I am raising her to not focus on the gender of a person but to see the person – their heart. A role model for her is not a woman or a man, but a person who lives in integrity, demonstrates respect and compassion, opens themselves to life. I recognize that there are glass ceilings and salary gaps and expectations based on gender. I do believe that women (and men) have more choices than we have in the past (which is power and liberation), and we have a plethera of people to identify as role models based on who they are and what they give to the world. My daughter is currently doing a report on Louis Armstrong who changed music internationally. From what I understand, his focus was playing music – not the color of his skin or the limitations that this created. Where our attention goes, our energy flows – his attention was focused on his music and that passion. I hope to model that same for my daughter and for everyone. This is a little different take on what you wrote. I appreciate what you wrote – Thank you for posting.

  • Pamela says:

    I try to always respond individually to comments but today I am going to comment here, because I realize that I probably shouldn’t have posted this. It wasn’t helpful and in many ways I was wrong. I was looking at the tiny subset of girls I am exposed to and mistaking it for the whole. I was mistaking the impermanent for the permanent.

    AND more importantly, I wasn’t thinking of the amazing women who are raising girls today AS IF there were enough. That is a powerful message of abundance and that in itself can change the world.

    I thought about taking this post down but I think it’s already out there, so I am just going to say I’m sorry for not seeing the forest for the trees and contributing to the anxiety out there.

  • Jan says:

    Oh, Pamela, please don’t think you shouldn’t have posted this, just because there are a few wonderful families out there who have managed to buck the trends.

    Maybe I’m influenced by my generation (I’m a baby boomer, now 57 with a 16 year old daughter and 18 year old son), but I, too, see the huge contrasts in awareness and the slow slip-sliding backwards toward limiting gender roles. And I don’t live on a navy base in the southeast, but in a big city in the midwest.

    I agree with you that we can gain by living the message of abundance, but we also need to stand up against the pervasive message of sexualization that is pretty much all that is available as role-model for girls today. They’re being told, yes you can do anything, but you must wear pink or purple ruffles, and look sexy (even at 7 or 8!) while you do it. What kind of a message is that? The visual is so much more powerful for these young minds than the verbal.

    This is not an easy issue. There is no one (or even few) right answer. We need to keep talking about it. And your beautiful thoughtful writing contributes to that conversation.

    So thank you, and please try not to second-guess yourself. You’re doing fine.

  • Pamela says:

    Thank you for this generous and sweet comment. Perhaps there are two sides to the story and I’ll remember that next time. Thank you for reading – I feel so lucky to be connected to so many caring people.

  • Elaine says:

    My daughter, as you know, is the vision of pink and ruffles and really – this kills me. Daily, it kills me. I hate the princess and that she wants to be the nurse (not the doctor!) and every time someone tells her how pretty she is, I cringe. And when she asks “am I pretty” I want to cry, and am so thankful for that youtube video that circulated recently about pretty, so at least now I can respond “you’re pretty amazing, H. You can do so many things”. And I look around, like you do, and think WHERE ARE THE ROLE MODELS and I pat myself on the back when I think about raising a daughter who has never seen me put on makeup (and then remember every single cute au pair she had that never went outside without makeup (who do you think she notices?). I feel like I get it from both sides, because I work part-time. I’m not strong enough to work full-time, I need preferential treatment – but I don’t really understand staying at home because I don’t REALLY do that – not like a REAL stay-at-home mom.

    So, what do I do? I teach my daughter to shout “NO” when someone takes something from her, I show her that I mostly work with men, and I tell her I’m the luckiest person in the world to be her mom, and note often that she should wait to have all those babies she talks about because she needs to go to college first. And when her brother comes home and says “boys are better at math” I fall over and die right in front of both of them and give Ed a fierce look that says “don’t you dare make a joke because I will kick you in the balls”. When she tells me about how boys do this or that I tell her girls can, too, and I get her fired up – for the moment. But inside, I worry that someday she won’t hear me cheering for her and she’ll decide that lower wages and crappier jobs are just par for the course.

    We all need to be talking about these issues – with our sons and our daughters. The future of my daughter is counting on it.

    • Pamela says:

      I think that shouting NO when someone takes something from her is one of the most powerful lessons there is. You are an AMAZING role model Elaine and I have learned so much from you!!

  • Kate says:

    Wow. This issue has so many layers. Don’t be sorry for posting your post, I think what you were responding to was valid, and it’s an important issue to discuss…I was also born in 1973, and grew up with the ‘girls can do anything’ mantra- I studied science and maths (that’s what we call it in Australia)! and hiked and rockclimbed when I wasn’t working. But I somehow didn’t catch onto the Superwoman thing. When I had my 3rd and 4th babies (twins) I stepped out of the workforce for a while. This just made sense to me, but I know it’s not so simple for every woman, or every family. A wise friend says that of course you can do everything, just not all at the same time, and I hope I model confidence and competence in this- in work and play-for all my kids. Yet girls and boys are not the same. My only daughter, one of the twins, is much more feminine than I ever was. She loves the pink and purple stuff with ruffles and sparkles. She ‘s smart and active, but she just doesn’t like the same games as her brothers- especially those involving weapons, machinery, or throwing hard balls. And so she sets up a hospital for her dolls and bears, or makes a fairy garden out of moss. Is this a bad thing? She doesn’t have any ‘girly’ lego, but she would probably like it…but I too am rather queasy about the fairy princess imagery! Food for thought, thanks again Pamela.

    • Pamela says:

      You raise such an important topic – girls are NOT the same as boys. My boys play with trucks and many girls play with dolls or princesses. I think perhaps the only thing “wrong” is when corporations who want to market products tell girls – or boys – HOW to play or what to look like when they play. Or when society tells us it’s not “good” to be one thing or another. This is such a difficult topic and I don’t think we talk about it enough. Thank you so much for commenting.

  • Thank you for posting this Pamela! I share so many of your feelings. My mom was a physician who worked on and off all throughout my childhood, but was never able to find a balance that worked for the whole family. When she worked full time, she desperately missed her kids (and we missed her), when she worked part time, there was a net loss because of childcare expenses. She finally gave up her medical profession. You’d think it would be better 30 years later, but it’s not, really. I find myself facing the same struggle – how to have a career while still being a mother. Working full time/part time – each has downfalls and I have trouble finding a group of moms I fit in with. As Elaine said, I’m neither working mom nor stay at home mom. There is no place carved out in our society for that in between ground.

    As you say, if only we had affordable (and good) childcare, stable telecommuting positions, job sharing, maternity leave (I save up all my annual leave for two years in order to get 10 weeks off)… it could be so much easier.

    And add to all that the princess fad! With three girls I worry about it a lot. So far my girls aren’t particularly princess-obsessed, but it drives me crazy when other people tell them they look like princesses, or ask which princess they want to be, etc. I don’t even know where to start with that.

    Thank you for posting. Please always post!

  • Pamela says:

    I SO wish we had a carved out place in society for that in-between ground. You are right – it’s a huge problem that we don’t. Sometimes men have to find an in-between place, but mostly it’s women and I get tired of this.

  • amanda says:

    As a mother to two boys, i hadnt really noticed much of this “princess culture” and the like (my oldest has more female friends than male, and honestly those girls are far more interested in playing “war” than playing “house”

    I was slapped in the face with marketing gender rules, when my six year old son told me he wanted an easy bake oven for Christmas. My own first thought was “those are for girls”. My second thought was how ashamed i was at myself for thinking that.
    I started looking up easy bake ovens, and was immediately taken aback by the marketing of the ovens. Not only hey are all specifically manufactured toward girls, but manufactured in pinks and purples and sparkly rainbow OMFG-girlsmustbakewithpinkpukeYUCK! The only model ever manufactured with boys in mind, was taken off the market when its (equally offensive) gender stereotype design proved a disasterous flop.

    Why on earth does something as awesome as a toy oven, need to be marketed to ANY gender, EVER? Only girls like to bake? Boys never grow up to be bakers and chefs? Its ridiculous!
    During my exhautive search for a non-gender specific easy bake, i came across a teen girl named McKenna Pope, who was fighting my battle at the same time, for her little brother. (In attempt to share her story with you, i did a quick internet search and found she succeeded! See her story here: And a news article about it here: I ultimately went ahead and purchased the purple oven (because eff it, my son is aloud to play with purple toys if he wants!) But now, after seeing McKennas story, wish i had waited!

    PS: please dont feel like you shouldn’t have written this! Its obviously a topic worth discussing, and no one should EVER apologize for feeling what they feel. Or talking about those feelings. Ever.

  • amanda says:

    One of my favorite bloggers, who has a lot to say on this topic (and has caught quite a bit of flack for it) you should check out, is Dresden at Creating Motherhood Blog. creatingmotherhood(dot)com

    She is really the person who introduced me to the “princess culture” I think you would find her thoughts on the topic interesting.

    (Im not sure if there are rules to posting links to other blogs or whatnot, feel free to keep this information private if you wish. Im in no way trying to promote here, just share with you what i think might be of interest)

  • Oh P, I’ve missed connecting with you. The worst thing I see about this post is your regret. I think it’s always better to have touch points, thoughts, ways to discuss. Of course there are other sides. There always are. Thats what makes the world go round.

    Growing up without siblings and without a stable home life, I have always wanted to stay home with my kids and I have NEVER regretted it. I have had plenty of bad days of course but have always been thankful for the opportunity. I get exhausted of all of my time being dedicated so that everyone else has a life but I’m learning to recognize when to do more for myself (like take an hour and just read good blogs!)

    I have no answers and frankly no strong opinions on this. I have two daughters and 1 son and THEY ALL WENT THROUGH THEIR PRINCESS STAGE. It’s part of our culture now. I fight all the electronics now but I’m almost starting to cave on that – its part of their culture. They need to learn to deal with it and know its there and how to handle it. When my daughter turned 4 she had a princess party and invited all the girls to wear princess dresses if they wanted to. So most of the girls came in dresses but Sally didn’t wear hers. Several of the mothers asked her why she didn’t have it on and she had different responses: I don’t feel like wearing a princess dress today, or I gave my favorite dress to my friend to wear, etc.

    My son wore pink fingernail polish until he went to pre kindergarden when kids finally told him boys don’t wear fingernail polish. Growing up with two sisters, thats just what he did. He was in third grade last year when I took my first grader to get her ears pierced. We came home and he bawled that he wanted to get his ears pierced. I thought it was cute but mostly I just recognized that he felt left out on going out for the special occasion (because I took my other daughter too).

    I could go on but I’ll finish with the legos. My youngest daughter LOVES the Lego friends collection. She loves building and she loves playing with them afterwards and spends hours making up stories. I don’t want to be mad at a company for making something that brings her so much joy and encourages building. What I’m mad about is she thinks she can’t build without the instructions – I want her to be creative and do her own thing – not just follow the diagram.

    Sheesh, how obnoxious is this comment. Sorry. I am so happy to be thinking about all this……so thank you.

  • Jan says:

    This is so long ago now (in blog terms, that is!) and I already commented once, but I just read this post today that seems in some ways to answer you. And it’s hopeful, too.

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