Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
I was 9 years old when I declared myself a feminist. Who knows what provoked me to take up the feminist cause—it might have been the progressive books I was reading, rebellion against the traditional family dynamics under which I grew up, or just extreme irritation that I had to wash the dishes every night because it was a “female chore” while my brother watched TV. Whatever it was, I decided at a very early age that I wanted to smash the patriarchy.
Of course, I was only 9. My elementary understanding of being a feminist meant bucking against traditional “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypes. Men and women are equal, I would cry, but to me that meant equal nature and equal outcome—a view that blurred the distinctions between what made a man manly and what made a woman womanly.
My childhood beliefs led to some far-reaching behaviors and long-term lifestyle choices: I tried climbing trees like a tomboy, though the brutal ant bites made the whole experience very uncomfortable. I loved playing with dolls, but all my dolls died horrible deaths from torture and murder. I picked fights in playgrounds and refused to cry when a chunky boy punched me in the stomach with all his might. I developed a Power Rangers obsession, which led to an interest in martial arts and to beating up on my little brother. As a teenager I openly scorned romantic comedies, although sometimes I secretly admired the dashing male lead characters. Over the years I stopped wearing dresses, skirts, and anything frilly, instead preferring jeans, sneakers, and sweatshirts.
When I grew older and began noticing boys, things got pretty confusing. Body features change, voices change, interests change—everything seems to change, drawing clearer lines around the differences between male and female. I didn’t quite know how to deal with the strange feelings fluttering in my stomach regarding the male species in my classroom and gym. After all, I prided myself as a strong, independent young woman, and I was aghast that a male creature could render me tongue-tied, weak-kneed, and insecure.
So I chose my seemingly only option for preserving my feminist pride: I suppressed my crushes. And if any boy dared showed interest in me, I slammed that window down on his fingers. Today, as a 30-year-old woman, I look back and chuckle. But even now, I spot certain patterns of thoughts and behaviors that linger from those days.
I remembered all this while working on my recent story about professional matchmaking services. I talked to professional matchmakers, matchmaking clients, and online daters—and every interview highlighted the fact that men and women are rather different creatures. Matchmakers told me men typically want women with softer qualities such as warmth and nurture, while women want men who can provide and protect them. Men want to pursue and women want to be pursued, but when women do the chasing, it can turn men off, and such rejections usually hurt women much more than they do men.
“The women’s liberation movement was good for us women in terms of getting equal opportunities, but in terms of relationships, it’s made things more complicated,” said Julie Ferman, a matchmaker who works with clients in Los Angeles, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M. Ferman, who’s 58, says mothers aren’t teaching their daughters to cultivate their femininity anymore. As a result, modern women have become more domineering, equating the stereotypical masculine traits with strength, yet the kind of men they desire seem to prefer women who “will let him finish his sentence.”
So part of Ferman’s job involves encouraging women to embrace their natural femininity. You can be a strong career woman and still “let the man be the man,” she tells her female clients: “Men get weaker if we get stronger the wrong way. There’s a time to speak and a time to listen, and a truly strong woman will learn when to exert her strength and when to be vulnerable.”
I wonder how controversial Ferman’s statement is in an age when people claim to be “gender fluid,” blame social constructionism for “gender-conforming” children’s toys, and endorse “theybies.” Just look at how people have sputtered over psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that the gender pay gap may partly be due to a natural reflection of gender differences rather than outright prejudice. Or look at how Google fired software engineer James Damore for penning a memo about how biological and psychological differences between men and women may explain why the majority of workers in the tech industry are men.
I’m sure Peterson’s and Damore’s arguments have flaws and holes in them that are susceptible to a robust debate. Like many men and women, I believe in gender equality when it comes to legal rights and access to opportunities. I believe women should be treated fairly, that there should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual assault in public and private spheres. And I know Peterson and Damore believe that too, because they’ve publicly said so.
Yet people are labeling them “misogynist,” “regressive,” and even “dangerous” for merely stating that men and women are inherently different. That reaction seems awfully close to the mindset of 9-year-old Sophia Lee ... and well, she didn’t bring me much except ant bites and a gut-punch.
Over the years, I’ve met many strong women in leadership positions who are also wonderfully feminine. For example, one 66-year-old who’s a businesswoman, a Bible teacher, and a church board member once told me she always remembers to reapply her lipstick before meeting men. “Never forget to accentuate your womanly attributes,” she said with a wink, and I felt such freedom knowing that I can be strong and powerful in my God-given womanhood.
This woman is bold in her preaching, unafraid to speak up for what’s right among a group of men, and whip-smart in her finances. But somehow she does that all with a quiet, confident, beautiful femininity that is refreshing and liberating to watch. Well, fancy that—I guess I love being a woman after all.