Janet Sheridan: The gender roles we play
Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.
Boys misbehaved, had a horse and made odd noises to amuse themselves. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.
Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.
For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the hard-used lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignant — but not surprised.
Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.
However, as I observed the people closest to me, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women play. Dad made the money, but Mom made the decisions. Then, when Mom was ill and confined to bed for a summer, Dad took charge of our baby brother with tenderness and commitment. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but my brother JL was the one who learned to cook like she did, even mastering her renowned dinner rolls.
One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and star gazing than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, regularly tackled boys and kissed them, not from an excess of affection, but because she knew the boys hated it and sometimes cried. The rough and ready father of one of my friends knitted scarves and hats for his family; a lady down the road handled a tractor better than most men and, if rumor could be believed, cursed better as well.
Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren, now teenagers and young adults, who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.
The youngest two grandchildren — eighth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to creating music. I have two granddaughters who play sports more aggressively, passionately and successfully than their brothers. Another is deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses the exceptional verbal and social skills once thought impossible for boys. Another works for a caterer and gives fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”
Yesterday morning, I pondered these thoughts while fulfilling my feminine role: watching Joel tackle a household repair, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on the first and 15 of every month.
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