You hear this refrain often. You hear it in fond toasts by groomsmen. You read it in Father’s Day greeting cards with pictures of old timey vehicles on the front, the hood popped open. “You showed me how to be a man,” they say, and these tributes are usually followed by specifics. You showed me how to shave, how to parallel park, how to hook a fish, how to cook a perfect ribeye on the grille. Or maybe it’s just a general platitude offered to someone a man admires. A salute to a strong oak of a man who stood firm even when the winds of change or his son’s mood swings or his son’s girlfriend-of-the-month swept through.
I take no issue with this tribute, even if it is sometimes an affectation. We need men to mentor well, to usher in a new generation of moral leaders. We need good men to model virtuous manhood. I don’t think anyone is arguing against this the business of Showing a Boy How to Be a Man.
But no one ever tells you how to be a woman. Never, never have I ever heard a bridesmaid tell another woman,”You showed me how to be a woman.” Mother’s Day Cards are usually covered in flowers with floral script, populated by words like “sacrifice,” “patience,” and “love.” There is no mention of womanhood — there is no holiday or occasion to salute Being a Woman. I have several theories about why this is.
The first is that the business of being a woman is murkier. Womanhood cannot be boiled down to feats like tying a bowtie or changing a tire as are the hallmarks of manhood. Womanhood is evolving for each of us, by its very definition. The entry into womanhood is often marked by a change so profound it is uncomfortable. Just now, for instance, I have lost all 2 of my male readers who are afraid I’m going to mention something about menstruation. The horror. But if we are honest, this is part of the reason womanhood is so veiled in mystery. Each girl will go through a reproductive change at a time over which she has absolutely zero control. If you think about it, it is incredible how something that has been happening since the beginning of time to girls is still something each one has to learn how to navigate for herself. She has to listen to her body, understand its rhythms, overcome the discomfort and pain that reminds her regularly that the business of being a woman is so freaking fluid.
Another reason is that we seem to be afraid of proactive womanhood. Instead, womanhood is often reactive. You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this. We could spend a lot of time discussing what this past presidential election taught us about proactive versus predatory behavior, but it is just a microcosm of a larger culture that favors women tossing up the white flag of surrender rather than canvassing for a cause about which she cares.
This is why Wonder Woman blows us away — because a girl reared by all female elders to fight evil is so radical an idea we don’t even have a context. Then she goes and partners with a mere mortal of a man and doesn’t emasculate him? Holy Novel Narrative, Batman.
If machismo is the affliction of believing too fiercely in one’s manhood so that he belittles women, there should perhaps be an equivalent for women. There is no womanismo, though. Women who are independent to the point of self-sufficiency are often portrayed as simply man-hating. What a shame that no one tells you how to be a woman because that might threaten men.
There is a final reason I believe we don’t tell girls how to be women, and I think it’s the saddest of all. I think it’s because we lack creativity about what it means to be a woman.
Forgive me if I am too strident here, but why am I more likely to read an article about “How to fight an attacker” than I am “How not to raise a rapist”? Why do colleges and universities need to teach matriculating co-eds about self-defense, about not being ruffied, about the protocols one should follow if one is sexually assaulted?
What if we spent half the time and energy expended toward reacting to the inevitability of rape and instead fueled our energy reserves toward cultivating an equitable world for girls and boys. What if instead of raising awareness about rape culture, we poured a modicum of those resources into investing in the awesomeness of girls and their interests?
Remember those Nike commercials “If you let me play sports…” and all the gnarly residue of girls who are allowed to participate in athletics? Well, it’s 2017 and we don’t need to use that kind of weaksauce language anymore. We don’t let girls play sports. Boys rarely have to ask to be let to do anything. We just encourage them to play sports, if that’s their jam. And we should not be surprised if they grow up to be men who don’t ask permission. Who don’t need consent. In 2017, we don’t let girls play sports. We expect girls to play sports. And we expect them to be the ones coaching us in 10 years.
How sad that our definition of what it means to be a woman is often so lacking in scope and imagination. I’ve heard of so many friends giving their daughters smartPhones and the attendant restrictions. All the things not to do, the people not to follow, the behaviors not to replicate. This is all incredibly important, but what does it leave us with in terms of cultivating creativity in girls? Is there a Girlfriend’s Guide for How to be Awesome Online? A crib sheet for how to be a woman who inspires?
I recently was feeling the freight of all this as I sent my daughter to camp. I was nervous about what she might encounter in girl world, bunking with all her besties away from me for a week. I met her counselor who introduced herself with a confident handshake and told me about her plans to become an English secondary education teacher. I was smitten and grateful for Counselor Raquelle. I was reminded how my nervousness could infect my daughter in negative ways, how it sent the message once again that being a girl was a liability and not a plum assignment.
Missing my daughter one evening, I logged onto the online portal of camp photos for that day. My son saw it first, the image of big sister at camp. It was as if she had memorized the Amy Cuddy Ted Talk.
Once again, I was smitten and grateful for another girl. Showing me that being a girl can be proactive, creative and awesome, lest I forget.