My daughters put on an impromptu ballet show for our family last week. They danced with the abandon of those completely unaware of their bodies except for their own expression of joy and emotion. It was beautiful. I was struck by the innocence of their performance, as I contemplate having to break that innocence at some point — and questioning when and how to do it.
After the floodgates of #MeToo were opened, I am even more aware of their bodies and beauty, and how they might be enticements to some to dominate and exert power. Statistically — they will likely fall in the #MeToo group at some point in their lives — unless there is rapid change in the culture of our institutions and workplaces.
Now I am left with a lot of questions, as a parent and an advocate for women’s leadership. How do I balance that innocence, that idea that girls and women are equal and can and should be able to do whatever they want, with reality? How do I break it to my daughter that someone — even someone in a position of power that I’ve also taught her to respect — would abuse that power and try and take away hers? How do I take it even further and say sometimes that might even be someone who has said he would fight for her equal rights?
My eldest was 6 years old during last year’s presidential election. Like the little girl in Grace for President, she was horrified to find out that there has never been a female president of the United States. As her parent, I was extremely proud that she clearly thought females could/should be president. But part of me was also quite saddened by her discovery, as her sharp brain would now start picking up cues that those possibilities are limited for her due to her gender. This is exactly what I don’t want to happen.
I find a lot of parallels in my parental development and our own as a society and culture. For so long, we were telling ourselves that women are equal now — we can and should be able to do anything that we want. But we have been breaking through that naiveté in the last few months, as the hushed or doubted experiences of so many women have shifted to a deluge of stories, and statements like Mitch McConnell’s, “I believe the women.” Awareness is the first step in the process of systemic change. In this instance, it is an extremely painful step, ripping away the protections we had in place and revealing the ugly underbelly.
What do we tell our daughters, and our sons, for that matter, in the wake of these revelations? I think I will let mine lead off with her own perceptions. Help her define for herself what it is she is comfortable with, and teach her confidence in her choices and her will. Foster that confidence until she becomes secure in the rightness of equality no matter your gender. Having her call out behaviors — either acted on her, or that she witnesses in others — which abuse power, and diminish others.
If I strengthen those core beliefs, then the revelations that break her innocence might not also break her spirit. When I tell her that some might try to take from her what she is not willing or wanting to give, she will never question its injustice. Perhaps this is a good approach for our society as well. Strengthening our own core beliefs in equality and empowerment so we call out behaviors that are antithetical to those beliefs. So we no longer prepare our children with “that’s the way of the world,” and instead arm them with a confidence in the right way.
There was the time that we were at some friends’ child’s party, and my daughter had gotten into a sparring match with a boy two years her senior. In response to his jibe, “I guess you’re pretty smart — for a girl,” she didn’t miss a beat before saying, “You think boys are better than girls? Bring it!” and going for him at a running tackle. Another parent-observer — not realizing I was her mother — asked if we should intervene. I replied, “I think she has it,” and walked away. Perhaps this feisty spirit will protect her. But the point is that it shouldn’t have to.
Terri Boyer is the founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.