I’m the lone female in a house of men – when new housemate Phil moves in next month that will make six guys in my home and well, me. There are assorted female creatures on my farm – to be precise, one dog, two cats, two rabbits, 7 dairy goats, 12 ewes (seasonal) and about 40 female birds of various types, but they do not count.
Because I’m the only female in the household, I cannot but be aware that some of the messages they get about male and female roles will be built in a fairly narrow body of evidence – ie, the woman they see most is me, so how we do things may look like institutionalization. So I try really carefully to make sure I don’t say things like “only Daddy can do that” (although this is actually true of the weird trick to unlocking the front door) and make sure they see me doing non-traditional stuff.
I also think it is important, as we study events and history (we’re homeschoolers) that my kids ask the question “where are the women” and “where are the people who aren’t white” whenever they aren’t at the center of the story and “what does the world look like through the people who weren’t the victors or the center.” It is easy for people to get accustomed to priveleging their own worldview and seeing things as though everyone sees them through their eyes.
Recently we’re studying American history and asking the question “what does it mean to be an American.” We’re trying to look at as many different kinds of stories about America, and relationships to being an American as possible – what does it mean to come to America as a colonist, to be here before as part of a Native people? What does it mean to come to America unwilling as a slave, or out of desperation from hunger or as refugee from war? What does it mean to love America? What does it mean to be angry at America? What about both at the same time? My kids are young – four, six and eight and we do this as lightly as we can – complexity and nuance are things that grow gradually as you get older.
But I was heartened by my kids’ response yesterday, when we read a book about Sojurner Truth and her famed “Ain’t I a Woman” Speech. It was the children’s book _Sojurner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride_ by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. Here’s the text:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
In order to explain the story to them they had to understand what people believed about women, so we looked up and read the speeches that preceeded them – the speeches in which white men spoke of the vulnerability and weakness of women. They had known from other stories that men and women didn’t do the same work – but not the whole of the underlying assumptions.
Simon, my eight year old’s eyes literally grew wide when I read him excerpts. He asked me “Did people really believe that?” The stunned silence that followed my affirmation from all three boys spoke volumes.
We had read about how Sojurner Truth was six feet tall and strong, and as the book read, “Big. Black. Beautiful.” Isaiah asked me didn’t they know other strong women like Sojurner Truth?
I told him that in that time, not so many women were that big or that strong, but that all women had to be strong to bear their babies and do the hard work that women have always done, but that people get in the habit of pretending that only some work counts.
Then Simon said “they wouldn’t have thought that if they’d known you, Mom.” (Sometimes kids are really awesome for your ego ;-).)
And Isaiah chimed in “Or Grandma Nancy! Or Ima! Aunty Rachael!” And they started to shout out all the strong women and girls they knew. It was a long, long list. They mentioned Orit, who can run faster than Isaiah and cousin Abby who can climb a tree just as high as Simon, even though she’s not even six and he’s eight. The mentioned Grammy, who took care of Grampy when he was so ill, even though she was smaller than he was, and Nunu (my step-mother) who ran a marathon when she was 50, and Grandma who is still raring to go to the next playground or the zoo when everyone else is too tired to do anything. And Simon asked me if it is still hard work to have a baby – and I told him it sure as heck is! “And isn’t it harder to do some things if you are a woman than a man, like be in some jobs?” Yup, I said, it is – and harder still if you aren’t a white woman, or if you are born poor.
“So, that means that pretty much all women are tough and strong, and those men were just stupid, right?”
And thus, we dispose of patriarchy before lunch.