The Gender Debate

Many of you have heard about the family who is refusing to tell their friends/family/the world the gender of their baby, Storm. While I only partially understand their premise, it brought all sorts of gender issues right to the forefront. This Shavuot, I had the pleasure of being around several wonderful small children and their parents (even around here there are little Jews afoot!), the combination of which gave R & I an opening to talk about some of the gender issues surrounding parenting.  As I was thinking about it, I stumbled on two related blog posts from two different blogs:  10 Myths about Gender Neutral Parenting.  And Is it a Boy or a Girl?

As we contemplate the next step in our lives (moving and starting grad school), I keep thinking about that next bend in the road that will take us (hopefully) to parenthood.

It took me a while to realize that my parents attitudes about toys and clothing weren’t the norm. I got barbies, baby dolls, frilly princess dresses, the works – when I asked for them. I also got sporting equipment, a mini-toolbox and a (very, very fake looking) toy ray gun. Maybe it was the fact that there were no male siblings (or any siblings forthcoming at all). More likely, I think it was a conscious choice. My bedroom was painted blue, my bedding not stereotypically girly, even when I moved into a big kid room. I embraced a lot of it – my bedroom at my parents house is still blue, although I chose a flowery border and bedding to go with it when I got older.  I clearly remember embracing all of the girly things (until we moved to Canada, I lived in dresses by my own choice),but  my parents had presented the other opportunities to me – legos came in the regular colors and the pinks and pastels kind, my first “baby doll” was really a stuffed rat that I decided was a boy, and so on.

This kind of upbringing left me with this idea that no one would enforce gender stereotypes on their children. Clearly, since the women I know have some kind of occupation, whether they are currently engaging in it or not, they couldn’t buy into it! Life, however, has a way of surprising you.  Several years ago, a  friend had a baby girl. I am fairly certain every single thing in the child’s wardrobe is pink. As was the play kitchen she received at her second birthday, and the play laundry set as well. Not that this means that this wonderful toddler won’t grow up to be a strong woman – it just hit some kind of nerve in me. Parents are the entire world for their children at the beginning. We model every behavior and attitude, and to limit or categorize experiences from the get-go as “boy” experiences or “girl” experiences when so few of them really, truly are,  seems excessive. Society’s strong gender messages will get through to the child, even if the parents aren’t reinforcing them. My parents allowed me to wear dresses and play barbies, even while encouraging other kinds of play, never labeling things. I learned later, both about the weird stereotypes Barbie plays into and that society expected me to like Barbie and my male cousin not to.

I wonder about all of this in the context of more traditional Judaism. With a bris or simchat bat in our future, our potential baby’s gender wouldn’t be a secret. Still, I don’t think I would go for the little blue or pink room based on gender. Especially given the gendered nature of our religion and lifestyle, I would want our children to be allowed to explore as much as they can so that they understand that so much of what is “feminine” or “masculine” is cultural – a skirt in Scotland could be a kilt, and a dress might be a galabiyya, etc. Not that men and women aren’t different – but that the differences are probably way less than we think they are. Maybe this is too naive a hope in a Rabbinic family, where the pressure to conform might be even stronger. At the same time, if I’m not thinking about this and hopefully setting an example…who else will?

Thoughts? Questions? Things to share? There might be more on this subject, and I’d love feedback. I’m hoping to write more regularly from here on out! 


10 thoughts on “The Gender Debate

  1. Just last Shabbos, when we were out for a meal, I had a experience about toys and gender. My toddler son was playing quite happily with a toy stroller and doll. One of the host’s sons, maybe in second grade or so, came up to my toddler and asked him if he wanted to play with a ball instead.

    It was so interesting to me, because while I happen to believe somewhat in the traditional gender roles, I have no qualms whatsoever with letting my toddler son play with “girlish” toys. He has a toy kitchen, shopping cart, loves to “vacuum,” and push strollers with dollies in them. He also loves to “fix” things with his tool set, play with balls and be rough and tumble.

    I agree with you 100% that society’s influence will make its mark, so why should I bother to make an effort to “segregate” his toys (anyways, he’s usually more interested in our cell phones, boxes, light switches, etc). It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. No pun intended.

    • That’s so fascinating about the interaction between your toddler and the second grader. I’m sort of impressed by the act as an act of empathy – to give the boy something he thought the boy would enjoy more, but also thinking about the assumptions that play into that.

      It also made me think about why children that age seem always interested in household things. I think it’s because the house plays such an important role in their lives – they see cooking, vacuuming, etc, played out in life and they want to rehearse those things that they see. So interesting!

  2. You imply the differences between men and women aren’t as big as we imagine. I see it the other way around; if anything, the vast differences between the genders are becoming less and less affirmed in our secular culture, alarmingly so. The gender-neutral baby cited is one radical example.

    Sure, I agree people sometimes get too fixated on colors. I’m a dude who owns two pairs of purple shoes and a pink shirts without caring if people don’t think it’s gender appropriate. A prominent posek, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, ruled it’s not transgressing “lo silbash” for men to wear them since the men of our particular dominant culture do so (presumably similar to a Scottish Jew wearing a kilt, a man’s garment in his country).

    Still, it’s clear the Torah is extremely fixated on gender distinctions. Blurring them is not something to take lightly. There aren’t too many times the Big Guy throws around the big T word for abomination on a particular sin. Cross-dressing is one of ’em. (Deut. 22:5).

    Sorry, drag queens.

    • First, I do think that there are a lot of cultural differences that have nothing to do with real differences between genders – is there a real reason why men shouldn’t do housework that isn’t based on cultural expectations that a woman should be taking care of the home? It’s more than colors. Why shouldn’t a man share in that work? I know too many women who both work outside the home and then do all of the work inside the home. No discussions about who should do what or why – just the expectation that men are useless at housework, etc. Men & women do it – and it’s not real. How many commercials do you see on TV in which the men are bumbling about something (anniversary, the kids, cleaning, whatever) and supermom comes and saves the day? It’s all extreme – yeah, mom might be, by nature, more nurturing, but it also has to do with the expectations we set as a culture.

      And the Torah definitely focuses on the distinctions between genders – but it’s a very, very long way from letting Jonny play with a doll when he’s three to Jonny being a cross-dresser when he’s 25. While I understand you were making a point, I found the tone of the end of your comment incredibly sarcastic and I did not appreciate it. It is serious, but it also is much less connected with the idea of gender neutral parenting than it seems like you think.

  3. I fully agree there are cultural differences having nothing to do with real gender differences. Housework’s a great example and if men really want shalom-bayis they’d be wise to jump in helping here!

    I didn’t mean to be sarcastic, but to dramatically show the importance of maintaining gender differences through citing a verse where the Torah calls cross-dressing an abomination.

    I do ask forgiveness for the tone rubbing you the wrong way. Sorry.

    If the drag queen comment bothered you, I’m sorry too. It was a (failed) attempt at humor. I happen to know one and personality wise find him to be most hilarious and kindhearted. Still, if he ever directly asked me what I thought of his weekend drag activities, I wouldn’t shy away from delicately answering.

    • No problem – I figured you were trying to make a point, and I tried very hard to not take offense. I know for those who do cross-dress, there’s lots of unhappy pressure in the world – just didn’t want that energy here on this blog. All the best 🙂

      • Yeah, a few years ago I went to a program at a Hillel house where I had occasion to have a conversation with a dude who identified as a woman who told me I can’t know what it’s like to feel like a woman trapped in a dude’s body. He’s right. How am I supposed to know what he’s going through. He told me the official word for what he’s going through: transitioning. Your heart’s gotta go out to someone with that kinda inner torment, even when making a moral judgement on BEHAVIOR.

        Lots of unhappy pressure, indeed.

  4. I think we need to work on finding a balance between the role that gender plays in society and our desire for any particular gender role to be broad and flexible. Boys and girls should be offered many different play options, and not criticized if those options don’t meet our stereotyped view of what a particular gender is. However, I think not gendering a child places an undue burden on the child. We need to both cultivate that every gender is very broad (e.g. one can be an strong woman or a sensitive man), and that it is acceptable to discover that one does not identify with one’s societally or governmentally assigned gender. I believe that gender is a beneficial aspect of society, as much as I rub against it sometimes. It only becomes stifling when we decide that its status and stereotypes govern us rather than classify us.

    • I really, really like what you said about the burden on the child, as well as the necessary openness for parents. It’s a careful balance, to be able to be open and still provide enough guidance and structure that the child is able to understand that gender is a big deal in society in general.

      This part particularly spoke to me:

      It [Gender] only becomes stifling when we decide that its status and stereotypes govern us rather than classify us.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. The Social Worker in me thrives on this kind of stuff. All of gender is a social construct (sex is the biological component) so I’m always amazed to see what happens when families and communities shift their thinking about traditional definitions of gender.
    I also agree wholeheartedly that there is so much gender identity in Judaism, that it is imperative to explore the boundaries where they are not so clear cut. Allowing children to find the meaning in the prescribed roles, and ways to be who they are within those roles as well.

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