I’ve noticed that little Patience has trouble telling boys from girls. At first we thought she was just saying “Boy” because “Girl” was too hard for her tongue. But now she can say both, and she uses them interchangeably. It’s not as if she doesn’t know there is a difference. She’s having trouble identifying it in children she sees.
I realized this week that she can’t tell the difference because there is no outward difference. She doesn’t seem them undressed, she sees them in clothes and they all look the same to her. Obviously, she hasn’t learned yet that pink is a girl’s colour, and I don’t know if that needs reinforcing. Little girls’ clothing in pink often has words like” Princess” and “Barbie” embroidered on them. No, thank you. Or it has a portrayal of a cartoon princess on it. Or a cartoon pixie named Tinkerbell. I loved Tink when I was about four, but I think she’s come to be a point of identity with women who consider themselves fey, or magically gifted. (I know enough of the Celtic myths to tell you that you don’t want to mess with the Little People. Ever.)
Patience is not getting it about gender differences. We are the most gender-differentiated household she sees. I wear dresses and prayer caps; Nicholas wears trousers, braces and a black hat. Our work isn’t so different, as we both do household work, and soon, gardening. (All three adults in the house have some sit-down work at the computer, no gender difference there.) The work aspect doesn’t concern me, though. We have always done what needs to be done – I think it is an unwritten Plain precept.
It’s the clothing issue. Women look like men, and some men look like women. Trousers and short hair. Patience completely embarrassed me in a store today – she looked at one woman standing next to us – very short hair, trousers – and very distinctly said, “Boy,” I ignored this, rather than correcting her and making the error more apparent. Of course, she then said it about six times because obviously I couldn’t hear her!
I have some concern now that gender identity in the important way – sex roles – is getting confused. If little girls and little boys can’t tell the difference, how do they identify with their own gender? Is this not important? From a biological viewpoint, I would think it would be important. Cross-gender identification is confusing and embarrassing for most people who experience it: What you are and what is expected of you is not what you feel inside.
There are some people who believe a gender-neutral society is what we need. There would be less conflict, less discrimination. I doubt it, but then, as far as culture goes, I’m a cynical old Christian. And as Job said, “Man was born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” He didn’t add that we start the fire ourselves. And while I do not support discrimination in any form, having been the victim of it on several occasions, I cannot support gender neutrality. It was not as God made us. “Male and female He created them.”
We choose to keep that gender difference with clothing and appearance distinctions. Some of that has origins in practicality. Even in cultures where men wore loose fabric instead of trousers, such as the Celtic , Mediterranean and early Greco-Roman societies, there was a distinct difference in what women wore as dress. Men wore kilts, women wore skirts. Asian, African and American cultures had distinctive identifying clothing, hairstyle or jewelry for men and women. (This was a point of embarrassment for some men in the early days of the American Indian Movement. Having become separated from their own traditions, they tried to revive what they thought were traditional styles. Some men began plaiting their long hair, only to find out later that the style of plait they chose was feminine.)
I don’t want to advocate a nineteenth-century missionary attitude, that good Christians all dress like Europeans of the Victorian age – too expensive, and certainly stifling, as you would know if you have ever worn a corset. I do want to advocate the continuation and even the return in society to traditional gender differentiation in dress and behaviour. (I do not suggest that women should not be educated or work outside the home, as that is unreasonable and ahistorical in itself. More on that some other time.) This means different things in different cultures, and I do advocate for continuation of traditions in different cultures, assuming that as people become Christian, they give up cultural practices that are in opposition to gospel teaching. (We follow Jesus, not culture, but few of us have any reason to put on the tunic, cloak and sandals of Middle Eastern historic dress.)
Gender identification at an early age is important, I believe, for personality development. It gives the child a place to be. It gives a child a peg on which to hang their idea of a role model. In some ways, role models will cross gender lines, since all Christians are called to Christian virtue. But a child needs to grow up feeling that he or she has a unique role in their world, and that begins with gender identity. Who do I look like? Where do I belong? What will I be doing as an adult? What is expected of me now? Gender role identity is a shortcut to forming self identity early, and allowing intellectual and spiritual space for growth.
Patience sometimes asks to wear a prayer cap. Her family is not Plain, and while I sometimes let her have an old one to play with, and she loves my bonnet (she has one of her own as well) I don’t go against her family’s wishes and dress her Plain. She did wear a dress yesterday, for the first time in quite a while, and she was thrilled. I did have to remind her that she is not a can-can dancer, though. (To be honest, her family is pants-wearing, and they believe that because she is out of the house a lot, she should wear pants for warmth and comfort. Now, I have no problem with wearing skirts in cold weather, and didn’t mind it when I was a child. I didn’t like it when I had to wear pants under my skirt, or stuff the skirt into snowpants. Most of the women I knew wore skirts most of the time.) I think Patience is beginning to think in her two-year-old way that the prayer cap and skirt mean someone is a woman, the trousers and black hat mean someone is a man. She identifies with being a girl, but is confused about those other people who don’t seem to be either.
How much damage are we doing by not recognizing gender differences in children, or ourselves? Are we too gender neutral? Is that trampy look we see now in women’s fashion a subcurrent of rebellion against gender neutrality? I can see a lot of open questions surrounding this issue, and maybe they are more important than we thought.