Kids on Gender Politics: Amusing and Poignant Responses from Children in the 1970s-1980s
By Maria Popova
“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin observed in her wonderful design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a singular way of seeing even the most complex of cultural phenomena with disarming clarity. From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us the story of how feminist magazine Ms. sparked the “social media” storm of women’s empowerment and Pete Seeger’s delightful solution to gender politics in language — comes this charming selection of children’s responses to the cultural climate of the second wave of feminism. Amusing, poignant, and infinitely telling, the letters epitomize the signature Ms. “click” moment — a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from an anecdote that just “clicks.”
My four-year-old niece was sharing a snack of cheese and crackers with her grandfather. Halfway through the plate he noticed she was gobbling it up at a pace rivaling his own. He proclaimed, “Boy, Erin you’re really a ‘cheeseman’!” Amused at his obvious error she replied, “No, Papa! I’m a cheese ‘person’!”
This wasn’t a statement of the influence of feminism; it was an innocent recognition of an obvious mistake in word usage. At four years old, Erin was aware of someone’s casual denial of her womanhood. Before long she may no longer notice it and begin to accept it …. not if I can prevent it.
June 24, 1981
I thought you might enjoy hearing a discussion I heard between my son and his neighbor friend. They were playing together and the little boy got the giggles. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” he giggled, whereupon my son replied in a very condescending tone, “What are you, Danny, some kind of chauvinist? In this house we say “her-her-her-her!”
Her who laughs last,
August 7, 1975
Recently my nine-year-old son and I were looking around the house for a ruler for his homework assignment. I observed to him that when I was growing up, most rulers had the golden rule printed upon them. “What’s that?” he asked. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “I know where you got that. You got that at all those ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] meetings.” Click!
August 1980 Issue
I offer the following excerpt, taken from a school assignment written by my seven-year-old grandniece, as evidence of the future good health of the feminist movement:
“George Washington’s brother had died. In those days women did not get to own there own home. So George Washington’s sister did not get the house. George got the house. . . . He became the first president. And then he was put on a nickel.”
March 11, 1979
The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.
Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978
I was observing in my daughter’s class during a sixth-grade open house when the discussion turned to immigration. Why did people immigrate to America? The teacher and the class discussed pestilence, war, persecution and then addressed famine. “What is famine?” the teacher asked one of the boys in the class.
“Discrimination against women.”
April 1, 1981
I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:
“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”
“No, Kristin, I don’t.”
Reflective pause, then, “Why?”
“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”
Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”
“Because boys and girls are different.”
Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”
My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.
Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
July 1981 Issue
Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety, at once timeless and infinitely timely in bespeaking the struggles we still face as a society striving for equality in all dimensions.
Public domain photographs by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House
Published July 1, 2013