A bunch of stuff in my inbox had me pondering a rather big question over my morning cuppa Josephine today, dear reader: What does it mean to be a woman? Can a woman who opts out of marriage or motherhood, or into math, still be considered feminine? And how do such not-quite-totally-conscious hang-ups play into our choices? (Had I known this was to be the territory my mind would be traversing, I might have opted for something stronger than coffee.)
First, check the rundown: Item #1: Danielle Friedman’s Daily Beast piece “Childless and Loving It,” in which Friedman wonders what’s behind the growing number of women (today, one in five of us; that’s up from one in ten in the 70s) opting out of babymaking. Here’s a bit of it:
Many scientists believe the seemingly biological drive some women feel isn’t triggered by biology so much as culture–combined with a fertility deadline. Not only is having children more socially acceptable, says evolutionary biologist David Barash… but for many, as a life goal, it represents a source of happiness and belonging in the same way that attending college or pursuing a career might. Evolution has bestowed upon women a desire for sex and the equipment to have a baby; from here, free will steps in.
…Despite their growing visibility, such women still report feeling stigmatized…
To offer support and like-minded companionship, a thriving subculture of websites, forums, and meet-up groups has emerged. On TheChildfreeLife.com, discussion topics include childfree issues at work and “non-children” (i.e., pets) among others. The social group No Kidding boasts dozens of chapters in the U.S. and abroad. While most espouse a “live and let live” mentality, some groups take a more in-your-face approach to living childfree–a message perhaps best illustrated on this T-shirt, emblazoned with “Why would I want kids? I’m ENJOYING my life.”
Chewing on that one, I clicked on another, sent by way of mediabistro.com’s newsletter: “Single Women Rule Sets Blog Crawl.”
In an effort to rebuke the myth that “all single women talk about all day long is how to land a man,” Single Women Rule will present its second annual Blog Crawl for National Unmarried and Single Americans (USA) Week Sept. 19-25.
National Unmarried and Single Americans Week…who knew? But, back to the point, the blog crawl will send readers to a different single-minded (ahem, couldn’t help it) blog for each day of the week, to broaden the conversation about living single while female.
And then came a visit from Winnie Cooper. Or Danica McCellar, The Wonder Years’ Winnie’s real-life counterpart, who now spends her days posing in sexy spreads for lad mags like Maxim–and penning texts on… Math.
Yes, math. Turns out Winnie’s got quite a brain on her, having received her degree in mathematics from UCLA, and co-authored a complex theorem that’s named after her. But hers are not your mother’s (or, likely, your) textbooks. With names like “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math,” and the hot-off-the-presses, “Hot X: Algebra Exposed!” McCellar’s found a somewhat problematic answer to the long-asked question of how to get girls more interested in math: convince them that doing so with make them sexy, pretty, and popular. Cosmo-style Calculus. Kinda makes you want to cringe–until you remember how smart she is. Which just leaves you a little flummoxed. Progress? Pandering?
A Q and A on Salon addresses the contradiction:
Salon: [McCellar's] books feature cheekily sexy titles and fluffy packaging–the cover of “Hot X” promises “boy-crazy confessionals!” Is she sending mixed messages that compromise her mission–or just making savvy marketing moves?
…the stereotype persists that being a highly intelligent female just isn’t sexy. Many people think it’s just harmful for adolescent girls to be so concerned with their sex appeal. But you tell girls, “Smart is sexy.” Do you worry that you’re seeming to suggest that it’s OK to do well in school as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being sexy?
DM: When you’re a teenager, it’s really hard to figure out who you are. Girls are being inundated with movies and billboards and TV shows and magazines, 24-7, with images of women portrayed as nothing more than sex objects. When they’re getting the message that you have to choose–when they really believe that they have to be the smart nerd girl or they can be fun and sexy but kind of slutty–if that’s what they think their choices are, then that’s a very dangerous message to be giving them. Because what looks like more fun? It looks like more fun to be fun and sexy.
Let’s remove that idea that you have to choose. You can be fun and flirty and really, really smart, because you know you don’t have to dumb yourself down. Dumbing yourself down only has to do with mimicking this one particular form of what the media tells us is attractive. And the stereotype that you have to be dumb to avoid intimidating men is really, really insulting to guys as well. That’s why my books look more like teen magazines than math books. Because I don’t want girls to think, “Oh, well, here are the only images I ever see of women who are good at math–they look like, you know, schoolmarms, or whatever.” Let me show you that you can customize your life any way you want.
Perhaps it’s just me, but taken together, in boom-boom-boom fashion, I got to wondering. About, as I mentioned, what it means to be a woman–and messaging and acceptance and community and validation. Each one has a certain you’re-not-alone component. Which is all good, especially if knowing you’re not alone makes living outside the confines of the traditional female roles more comfortable. And especially given the other thing they all have in common: the perceptions women who are childfree or single or who really, really get off on math are up against. But the flipside of that is an undercurrent that makes me wonder… like, maybe, for whatever reason, we need to know that we’re not alone in order to feel okay about our choices. Which is totally human–and also, frankly, nonsense. Because, like your teacher may have told you back when you decided you really just didn’t get math anymore (which, studies show, most girls do, right around middle school–even if they’re getting As), every one of us is a unique little snowflake. And while it’s nice to have company, we shouldn’t need it to feel free to be who we are, to make the choices that are right for us. And I wonder if the need for company makes our choices harder, not least because seeking it out, following proscribed paths–even off-the-beaten-path paths–means we never spend any time honing the skills we need to make decisions based only on what we want.