Raising Girls Who Breathe Fire


So, I’ve been feeling rantish lately.

There are several reasons for this. Mostly, I think I’ve just reached the ripe old age of “fuck that shit,” and I’ve had enough of all that’s wrong with the world and I refuse to support the systems that continue to churn out the ugliness.

Most of what’s got my knickers in a twist recently has to do with women.

Newsflash: I am one

I spent most of last month navel gazing in Peru with The Advice Project’s Global Leadership Summit . It was interesting to be there, as a facilitator, with teen girls from three continents discussing issues of gender that affect us all. The take home message was that girls, and women, everywhere want the same thing: to be free to live our lives in our own ways. It really is that simple. Feminism really is that basic. Women (and men) free, equal, and participating in the ways that inspire us from the grassroots to the highest halls of leadership, spirituality, and academia. It seems obvious, doesn’t it?

And then, this kind of thing goes viral on Facebook: A girl at a Kentucky school sent home for showing her collar bones.

This one shortly following it:

To the first, I am incredulous. I spent half of my high school years in a Catholic school with a uniform dress code that required less skin coverage than that girl is being raked over the coals for.

To the second, I shouted a hearty AMEN in a mini-rant on my Facebook wall.

This hurts everyone

The first thing that leapt to mind was that this is reason #467 that we’ve opted our kids out of institutional schooling. Girls aren’t the only ones harmed by this nonsense, folks, the boys are too. The message that this kind of treatment sends to the boys about how to think about the women in their lives is insidious.

As the mother of three sons, the insinuation that my boys aren’t going to be able to cope with, learn in spite of, or behave appropriately in the presence of a bra strap, or the bottom half of a butt cheek, is deeply offensive. Men are not the sum total of their urges. Neither are women.

Do I think we could stand to talk to our young ladies about cultural norms, propriety within certain social situations, consideration for others in the way we dress and act? Of course. In the same ways we’d talk to our sons about those things. But at the end of the day, if my daughter in her beautiful nineteen year old body, walks drunk and naked down the center of the Strip in Las Vegas she does not “deserve” whatever she gets, nor is she “asking for it;” whatever the nebulous “it” may be.

Likewise, my sons are 100% responsible for the location and actions of their penises at all times. Full stop. No exceptions. They know this. One person’s cultural faux pas, political statement, or wardrobe malfunction does not justify another’s bad behavior, gender notwithstanding.

And another thing: Tying a dress code to education is controlling, and it’s not okay.

People are appalled when I tell them that in Guatemala shoes are required for a kid to go to school. Many indigenous families can’t afford shoes for their kids. This keeps their children out of school. Which keeps them from learning Spanish (Mayan dialects are spoken in most homes) which, in turn, keeps them out of the upwardly mobile workforce and out of the political process.

And yet we justify the same damned thing in public schools when a bra strap is showing, or we don’t like what’s printed on a t-shirt? That’s worth keeping a child out of school for? That’s worth sacrificing an education over? Make no mistake, that’s exactly what we’re doing. On the one hand, we’re pouring money and effort into empowering girls through maths and sciences programs to try to level the playing field, and on the other, we’re telling them, “You can’t come wearing THAT!” Give me one small break.

Just when I’m about to breathe through the first round of vein popping frustration, what should appear on my Facebook wall but the newest round of Duggar nausea. I’m not going to get into it. I swear, I’m not. I wasn’t surprised, even a little. And frankly, I don’t care, because I think people’s marriages are their businesses and we all need to butt out and leave other people alone. But when Anna was reported to have taken partial responsibility for her husband’s philandering…. Can we all heave that collective sigh now?

I know nothing about the Duggars. Nothing. I have not watched their show. I don’t care to. I am not interested in anyone’s marital status or what the negotiated terms of their agreement are. Not my business, and there are lots of way to do marriage. But I do know this: no one is responsible for another’s choices. Josh made his choices, Anna is not responsible. Full stop. She’s just not.

And here I am, angry and ranting again…

Because there’s this whole segment of society that is raising girls to take responsibility for other people’s junk that way. It starts with garbage like school dress codes that make it okay for boys to act like idiots while heaping the responsibility on the girls.

“Her bra strap made me do it!”

Bullshit. Your lack of self control, self respect, and community minded social responsibility made you do it.

I’m extra touchy about this for several reasons.

First, my cousin was raised this way and it damaged her deeply. When she finally escaped that mentality and began rebuilding herself it was an uphill battle. It continues to be an uphill battle. We have cried, and cussed, together over the unbelievable negligence in her education and the one sided brainwashing that feels specifically designed to maintain control over a girl. She’s told me many of stories of families like the Duggars. It’s a thing, apparently.

When I had her pre-read this piece (she gets to control her story and how it’s told, always) she had this to add:

“The environment is centered over control of the children (and even more so girls raised in this environment). The boys are robbed of being boys, since they are subservient to the patriarch, and don’t develop into balanced men. The girls are even one rank lower in the hierarchy. As bad off as I was in this paradigm my younger siblings are even worse off now.”

Second, I have a daughter, and I have three sons, whom I love. My sons are fortunate. They’re born into a world that handed them immense power and privilege before they even opened their eyes for the first time because they are white, male, middle class, from a family that values education, and holders of first world citizenships.

My daughter is fortunate too, for many of the same reasons, especially when you measure her against her compatriots in much of the less developed world. Having traveled for much of her upbringing, she’s well aware of that, and grateful for it. Where the playing field is not level, however, is in power.

My sons were born to a place of power just because of their penises.

True story. Of course they can choose to squander it and waste the gift, or they can choose to twist and misuse it, as too many do, but the power is theirs for the taking. Girls aren’t born with same power. They just aren’t. If you meet a powerful woman, it’s because she’s taken it with both hands, against the odds. Also a true story.

When my daughter was little she went through a Little House on the Prairie phase. She was in love with the books, and the characters. She wanted, more than anything, prairie dresses with pinafores and bonnets. So, I sewed them for her, right down to the eyelet ruffled bloomers underneath. She wore them everywhere. When people stared she would say, “I think they are looking at me because they wish they had my dress, don’t you mama?” I always agreed with her theory. She could have been an unusual entry in “The People of Walmart” for a while.

We hung out with the homeschool crowd; some of the best people you’d ever want to meet. Smart, creative, interesting, outside the box thinkers with kids who defied the odds in all the best ways. On one particular group outing I came across my daughter, somewhat subdued, with a puzzling look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“Mrs. Smith says that I should come inside and play with the girls, that I shouldn’t be playing rough with the boys.”

I looked my child over: bits of dried leaves stuck in her tangly braids, a twig stuck in her bonnet, mud on her pinafore, rubber boots caked with dirt and her brother’s cork pop-rifle jammed into her armpit.

I forced myself to laugh lightheartedly, “So, are you beating the boys?” I asked.

She crinkled her face sideways in a way that she still does at 19, “Yep!” She grinned.

“Good! Get back out there!” I encouraged her with a smile.

As soon as her braids disappeared into the forest my smile was replaced by another expression and I went in search of Mrs. Smith. We came to an understanding that day.

At 13, my girl prided herself on being able to sword fight any boy in our community into the ground, and she did, breaking her best guy friend’s glasses three times that summer.

At 16, she applied her newly learned wrestling moves to her much larger cousin and before he knew it he was looking at the sky; in spite of nearly a foot and fifty pound size difference.

At 17, she knew how to take care of the idiots trolling for chicks in the youth hostel.

At 19, she takes no shit, and generally, none is offered.

I have not raised a perfect child. She has her quiet insecurities. She’s had her share of failings. We all do, this is life. I don’t have a recipe for how to fix all that is wrong with gender inequality in the world, but I do know two things.

We must raise our sons to be strong advocates.

They were born with power and they need to learn to use it wisely and redistribute it in such a way that the culture as a whole moves forward. Protect and provide, the watchwords of the old guard can be gently morphed to equalize and empower.

I am over the moon with the ways I see this happening in male culture around me. I’m fortunate to live and work in a world where virtually all of the men “get it” and put boots to the ideology. I just see this getting better with the next generation. Go guys! Thanks for your efforts!

We must raise our daughters to breathe fire.

I ain’t nobody’s princess. If we absolutely have to negotiate on that point, I could maybe, possibly, acquiesce being a warrior princess; assuming I get to wear what I want, there are no ruffles, and nothing is pink. I also require a sword, or a sexy long bow, or something I can conquer with in my own right.

I like being a woman. I like it a lot. But I’m not quiet, or demure, nor can I be relied upon to dance prettily at the right moment. Actually, I rather bear watching, I’m prone to scandalous behavior, and I never hesitate to speak my mind; regardless of the company I keep. This might not be my best feature, actually. I have, very much on purpose, raised my daughter to do the same.

We need to raise our daughters in accordance with the only two rules of community living: kindness and love. We need to encourage them to build lives around the culture of generosity. We need to empower them to be keepers of the long legacy of the women who’ve come before, to value all of the old things, and old ways, which still serve them as they move forward.

But, we need to free them from the bondage of expectation.

We need to raise our daughters to be fire breathers, and fire dancers who light up the night, dispel darkness, and command notice. Men will stop and pay attention, not because they are beautiful, but because they kick ass in their various spheres of influence. It’s not about what we’re wearing or not. It’s not about whether we fit the mold or not. It’s about what we choose to do with this one precious and wild life we’ve been given… or not.

My daughter is attending institutional school for the first time this fall. She has never, in her life, inhabited a traditional classroom. She’s transferred her credits, accrued while traveling, to Queens University, in Canada, and is about to get a lesson in how the other half has lived. She will show up, her first day, in her signature elvish clothing, no doubt: green leather boots that laced to her knees, a slinky tunic top handmade by a Ukrainian designer we encountered in Guatemala, and a patchwork jacket that she crafted for herself. God help the person who asks her to wear anything different; she’s a fire-breather, my girl.

I hope your daughter is a fire-breather too

Even if she’s still attached to your boob for half the day and keeping you up half the night. Make sure she is. Don’t let some half-wit school administrator extinguish her spark with an asinine dress code. Don’t let some under educated bully misuse his power and steal what little she has.

Teach her to stand straight, wear what she likes, take responsibility for her choices and her actions, and to fight for what she wants in this world.

Be her ally and be her advocate.

Let her get dirty, and muddy, and bloody, and play with the boys, or the girls, or the cows, or whoever she wants.

Let her run with the wolves and howl at the moon.

Then, sit down around her pink table and play tea party with her when she asks you to. All the best warrior princesses drink tea, after all.

Photo Credit: Marie Richie