“Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have. What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection breed it?/ I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?/ It is so, too. And have we not affections/ Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?” Othello Act IV, lines 99 – 107
(I can’t help but laugh at how much like plain common sense these words sound, yet how radical they must have seemed to the audience that first heard them.)
I’m not sure how it all started. It may have been once I began to notice all prospective parents in the books I read and movies I saw seemed to long for boys, as if, even in the very womb, girl-children weren’t good enough.
My parents do all they can to ensure my sister and I knew we are loved and valued and they wouldn’t have traded us for a thousand boys. But an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture as the preference for boys can seep through the cracks of the safest house, like toxic smoke. It’s everywhere — in the Bible (in the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as all those women in the Old Testament who prayed desperately for sons or competed to see how many sons they could bear), in history (remember the story of Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir?), and especially in popular culture, in those classic movies on which I cut my teeth.
I couldn’t name every example if I tried; the ones that stick most fast in my memory come from movies I otherwise admire or even love. 1934’s Little Man, What Now? has pregnant Margaret Sullavan (pregnant of course in a 1934 way, so that her figure is maidenly throughout) told repeatedly to pray and hope for a boy because “girls are useless.” In 1939’s Made for Each Other, as James Stewart and Carole Lombard gaze enraptured at their newborn baby son, a cabbie asks them if the baby is a boy or a girl; Lombard replies simply, “What do you think?” as if no girl-baby could possibly inspire such joy as he sees in their faces. In 1941’s Penny Serenade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne suffer the loss of their adorable adopted daughter, but they’re consoled with a happy ending, as they’re on the phone with the adoption agency and hearing that the boy they wanted in the first place is finally available. Peter Marshall of A Man Called Peter and Dr. Noah Praetorius of People Will Talk, both brilliant men, insist the babes their wives are carrying must be sons. (The latter goes even further and insists that all their future children will be boys.) To have “all boys” is heavenly, as 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips makes clear. For a less admired example, we have comedian Eddie Cantor making a whole career out of jokes about his desperate longing for a son and bitter disappointment at having so many daughters — clearly a laugh riot back in the 1930s, but I wonder if any of Cantor’s daughters ever felt happy and secure in their father’s love as I did in mine.
For me as a young girl and then later a young woman, the worst of it was that it seemed this lust for boy-children, expressed again and again in different ways in different stories, was never critiqued or even called into question. It was presented as natural, as right. Of course boys were preferred. Boys were a sign of a father’s virility (a backward idea with no basis in science), and they just might grow up to change the world. Girls, apparently, had nothing to offer the future, except the promise of more boy-children. This idea may be a remnant of the past, a reflection of a certain time and place, but it nonetheless got under my skin and made me wonder exactly what about me was sub-par, at least in the eyes of the world beyond my own home.
Moreover, the preference for boys isn’t as much a relic of decades gone by as I wish it were. When I read about countries and cultures in which female infanticide is common, or read a statistic stating that men who have sons are less likely to abandon their families because they’re more invested in their boys and anxious to provide a role model, or see an episode of a popular TV show in which a woman, already the mother of two boys, terminates every pregnancy once she learns the baby will be a girl (because “girls are nothing but trouble anyway”), or overhear a conversation at a restaurant in which a mother with three sons tells a waitress how “happy and relieved” she is that none of her children are girls, I get that familiar tense, angry feeling. They still get to me, these signs of the notion that girls, and by extension women, are not and can never be good enough.
When you’re loved within your own family but the outside world sends you messages that you’re less valuable, less important, because you lack a Y chromosome, there are three ways you can respond. You can give in to it, accept the idea that you were born inferior. You can laugh it off. Or you can take the sense of pride and self-worth that your family, against the odds, fostered in you and fight. I’ve gone with the third option. I’m still fighting, in the ways I read and write and teach.
Coming next week: Part 2