My daughter brings home a double-sided sheet of homework every weeknight. Reading stuff on this side, math on that side. I check it over, because that’s what good and involved parents do.
And I’ve noticed something.
April goes to a charter school that is deliberately very mixed in every possible way — languages, races, socio-economic, religion. The worksheets they hand out for homework don’t fully reflect that, but they are clearly trying. You get as many Juans as Johns, as many Aishas as Annes. The kids in the little cartoons are still about half light skinned, but that means they are half darker skinned, which is awesome. Some of the kids in the word problems or stories don’t have two parents but instead get taken care of by Abuela.
But what I don’t see are as many girls as boys.
If girls appear, they are conscientiously not doing girly things — they throw balls and sail boats. So, yay! Progress. But often we’ll get a work sheet in which no girls appear at all. We have never (as far as I can tell) gotten a worksheet in which no boys appear.
Now, here’s the thing. I am a busy woman and April will hand me the worksheet to check over while I’m making dinner or getting a deadline met, so I look it over while frying onions or whatever. Which means that I can’t swear that this is true. I haven’t made a thoughtful and systematic statistical analysis of it. But I kinda feel like I should.
Because that right there? That’s the work of third-wave feminism. Statistics.
Individual acts of egregious sexism are easy to see and combat. “Go make me a sandwich, woman!” is a singular instance, outrageous and obvious. Combating that is simple, if not easy. It was the work of the second-wave feminists and I am grateful for their efforts.
But is it sexist to ask the female intern to pick up sandwiches? I mean, interns pick up sandwiches. It’s part of the job description.
Is it sexist if she’s asked to pick them up more than the male intern? If she’s asked to pick them up every day and the male intern never picks them up? Well, maybe she has a good rapport with the dude at the sandwich food truck? What if, every year, Boss hires a male intern and a female intern and the female intern is always the one who gets the sandwiches? Is that sexist? Probably. But… where’s the line?
A similar example: Two potential hires, identical resumes, Boss hires a guy. Is that sexist? When you ask Boss, they say “Well, he just seemed a better fit with the culture.” Is that sexist?
If Boss always hires guys, that’s clearly sexist, regardless of any bullshit about culture. But you can’t tell if a single hire is sexist because you need the context of a larger pattern.
Which means we need to collect data. We need to take the time to make a frigging chart and write down how many names appear on our kids’ worksheets and keep track of how many are female. It’s work that seems frankly ridiculous, sometimes. And because of that, there’s another step in feminism: We need to make a calculation.
Because that’s another part of being a feminist. Weighing the balance between what’s best for us, personally, versus the larger picture.
If I go to April’s teacher (Ms. P) with a pie chart that shows that demonstrates a lopsided statistical gender breakdown of the characters in the worksheet she hands out, then I’ll be That Mom. The crazy mom. The difficult mom. And that may have blowback on April. Ms. P is awesome and professional but she’s also human. She’s got to manage 22 kids, hand out homework, correct it, she doesn’t have complete control over the worksheets, all the second grade teachers use the same work book, for the love of God, why is this crazy mom giving her one more damned thing to worry about? And no matter how professional and lovely she is, there’s a chance she’ll have a little less patience with April at during Literacy Workshops. There’s a chance she’ll call on April less in class, or pay less attention to her homework, or just be generally less cheerful in class because of that one more damned thing.
There’s also a chance that she’ll say “You’re right! I have been thinking the same thing! Let’s take it to the principal!”
I don’t know.
I do know that April is getting plenty of feminist philosophy at home. When I notice an all-boy worksheet, I point it out and say “That’s not fair, is it?” Her bookshelf is loaded with well-rounded female characters. Her life is filled with women who are scientists and lawyers and weight lifters as well as housewives and quilters and knitters. I know that exposure to works that exclude females is harmful to kids. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to do her too much harm, because I work damned hard to ensure that.
But she’s in a school that is deliberately mixed, in every possible way. And I know that many of her classmates don’t get regular doses of feminism at home. She’s got a classmate whose family practices a religion that explicitly states that girls should wear skirts and get married young and have lots of babies and never go to college. She’s got a friend who comes from a family where that’s not the religion, it’s just what happens. There are kids who have feminist moms who have to work, so Avó watches them after school and Avó is old fashioned about girls. There are lots of parents whose parents wish they had the time to point out every damned sexist and racist thing, but the reality is that they are both working two jobs and don’t have time to look over the homework, much less do a statistical analysis of fucking worksheets.
Would pointing out this small imbalance help them? At all? Is the small (tiny? negligible? non-existent?) good it might do them worth the possibility of the larger harm it might do April’s relationship with Ms. P? Hell, is the small good that it might do them worth the time it will take to turn off those frying onions to sit down and count male v female names? That’s not a lot of time, but it’s 5 minutes from my day, five days a week, for the next three months. That’s five hours of my life on statistics. To do what good? Possibly none.
This is why third-wave feminism is hard.