I have an 11-year-old daughter who is more than ready to move on to Young Women. In preparation, we subscribed to the New Era magazine. (My kids have always read The Friend -- the current issue and years and years of back issues -- during Sacrament Meeting, so we just added the New Era to the mix.) When the February 2015 issue arrived the other day, I happened to flip through it before my girls got their hands on it. As I flipped, I came across an article called Wet Cement and Real Womanhood. "The world is quick to give examples of what girls, young women, and women should seek after," the article explains. "But those ideals are increasingly different from what the Lord wants for His precious daughters. Because the Lord loves you, He sends guidance through Church leaders to help you as you grow. Here are four of the many things that you can aspire to as a daughter of God."
The four things are lovely, important things for all daughters of God to embrace at any age: 1. Developing Talents; 2. Discovering True Beauty; 3. Embracing Motherhood; 4. Focusing on Eternal Goals. I remembered being a Young Woman myself and loving the emphasis put on my softer, feminine side because, ironically, at my all-girls school there was very little discussion of the fact that most of us would become mothers some day. I valued the counter balance of the church messages.
But it was when I continued flipping through the magazine that I stopped short, because on the very next pages was a similar article directed at boys entitled "Power Flexing, Being Polite and Other Manly Behaviors" which similarly listed what it takes to be a "real man." There were five things on this list: 1. Doing Hard Things; 2. Learning Useful Skills; 3. Respecting Womanhood; 4. Serving In and Strengthening Your Priesthood Quorum; 5. Gaining An Education.
While I was perfectly fine with my daughter being reminded of the goodness of embracing motherhood and developing her talents, it was the contrast between the two pieces -- what was included in one or left out of the other -- that alarmed me. When I was just aware of the girls' piece, I felt there was cognitive space for my daughter to process the four qualities as the foundation for many other qualities and pursuits. "Yes," I could imagine her saying, "I can develop my hobbies, as it says here. But I can and should also get as much education as I can and follow my passion into a fulfilling and useful career." But when it was paired with the -- very different -- boys' piece, I felt that each piece implicitly suggested that girls should be some things but not others, not all. Either one thing or another, not both.
I've spoken passionately in the past about this either/or rhetoric we impose on our girls. Our rhetoric tells them they can either be a wife and a mother OR an ambitiously engaged community contributor, but not both. They can be "spiritually attractive," as the article suggests, OR do hard things and learn useful skills which is suggested to be only expected of boys. The parallel positioning of these articles raises suspiciouns of any girls' effort to cross over into the boys' territory, and similarly any boys' effort to cross into girls' territory. There is a whole personhood and a bigness of life that is undercut when we take this approach to only accepting part of who our girls and boys are and want to be.
As I went back through the girls' article, every one of the four initially lovely points was undermined and deflated of its rigor when compared to the boys' list. Starting with "Developing Talents," I read that the Lord wants girls to "pursue worthy hobbies that help you grow and serve." Wonderful, but the boys are told to "Do Hard Things," "Gain an Education" and "Learn Useful Skills." Through the articles' parallel construction, developing a worthy hobby then goes toe to toe with these three action-oriented and tangible imperatives, and the girls' instruction feels limp. Why should only girls develop worthy hobbies? Why should only boys do hard things?
Again, while my daughter may not have picked up on the tacit omissions in the girls' article, putting it side by side with the boys' imperatives only served to drive home how subjective and amorphous the girls' instruction is compared to the boys'. Even numerically, more is expected of the boys: they have five requirements whereas the girls only have four. Boys' defined church service is called out, a pretty objective requirement. The girls, in turn, are told to be "spiritually attractive," a subjective and undefined mandate at best.
I haven't decided what to do with the magazine yet. I'm fine with my daughter being reminded that inner radiance matters, because I know my daughter well enough to know that she would take the article - independent of other input - as a reminder not to forget some of the things that are important as she works towards going to a national robotics competition and learning a Bach violin concerto. She's an ambitious girl. But to have it so brashly contrasted with the more substantive and demanding portrait of righteous boys I'm afraid will serve not to expand her vision of herself as a daughter of God, but limit it to an either/or construct in which she will not feel comfortable bringing her whole hard-thing-loving, church-serving, useful-skill-building self.