I was setting out my tomato plants this morning, at last. It's late, because the Maryland weather this spring has been fickle, and I only had four plants, too few to risk losing any. While I worked I listened to a podcast sermon on creativity and the divine. In it, the minister suggested that humans are driven not to "get back to the garden" but to create the garden anew, to complete our world.*
As often happens while I putter, or walk, or shower, a flash of insight hit me. I study gender because it is what I must understand to understand my own life. For others, the puzzle may be race, or death, or something else, but my deepest questions have always been about this paradoxical thing we call gender. I call it paradoxical because the term was invented in the 1950s to describe the social and cultural expressions of biological sex, yet in everyday usage sex and gender are almost always conflated, inseparable in many peoples' minds.
You see me here in two very different childhood pictures. The formal portrait (above) is me at about 3 and a half, in a velvet-trimmed dress I still remember fondly. My mother's red houndstooth check dress was also trimmed with velvet, and my father and brother wear nearly-identical warm gray suits. The very model of a gender-appropriate family in 1952. At the right is a snapshot of my brother and myself taken around 1955 in our back yard. My hair is in its natural state, and I am wearing my brother's old T-shirt and jeans. This was my world in the 1950s: dresses and pin curls for school, church and parties but jeans for play.
I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, and my parents humored me with a cowboy outfit with a two-gun holster for Christmas (along with a dollhouse). I adore all of these pictures because they are all so very me
I got my first period the year after the Pill was approved by the FDA. In 1963, when The Feminine Mystique
was published, I was just starting high school. Like so many young women who were swept along in the sexual revolution and the cultural shifts of the 1960s, I was promised much and given -- well, not little, but less than "revolution" implied.
The more I pursue the idea of "gender", the more it gets tangled up in sex. This gets ever clearer as I explore unisex and gendered clothing from the 1960s and 1970s. So many dead ends, so much confusion and so very much unfinished business! Turns out the sexual revolution may be the cultural Hundred Years War. Researchers thrive on open questions; gender is mine, because it is the aspect of my own life that puzzles me most.
*The sermon is available
to read or hear at the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship website.
As I finish the chapter on children's clothing, I'm sorting through my images and videos about adult fashions. Here's one you'll enjoy, from an early Soul Train episode. Notice the range of gender expression, on both men and women. A thought: did African American men have more or less leeway in this realm than white guys? My first impression is more, but also that I may be dazzled by the flashiness.
When 2012 started, I was looking forward to the publication of "Pink and Blue" -- a labor of love and curiosity that was over 30 years in the making. I had a feeling that many parents were wondering, as I had, why choices for our sons and daughters seemed to be so limited. Thankfully, I found a publisher capable of both academic rigor (much needed!) and broad public marketing. (Hooray, Indiana University Press
!) My family and friends gave me space and time to write and revise, and a weekly break at our local brewpub
. My church community
helped me connect, mind, conscience and spirit. Peggy Orenstein, Daniel Thomas Cook, Hanne Blank, Susan Kaiser and Anne Fausto-Sterling provided inspiration and feedback.
But best of all, people read the book -- people I didn't even know! Thank you all for your support, which means more than I can express. May 2013 treat you kindly.
How have you all been? For me, it's been a busy semester, embedded in a busy life, situated in a chaotic world. I'll spare you the gory details, and instead accentuate the positive.
Good things happening this year:
- the book is selling well, getting positive reviews, and (I hope!) changing minds about the immutability of "traditions".
- the research for my next book (Sex and Unisex) is nearly done, and has taken me to new discoveries and insights about the sexual revolution, the women's movement and our gendered culture.
- the arrival of my grandson, Solomon, on Election Day.
The best news on the gender front is something I have been advocating for and predicting: greater consumer demand for choice in children's toys and clothing, and a growing preference for inclusive, adaptable, ungendered options. Hasbro's announcement of a black and silver Easy-Bake Oven
is just the latest example of manufacturers responsiveness to consumer preferences.
Want to see more change? Add your name to this petition on Change.org to ask Target to stop segregating toy aisles. The petition is the work of young leaders Molly Culhane, Phoebe Hughes, and Autumn Lukomski-LaPolice of New Moon Girls
(a safe, ad-free, girl-positive website you need to check out if you have a girl aged 8 and up in your life).
Want to check out the very beginnings of my next book?
Sex and Unisex: The Unfinished Business of the 1970s
The proposal is on its way to the publisher, so keep your fingers crossed. I have posted the intro -- about 11 pages -- to Google Docs and enabled comments. Please have at it; your comments are important to me! You can post them here or on Google Doc.Link to draft Introduction.
Thanks to @stealthmountain for catching my typo in the subject line. sneak peak, sneak peek, snake Peep, snape poke. Time for a break.
I am nearly finished with the proposal for the next book, on unisex trends from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. Thanks to the fashion cycle and “That Seventies Show”, the superficial outlines of these trends are fairly familiar to the general public. As usual, my intent is to reveal how complicated the movement was (and I chose that word intentionally.).
The unisex movement – which includes female firefighters, Roosevelt Greer’s needlepoint and “Free to be…You and me” -- was a reaction to the restrictions of rigid concepts of sex and gender roles. Unisex clothing was a manifestation of the multitude of possible alternatives to gender binaries in everyday life. To reduce the unisex era to long hair vs. short hair, skirts vs. pants and yes, pink vs. blue is to perpetuate that binary and ignore the real creative pressure for alternatives that emerged during this period.
But what alternatives were posed, and why? For the most part, unisex meant more masculine clothing for girls and women. Attempts to feminize men's appearance turned out to be short-lived, not permanent changes. The underlying argument in favor of rejecting gender binaries turns out to have been another binary: a forced decision between gender identities being a product of nature or nurture. For a while, the "nurture" side was winning. Gender roles were perceived to be socially constructed, learned patterns of behavior and therefore subject to review and revision. Unisex fashions were one front in the culture wars of the late 60s and 70s -- a war between people who believed that biology is destiny and those who believed that human agency could override DNA.
The working title is “Sex and Unisex: The Unfinished Business of the 1970s”. Because it’s clear to me from today’s culture wars that the sexual revolution is turning out to be more like the 100 Years War.
I am currently caught between two books. "Pink and Blue" is out in the world, and that means interviews and conversations about gender differences in children's clothing. But I am also working on the proposal for my next book, which will be about unisex clothing (roughly 1965-1985). In terms of historical description, it looks like it will be pretty straightforward. Women and girls started wearing pants, even to work and school. Men enjoyed a brief "peacock revolution", when bold colors and pattern returned to their wardrobes. Legal battles were fought over hair (hair!): soldier's hair, students' hair, firefighters' hair. It was hard to tell the boys from the girls, under the age of ten. Designers from Paris to Hollywood imagined a future of equality and androgyny -- within the limits of their own world views, of course.
Explaining it all is where it gets complicated. Unisex clothing was a reaction to most of the gender binaries in fashion: long hair/short hair, skirts/pants and yes, pink/blue. But what alternative was posed, and why? For the most part, unisex meant more masculine clothing for girls and women. Attempts to feminize men's appearance turned out to be short-lived fads, not permanent changes. The underlying argument in favor of rejecting gender binaries turns out to have been another binary: a forced decision between gender identities being a product of nature or nurture. For a while, the "nurture" side was winning. Gender roles were social constructed, learned patterns of behavior and therefore subject to review and revision. Unisex fashions were one front in the culture wars of the late 60s and 70s -- a war between people who believed that biology is destiny and those who believed that human agency can override our DNA.
Thanks for listening/reading to my ponderings. Comments most welcome!
Exciting news! The book is now listed in the Spring 2012 Indiana University Press catalog, with a release date of March 22 (my brother Bob's birthday, which makes it extra special)! I expect to be doing the final FINAL revisions between now and mid-July.UPDATE: The release date has been moved to February 16. Sorry, Bob, that's someone else's birthday.
In late April, I presented my paper on Pink Boys at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Antonio. Once the book revisions are done, I'll be turning that into an article or two. The challenge for me is that this isn't history -- it's breaking news! The week before the conference there was the J.Crew nail polish kerfluffle, which precipitated a media frenzy that even swept *me* up for a while, just when I was trying to finish my presentation. A couple of weeks ago there was a smaller foofaraw* over Storm, the Canadian baby whose parents are trying to avoid gender stereotyping. That translated into two interviews shoehorned in an already busy day. (Links to the interviews are on the Recommended page)Personally, I am in favor of anything that makes people pay attention to the everyday, and think about it in a critical way. (Not critical=negative, critical=analytical). Some people look beyond the everyday for meaning, but as an American Studies scholar I want my students and readers to realize that even the most mundane, seemingly trivial aspects of their lives have meaning. Turning off the autopilot in our everyday lives is a necessary step for anyone who wants to live more deeply and intentionally. That certainly includes our lives as parents!*Can you tell I was raised on Pogo?