Gender equality ... the rest of the story

Over the weekend, I joined throngs of tourists to take in the Cherry Blossom trees along the Tidal Basin. Because of the unseasonably cold temperatures this year, visitors were bundled up in jackets and scarves, even hats and mittens. I was acutely aware of the extra layers of clothing because there is perhaps no better time to view today’s provocative “tweener trends” than tourist season in D.C. Come July, there is no shortage of young girls riding the Metro in too-short shorts, midriff-bearing tops and high-gloss lipstick.

Unless you’ve been living on the moon for the past decade, it’s hard to miss the fact that young girls today seem to be wearing less and flaunting more. (And companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, which recently released the “push-up triangle” bikini top for girls as young as age 7, certainly encourage these styles.) But given the ages of these girls, it’s hard not to ask: Who’s buying them this clothing?

Jennifer Moses — author of Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Milennium Mom — asked just that last week in The Wall Street Journal: “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” (Moses should be careful — her question already sparked feminists to scream about “slut shaming!”)

In a partial-attempt at self-reflection, the author points her finger at a generation of women conflicted about their own pasts and their own liberated sexual experiences. “We are the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn’t have to worry about getting knocked up … We were also the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputations but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom.”

It turns out all that sexual freedom left many women in “the feminist generation” confused and unsure of how to teach about modesty to their own children. In short, Moses and her friends don’t know how — or, don’t want — to be hypocrites.

While Moses is onto something, her analysis falls flat. Wanting your daughter to be pretty and popular is nothing new. Women have been encouraging that for generations. (I distinctly remember being in the fourth grade, when my good friend’s mother shared with my mother that she was thrilled her daughter had a “boyfriend" — it would help prepare her for high school!)

What’s different today — and perhaps what Moses is picking up on — is the lack of defined gender roles, and the romance, courtship and dating expectations that used to accompany them. An understanding — and acceptance — of the differences between the sexes once helped young men and women navigate relationships. Today gender roles have largely gone by the wayside and romantic courtships are something reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. While women are increasingly outperforming men academically, proving themselves athletically and achieving great success in the workplace, this gender equality doesn’t come without serious consequences. More and more, girls are encouraged to act like “one of the guys,” even when it comes to dating.

For Moses’s generation, the sexual freedom of the 1960s and '70s was supposed to leave them feeling empowered. But as the author acknowledges, that easy access to birth control often left women of her generation feeling powerless. In fact, what many feminists hate to acknowledge is that men are often the biggest benefactors of The Pill, which has encouraged a culture of casual sex, characterized by pre-teen girls in mini-skirts and push-up bras.

This glib attitude toward sex today has left many moms, like Moses, unsure of how to parent. Suddenly, that desire to see your daughter be popular doesn’t seem quite as appealing. Moses realizes the sexual freedom she and her female friends “enjoyed” as young adults has, at times, left them feeling raw; still, she admits she doesn’t want to seem out of touch with today’s styles or culture and enjoys living vicariously through her daughter, whose good looks “turn heads.”

Where Moses falls short is that it’s the attitude that men and women are the same that ultimately hurts women — and young girls — both physically and emotionally. Marriage may be on the decline, but many young women still aspire toward having a healthy relationship. (And for good reason: Marriage is associated with improved health, happiness and financial security.)

But at a time when we heavily discredit the differences between the sexes, far too many young girls — and their mothers — have lost perspective of what healthy relationships look like.


Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.