It is one of the most central themes in our class, indeed in the paradigm of feminism, that women suffer oppression under men, the authors and beneficiaries of patriarchy. Men, however, are not alone in their responsibility for the perpetuation of the binary sex/gender system and stereotypes concerning the links between sex, gender, and sexuality. Women—some, not all—are often equally complicit in reinforcing and maintaining the bars of Marilyn Frye’s figurative birdcage. This is largely due to, for one reason or another, the world in which we are raised. Children from households with breadwinner mothers and stay-at-home fathers are raised to think about the world differently than children from, for example, households in which religion dictates a gender hierarchy. Because we tend to reproduce culture and to embody and live out the values of our society/environment, ideas of appropriate gender roles tend to be handed down through generations like great-grandmother’s wedding ring. Evolving cultural ideologies can only do so much to alter our perceptions, and only to the extent that we allow new ideas to permeate our consciousness.
When a mother is equally supportive of reinforcing traditional gender roles as a father, are they not both to blame? What do we make of the mothers who put their toddlers in beauty pageants, or pierce their babies’ ears, or forbid their daughters to have certain toys or play certain games because they are not feminine? Are these women not doing a disservice to their daughters, by shaping them into the very models of femininity the patriarchy has created? What about the more extreme examples, mothers who discourage their daughters from going to college, or tell them they belong in the home to serve their husbands? It is the rare little girl who is lucky enough to have an enlightened or at least open-minded mother who does not raise her to conform to the societal standards expected of her biological sex. Graham in But I’m a Cheerleader experienced both ends of the spectrum with her pants-wearing mother and homophobic stepmother.
But can we really blame the mothers? It is not enough to say that they are simply the products of a patriarchy, that they are only fulfilling the roles women have had for centuries and teaching their daughters to do the same. If traditional sex/gender roles are to change at all, it cannot be only among liberal or progressive-minded people; it must permeate into every sector of our culture in order to take root and bring about a large-scale shift in ideology. Women who have these roles ingrained in them and are determined to pass them on to their children should not be pardoned; they should be educated. The problem is that some people attach deep significance and (often Biblical) truth to the performance of gender roles, and such close-minded people are resistant to change.