“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
Introduced her to my loved one and while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me.”
a popular song in 1950 sung by Patti Page
Popular culture is a powerful force, often an unseen force, in the lives of both children and adults. My parents paid to send me to kindergarten because they believed five years old was a good time to start my formal education. It seems that part of that education was indoctrination into heterosexual culture. You can listen to the 1950 version of the Tennessee Waltz sung by Patti Page here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XCvfy6Huyc
“The Tennessee Waltz” was an immensely popular song at the time. At one of the kindergarten programs regularly presented for the parents, the two women who owned and operated the school choose to play the song in the background and have three students act the parts. Apparently they hired a photographer to record the event or these photos would not exist.
Perhaps I was chosen to be the girl in the group because the women knew my mother would make me a beautiful dress for the occasion. As you can see, even then I was tall for my age. Throughout my girlhood, I remember pulling out my photo book to look at this photo with pleasure.
Mother helped me to remember the details. The ribbon in my hair reached to the floor. The heart shaped locket inscribed “Paula” was a baby gift from mother’s family. I wore ballet slippers. The dress was mother’s dream of a dress for her little girl. It was cream color and all the rows of glitter on the skirt were worthy of a Hollywood fantasy. She designed it and sewed it for me. Obviously this was a important event for Marie too.
The socialization of girls into adopting “appropriate” sex-role behaviors may be one measure of successful mothering. Considering later conversations, I believe my mother held this view–it was her job to raise pretty and compliant girls. At the same time, I do believe, she wanted the “best” for me, my sisters and my brother.
Family plays a crucial and predominant role in socialization in the early childhood years. In “middle childhood”, meaning the years between the time when children enter school and the time they reach adolescence, “teachers, peers, coaches, and others outside the family have more contact with the child than in early childhood, and they exercise varying degrees of influence.”1
Sex-roles are taught at home and everywhere else! My kindergarten experience was infused with clear messages about the adult world’s expectations of me as a girl. Both positive reinforcement, like compliments and praise, as well as negative reinforcement including ridicule, criticism and punishment are common methods to ensure compliance. Each of these behavior modification tools remain effective in 2020.
My reason for talking about these realities, using examples from my own life, is to identify the undesirable consequences of restricting some behaviors and encouraging other behaviors based on a child’s sex. Doll, trains, stuffed toys, chemistry sets, camping gear are all useful toys and learning tools that do not need to be divided into pink and blue categories. Rational thought, empathy, and caring are all human characteristics.
Kindergarten was my first step into socialization beyond my family. Girls and boys are biologically different in a few specific ways. But all the efforts to make sure girls learn to be feminine (as defined by the culture) and boys learn to become masculine (as defined by the culture) are a social construction. Femininity and masculinity are sexist notions which limit the interests and behaviors of children into narrow pathways.
In December 2017 the Pew Research Center released a report on Social & Demographic Trends in this area.
“The public has very different views about what society values most in men and what it values in women. While many say that society values honesty, morality and professional success in men, the top qualities for women are physical attractiveness and being nurturing and empathetic.
When it comes to what society values most in women, traits associated with one’s physical appearance are among the most often mentioned: 35% volunteered something having to do with physical attractiveness or beauty. Three-in-ten say that society values being nurturing and empathetic most in women, including 11% who specifically mention being a parent or caregiver and 6% who mention traits like kindness or being helpful. By contrast, significantly smaller shares of Americans say that society values physical attractiveness or being nurturing or empathetic most for men (11% each).
In recent years, research looking at the messages boys and men get from society about what it means to “be a man” has received increased attention. The survey asked men how much pressure they think men in general face to do each of the following: be emotionally strong, be interested in sports, be willing to throw a punch if provoked, join in when other men are talking about women in a sexual way, and have many sexual partners.
Millennial men are far more likely than older men to say men face pressure to be willing to throw a punch, to join in when other men are talking about women in a sexual way and to have many sexual partners.”2
Popular culture is a powerful force both inside the family and outside the family. I was raised to be pretty and smart–in that order. I was a girl. If one child was to go to college, my dad believed it should be his son. This was seen as a normal attitude. My mother suggested that they take it one step at a time–not confronting him directly. As a girl child, my expectations were to be carefully shaped into helpmate material, preferably an attractive helpmate.
Our play clothes as children were sturdy and easy to wear-mostly short and shirts year round. Once school began I was dressed in dresses, skirts and blouses. My brother wore trousers and shirts. As a girl I was learning to dress “like a girl”. I was learning to concern myself with other people’s (both children and adults) opinion of me and of my appearance. As a tall girl I had already broken an important expectation that girls not be taller than boys. I soon realized that as a tall girl I would always be noticed. I would not “blend in” easily. This fact made be even more aware, at an early age, of what I wore and how I wore it. My family members were all tall–my parents encouraged each of us to not slouch–to stand up straight.
Idealized images of children, teens, women, men, families, couples, houses and more entered my consciousness when I was still a child–first from newspapers, television, movies, magazines and billboards.
My favorite comic strip from the Sunday newspaper was Brenda Starr, Reporter. I was drawn to her bold confidence, her adventures, and to her wide-ranging and stylish wardrobe. Television was a new phenomena in the 1950s and our family spent many hours watching–from situation comedies to sporting events and variety shows.
Since all television is educational television, I was receiving an advanced education in expectations about the role of women. Kathleen M. Barry informed us, “When a Miss America first received her crown on television in 1954, capturing half the viewing audience, the event became an all-in-one lesson for girls in the requirements of femininity. It was also an occasion for adults to take pride in the best of American womanhood in the making.”3 Our family often watched this pageant together and probably saw that 1954 event. In the early 1960s the pageants were the highest-rated programs on American television! Here is a one minute newsreel of the 1953 Miss America Pageant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbNbHnQ9v_Y
As a child and as a girl I was attracted to these idealized, carefully orchestrated visions of women in admired settings. As the oldest girl in a large family, I’d already encountered some of the responsibilities of caring for others. Did the girl who dressed for Halloween as Little Red Riding Hood, complete with red cape and red hood, have what it takes to escape the wolf’s threats and to rescue herself and her grandmother? Did these idealized women know how to help me do that? Perhaps embracing femininity was a survival skill I needed as a girl.
1 Eleanor E. Maccoby Chapter 5: Middle Childhood In The Context Of The Family https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216771/
2 from Pew Research Center: Social & Demographic Trends
3 Kathleen m. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants p. 50 https://eh.net/book_reviews/femininity-in-flight-a-history-of-flight-attendants/