“God bless your dad.” “I feel sorry for your father.” “That must be hard for your dad.”
“No brothers?” was the typical first response, when I tell people that I have four sisters, followed by condolences for my dad. Often, these comments came from other parents, especially those with sons. As kids, we are conditioned to trust the opinions of adults. So when I was younger, these reactions made me believe that I was somewhat of a burden for my dad. Perhaps he always wanted a son, and he struck out approximately five times. As a kid, I had yet to understand the subtleness of this sexism.
Accompanied by a faint laugh, my usual answer was that “he’s fine because my sisters and I are athletic.” I affirmed the stereotypical disappointment that comes with having a daughter instead of a son. I played into their sexist, traditional beliefs, that physical or athletic abilities belong only to boys. Don’t worry, I was telling them, my dad can still play catch in the backyard.
Sure, these things were true. My dad followed my older sister Neely across the world as she fenced in international competitions. He helped my sister Addie carry her oars out to the boat at all her rowing regattas. I have a picture of him cheering in the stands at one of my lacrosse tournaments, his arms stretched out wide in enthusiasm.
He did these things, not to fulfill a vision of attending an unlived son’s sporting events, but because he was proud of us. He was proud of having daughters. It didn’t matter to him: We could have been theatre junkies or trumpet players in the school band, and I know for a fact that my dad would have been there, pointing at us and bragging to the other parents.
Through his overwhelming pride and support, my dad taught me that I should never feel like a burden just because I am a woman. I am worthy of celebration, appreciation, and support regardless of my gender.
It’s funny now when I hear people say they feel bad that my dad has to handle five girls. It’s funny because not a day in his life has he felt anything but lucky.
When my mother was in her early 20s, she navigated the male-infested waters of Wall Street, where most of the men in the office expressed their jealousy by giving her the silent treatment. When she refused to go out with any of them out of self-respect and for the benefit of her career, they called her a lesbian. She laughed out loud in her boss’s face when he offered her a promotion in exchange for sleeping with him. Instead of hiding or succumbing, she developed a thick skin in response to the misogyny that pervaded her life.
In elementary school, my teacher called my mom because my twin Bitsy and I were being too rough on the soccer field. “Boys will be boys,” the teacher said, followed by “the behavior of the girls was unacceptable.” My mother was the first to explain that phrase to me — a seemingly innocent expression that releases boys from the weight of accountability.
In middle school, my other sister Cammy had to present on Hillary Clinton as First Lady. My mom received a call from her teacher, inquiring why Cammy’s speech was about Hillary’s experience as a senator, completely ignoring the assignment about Hillary as a spouse. My mom helped Cammy with her project and defended it to the teacher. She taught us that a woman could be more than a housewife, that family and success were not mutually exclusive. She often harped on this premise when she read us fairy tales, with slightly alternative endings. Snow White woke up with a kiss and realized she was late to the office. Cinderella attended medical school before she married Prince Charming. Sleeping Beauty was taking a nap between shifts.
However, I quickly realized the fiction of fairy tales as I watched all the horrible things happening to women in the news. When I would recount the headlines, she told us how unfair the world was for women. I learned from her that daily acts such as going to school and driving a car are not a right, they were a privilege, one that is denied to many women across the globe. I learned that sexual assault wasn’t about sex, it was about power.
My mom never lied to me or my sisters. Growing up, I mistook her brutal honesty for cynicism. Now, however, I am thankful that she didn’t sugarcoat my youth. My mom prepared us for discrimination and degradation, but she also taught us how to rise above it. She passed down her thick skin like a family heirloom.
I remember once complaining to my mom how easy it seemed to be a man. No menstrual cycles. No pregnancy scares. No shaving. No lipstick. No heels. No looking over your shoulder at night. I listed a number of reasons why being a woman was so hard.
I will never forget her response. Despite every obstacle she has had to overcome in her life simply because of her gender. Despite how difficult it is to raise daughters in this world who feel strong and empowered. Despite all of these things, she still looked at me and said: “I love being a woman.”
Winnie Brandfield-Harvey is a sophomore from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.