The story that follows is an excerpt from a keynote speech I delivered recently at a book festival.
A new study released in January demonstrates that as early as 6 years old, girls’ perception of their own gender’s intelligence shifts; all that subliminal messaging and systemic sexism out there has both boys and girls believing boys are smarter.
When I look back at my own life, it was 4th grade when I began to realize that being a girl meant my voice was valued less than that of my male peers. I was attending a public school in a low income neighborhood, but the teachers didn’t let that stop them from giving us amazing learning opportunities—they took us to the coast to study oceanography, they sent us to outdoor school to learn about the forest, and they applied for grants so we could put on a play every year at the city’s performing arts center. That year it was a musical production of Peter Pan.*
Now, everybody wants to be Peter, right? Well, I was cast as Wendy.
I took it hard. I remember my teachers consoling me, saying that the role of Peter had to go to 5th grader. It wasn’t that I wanted to have the most lines or be in the spotlight for the whole play—it’s just, I wanted to be the hero of the story.
Don’t we all?
(That’s me in the silky blue nightgown.)
You might be saying—hey! You had a starring role—speaking parts—and a song to sing. And while all that’s true, Wendy’s role in that story is to mother and scold and idolize Peter while he and the lost boys adventure. And in our particular production?
Peter, Michael and John got to fly. But Wendy didn’t.
I remember watching my classmates swinging from wires high above the stage during rehearsal—and that feeling—of being stuck on the ground while others got to fly, that’s what my own life was beginning to feel like, being a girl in a boys’ world.
So I found my solace in stories. I was drawn to fantasy because (obviously, dragons are super cool) but also, I wanted to live in worlds where sexism didn’t exist. Or if it did, it was something that could be conquered.
It wasn’t an easy thing in those days to find novels where the girls were the heroes. Thankfully, there are so many more today. But still, you’ll find people saying this book is for boys and that book is for girls. Or that a book for a school-wide or city-wide read has to have a boy protagonist because boys won’t read stories about girls. Or that books written by grown-up boys are more valuable than books written by grown-up girls.
I hear those things and I cringe on behalf of all the girls out there getting the message loud and clear that they are worth less.
I hear those things and I cringe on behalf of all the boys out there getting the message loud and clear that girls and stories about girls are worth less.
I changed during those Wendy years, those late elementary school days when I first recognized that everyday sort of sexism. I stopped writing. I stopped telling my own stories. I would try—I’d write a few pages, but then later, when I’d pick it up to begin again, I would rip what I’d written to shreds. Every time. Believe me when I say that internalized misogyny is poison.
I didn’t write my first novel until I was nearly 30.
All month long, on the #kidlitwomen facebook page, individuals have been discussing different aspects of this problem: the double standards that exist for men and women in our industry, how teachers and librarians can help, how male creators in our industry are at a distinct advantage, how these biases are linked to sexual harassment, how the movement will fail without intersectionality, how binary language in these discussions falls short, and much more. The month is up and there’s still more to say.
More importantly, there is more to do. We’re trying to make our world a better place. Won’t you join us?
*There is a great deal (in addition to the sexism) that is problematic with Peter Pan, as this article by the Smithsonian Mag illustrates.