Originally I envisioned this post as a commentary on labels or stereotypes, and how they serve to sort and categorize individuals. We all do it….give labels to people in an attempt to construct an orderly inventory in our minds. However, while they can sometimes be helpful and provide a common vocabulary, labels can often limit our understanding and obstruct our view of the whole individual. I specifically wanted to address labels in relation to gender as a follow up to Ashley Baggett’s excellent post on masculinity and Adam Turner’s awesome post in which he talks about sorting and categorizing people. In the course of my writing, however, an unexpected turn-of-events occurred. I was asked to temporarily teach a third-grade class. So, I decided to look at gender and labels from a different perspective–from a third-grade point-of-view. It turned out to be an excellent source of material and I thought I would share some things I’ve learned from these plain-talking third-graders.
Lesson #1: Third-Graders Are Actually Pretty Cool
To begin with, when I was asked to take this class I was terrified. First, I haven’t spent much time around children and second, as a self-labeled “germaphobe,” it seemed like just a big incubator full of germs. However, armed with a pocket full of Handi-Wipes, I decided I was up for the challenge. The class itself is incredibly diverse. There are thirteen boys and twelve girls. There is also a mixture of African American, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and white children. One of the first things I learned about third-graders is that they are at a great age. For the most part, they aren’t babies anymore and yet they aren’t old enough to have become cynical. They are too young to be sarcastic, yet old enough to sort of “get” sarcasm. Most importantly, they are open and honest and candid—they just tell it like they see it. They haven’t yet learned to be politically correct or to say things just to be nice. They haven’t learned how to be fake or duplicitous or spiteful. They have no hidden agendas or plots to get ahead…..it’s just plain straight-talk. I like the way that they are all eager to learn and excited and optimistic about what their future may hold. I also like that these students, for the most part, get along with each other, regardless of sex or race. They have disagreements now and again, but they don’t pull any punches and don’t hold grudges and I like that.
Lesson #2: Third-Graders Believe in Equal Pay for Equal Work
One of the first social studies lessons I taught was on the female astronomer, Maria Mitchell. She pushed gender boundaries in a variety of ways–it was great to see the students immediately recognize and react to that. She was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer and she discovered “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” in 1847. She was also the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Association. Not only was Mitchell a pioneer in science, she was also an abolitionist and feminist. In 1865 Mitchell became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College in New York, where she was the only female faculty member. There she had access to a twelve-inch telescope, the third largest in the United States, and began to specialize in the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn. Equally important, she refused to enforce the petty rules of female behavior that were expected in this place and time. The Vassar faculty respected Mitchell, but they initially expected her to teach astronomy – while insisting that the college’s female students were not allowed to go outside at night! She was eventually named the Director of the Vassar College Observatory. Mitchell had become known around the world for her work in the field of astronomy, yet she was paid less than her male colleagues at Vassar. When she learned about this, she fought for an increase in her salary and she won. The great thing is that almost all of this information was included in the passage that the third-grade class read for their social studies lesson.
After reading the passage and talking about Mitchell, I was curious what the students thought about her being the first woman astronomer. Of course, they all thought that was “awesome.” No real surprises there. I then moved on to what the students thought about Mitchell getting paid less than her male colleagues. The students were confused by that. For the most part, they thought it was just plain wrong and couldn’t understand how that could happen. It was interesting listening to them trying to talk out scenarios that could make it right. For example, one student suggested that perhaps Mitchell “didn’t have to do as much work as the man she worked with.” I said, “What if they were doing exactly the same amount of work, but weren’t getting paid the same. Is that fair?” They kept trying to find some scenario to make it right, but couldn’t…..and then one student (a boy) said, “Maybe her boss was a man and was friends with the men Maria worked with so he thought they should get paid more.” And then another student (a girl) added that, “Maybe since all the men were friends they said that Maria didn’t know as much because she was a girl and shouldn’t get as much money.” Finally, another student (a boy) said, “That’s what boys think sometimes.” And the most surprising answer came when one student chimed in that maybe a man got paid more because he “had a wife who didn’t work and a lot of children.”
Lesson #3: Third-Graders Believe in Equality and Activism
In the end, however, all of the students just saw no way that it was fair that a woman should be paid less for the same work and they also all agreed that it would never happen in today’s world…..oh, to dream. These students may not know the terms patriarchy or feminism, but they know about equality and fairness and right and wrong. It would be great to think that young people today are growing up already with ideas of gender equality in their minds. It was really fascinating to watch them work through scenarios trying to imagine how it would be fair for a man to paid more than a woman for the same work—and they just couldn’t make it work. It was also great to hear them say how they thought Mitchell was brave for being the only woman professor and for fighting to get more money. They thought it was awesome that she stuck up not only for herself, but for the female students at Vassar. The fact that they grasp that Mitchell’s struggle wasn’t an easy endeavor at that time is also awesome. I asked the girls in the class if they thought they could do that. Their responses were interesting. One student said she didn’t think she would be able to do something like that because she was “shy.” Another student said she would do it because her mom said she “was a big mouth.” A third student said she could do it because she was “tough.” I, of course, was thinking whether the labels of “shy,” “big mouth,” “tough” were merely self-imposed and how they affected these girls, if at all. Is this just how they envision themselves or how they feel others view them? People throw around these and other labels all the time. These terms construct invisible boundaries and create stereotypes about an individual. What about the girl whose mother thinks she’s a “big mouth”? Is that just what her mother thinks? Once you hear “big mouth,” other images come to mind and you can lose sight of other qualities. Does the girl think of herself as a “big mouth”? And what does that mean exactly?
Some Last Thoughts on Labels…..
There are also gendered labels like “tomboy,” and “girly-girl,” for girls, “wimp,” and “crybaby,” for boys that kids hear growing up and often stick with them through adulthood. For gay children, these labels are especially charged. While already dealing with the confusion of being gay in a straight world, throwing around a variety of labels only adds to the confusion of trying to establish one’s own identity. As an adult, having a “gay” label often obscures one’s identity as well. Not that I’m suggesting by any means that people shouldn’t embrace who they are…I guess, my point is that often I wonder why it is necessary for certain taglines to be posted with individuals. For example, the great Dr. Sally Ride, who joined NASA in 1978 and had an extraordinary career there, logging over 340 hours of spacetime, died July 23, 2012. After her death, it was revealed that she was a lesbian. This fact was the headliner for many news outlets, often overshadowing the fact that she was an outstanding astronaut and scientist. The very best obituary that I read about her was, believe it or not, by Entertainment Weekly, which was short and sweet. I’m pretty sure that when Neil Armstrong died in August, the headline was not, “Neil Armstrong, Straight Astronaut, Died This Morning.” Even more to the point, why is it necessary for anyone, gay or straight, to have to declare whether they are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual? Here is a post as good example of why labeling oneself, or others, especially when it comes to sexuality can be confusing and limiting. So, I ask…..is it absolutely necessary for an individual to give themselves a label publicly? I was having a conversation just last week about Anderson Cooper stating publicly that he was gay and I asked someone why people were so interested in Cooper’s sexuality and no one cared to hear Brian Williams or Bob Schieffer say they’re straight. And the response was “Well, because it’s more interesting and because being straight is the norm.” Is being straight the norm? Or normal? Because if it’s the norm, what’s NOT being straight? Or is being straight the majority? This is problematic with labels–that there can be normal versus abnormal associations with labels, as well as good and bad value-laden associations. I know it seems semantic and yet, it’s not really. They’re invisible lines of difference drawn demarcating individuals into categories that with time aren’t so invisible and sometimes we don’t even see it happening.
So, while we may not even be aware of it, we label ourselves and others all the time. Oftentimes it’s a seemingly innocuous way to create order in our life and keep things running smoothly. However, we should take pause because life isn’t always neat….it’s messy and we should embrace that and learn that not everything can or should be labeled and neatly sorted. Also, while it has been quite a change—and challenge–going from teaching college students to teaching elementary students, it also been refreshing. It has been refreshing to hear some common sense talk about gender equality from these young people. It has also been nice teaching so many students who are open to learning, who are not trying to secretly text when they think you aren’t looking, and who are putting forth their best effort. And I have to admit, it is kind of great to be labeled “super Dr. Kibbe” just for being able to put all ten of their vocabulary words into one sentence!
 Renee Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).
For Further Reading:
1. Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999).
2. Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).