Like many kids, for Christmas, Shiv got a copy of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a wonderful volume filled with the true stories of women from all periods of history, all parts of the world, and all spheres of influences: athletes, politicians, scientists, artists. Each one-page story is told in “Once upon a time” style and accompanied by a vibrant, full-page illustration. Shiv loves the book, and so do his moms.
A few things have struck me as we’ve worked our way through the stories: one, that I am learning so much. Where have these stories been my whole life? Why have I never even heard of the vast majority of these women before? We know the answer to those questions; those in power craft the narratives, and powerful women threaten the patriarchy. (Side note: same as it ever was.) Still, the experience is visceral: the pride and awe I feel when reading about these badass women, the frustration that follows my surprise when I realize that I’m still carrying around an outdated narrative about women in general, that my dominant culture has successfully fed me the notion that women of intelligence, ambition, and valor–especially women of color–have, historically, been the very rare exception.
This notion of exceptionalism is revealed by the number of times that the narratives in Rebel Girls include lines like this one, about Jingu, a second-century Japanese empress: “Jingu was thought to have all kinds of magical powers.” Or this one, about Lozen, an Apache warrior who lived in the late 19th century: “People believed she had supernatural powers.”
The message is clear–the only way these women could have been so impressive or done such incredible things is that they had the powers of magic at their disposal. It’s the only possible explanation.
As we all know, this witchcraft narrative has been used to all kinds of nefarious ends by patriarchal systems threatened by powerful women; the body count is higher than we’ll likely ever know. But even on a less physically violent level, to create a supernatural explanation for the achievements of women is to minimize the very real and difficult mental and physical work that women do.
The work of women has been and continues to be demeaned by our society’s gender pay gap, our shameful lack of parental leave (even when taken by men, this work is considered “female” or “feminine,”), and the disrespect for vocations and crafts typically taken up by women. I can’t help but think about how many people I know, both men and women, all of whom would call themselves “feminists,” but who continue to perpetuate the narrative of magical women in all kinds of little ways: I don’t know how she does it all! I swear she’s not human!
Except that every woman who is managing to juggle a million things and do it with some integrity IS human. And the only way she’s managing to do it is through systems she’s created for herself, many of which she’s probably learned from other women, that allow her to navigate institutions that are in no way set up to support her, and may very well be actively thwarting her. Is this a form of magic? You bet. But it’s the kind of magic generated by hard-won knowledge, sweat, rage, and sheer force of will.
In addition to erasing everything that goes into women’s work, the idea that women have some kind of supernatural or mystical “edge” creates an automatic excuse for men to be held to a different standard. If women are able to do all that they do through the use of some magical powers, then we can’t possibly expect men to parent equally or build safe workspaces or take the thoughts and feelings of others into consideration. So then when they do manage to do one of these things (because they are perfectly capable of so doing), they get–and some of them expect–a freaking gold star for the very work that, for women, goes unacknowledged every damn day.
Which brings me to my last point. I completely understand why this book was advertised as a book that “every girl needs” – I get the importance of representation, I am a queer brown kid. But I also know that it’s equally important (maybe more so?) that boys read this book, too. Otherwise they’ll grow up with the same outdated ideas about female achievement and ability that I did.
So thank you, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, for teaching me about my own biases and pushing me to give the women in my life (myself included) more credit.