I’ve never been so happy to be the mother of a son.
Not that mothers of sons are off the hook. We must teach our male children respect for all, and the important lesson that society’s stereotypical standards of female beauty and behavior don’t have to be your own.
But mothers have to guide daughters through a maze. Society grooms girls to be attractive to men, to primp and diet and charm, but reserves special scorn and even special words for the ones who betray actual sexuality — “slut” and “prostitute,” heard most recently by that flamethrower Rush Limbaugh. (Not only is there no male equivalent; when a boy is called out as promiscuous, it is still too often with a hint of approval.) Though I have practiced parenting on nieces, I admit I’m no expert when it comes to the challenges of helping a daughter hold her head up while holding her own.
That the debate over health-care coverage of contraception could descend into perverse pot shots at outspoken women isn’t entirely a surprise. So what does that say about the double standard that persists?
Sandra Fluke is famous now but she is basically a student. When she appeared before Congress — whether or not she was the best choice for the subject at hand, as Melinda Henneberger pointed out — she looked simply lovely, in a Joan of Arc kind of way. That’s why it was particularly jarring to hear Limbaugh’s invective. Not only was she a civilian, a citizen talking to those voted to represent her, she was also what we supposedly raise our daughters to be — educated, calm and confident.
So Limbaugh, as is his pattern, had to turn the Madonna into a whore, one he ordered to make sex tapes for his pleasure. He is paying a price in bad publicity and dropped sponsors, and he is making Republican candidates squirm. How do you condemn the words without condemning the man? That’s because, as hard as it to believe, Limbaugh does have his supporters, those who think Fluke’s Congressional testimony makes personal attack fair and appropriate.
What is most surprising, accusing women joined in, just as they sometimes do in grade school. Actress and conservative activist Patricia Heaton had to suspend her Twitter account and apologize after an initial stream of posts piled on, a Hollywood star adding her own brand of invective. What did Heaton’s four sons learn about how to treat girls from that little exchange, I wonder?
My friends raising daughters always told me it was hard, though they mostly talked about the particular hell of having familiar rebellions return to stare them in the face. I would tell then raising a son is no picnic. It comes with its own set of societal expectations — “being good at sports is very good” and “tough is better than not,” to name two. (I had to admit clothes-shopping was a breeze. There were parts of stores I never had to explore.)
I thought that things had gotten better for girls, now blessedly allowed to sweat on the sports field and encouraged to excel in the classroom and to step up as leaders. I assumed that things had improved a lot since I was a young girl navigating the world’s expectations and my own.
Progress is apparently slower than I thought. As a survey of and by She The People contributors proved, sexual and sexist harassment is one of the “real issues,” and it hasn’t disappeared. As depressing posts by Karen Tumulty and Suzi Parker revealed, maturity and professionalism aren’t shields for a woman who speaks her mind about — anything; she is fair game from the right and the left.
Some of the current debate is simply Rush Limbaugh, of course. Recalling his attacks on women authors, strong women, black women, first lady Michelle Obama and more, I wonder if the four-times-married millionaire holds a grudge against all the girls who ever rejected him. Now every woman who steps out of line has to pay.
But society’s twisted way of judging women transcends Limbaugh and partisanship. Why, for example, is Monica Lewinsky even now a pilloried punch line for the bad judgment of her 20-something self, when her older and more powerful partner triumphantly moved on?
It was not just politics that had the country’s most famous father of two young girls sounding like a dad-in-chief when he was asked about the Limbaugh mess at a recent news conference. President Obama said he called Sandra Fluke, “because I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about; even ones I may not agree with them on. . . And I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.”
Does he know he has his work cut out for him?
It’s telling that in Fluke’s reaction to the call, she said, “What was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud. And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me. So, I just appreciated that very much.”
She sounded then not like the grown woman she is but a child worried about what mom and dad would think when Limbaugh called her those names.
I imagine how they felt, and the one-time regret that I never ironed a ruffle completely disappears.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3