My son looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer to what he obviously thought was a simple question. We were watching the Mets game on TV – he’d started playing Little League a few weeks earlier.
I stared at the television, trying to come up with an answer that would be appropriate for an 8 year old.
“Mama?” he asked again. “Why can’t girls play baseball?”
“Well, they can…” I started. Of course he knew this already. There were plenty of girls on his Little League team, a dramatic change from 1982 when I’d been the sole girl on my Little League team, so intimidated by the boys that I begged my parents after each game to let me quit.
And of course there was the recent phenom, Mo’ne Davis, pitching in the Little League World Series. But the fact that a little league pitcher being a girl is news only underscored the point that this was a new and surprising turn of events.
“Women just can’t play professionally,” I concluded.
“Well, there was a professional women’s league once.” I stopped myself. I didn’t really want to get into explaining the details of the women’s baseball leagues of the 1940s, my knowledge of which was shaped primarily by A League of Her Own and a few half-remembered articles.
There were too many possible directions to take this explanation, and anyway, he wasn’t asking for a detailed history of women in sports. He was noting, for the first time, that women do not do all of the things that men do. Without really meaning to, I realized that I’d been keeping this information from him for the first eight years of his life. I had been telling him that women could do anything men could do, and vice versa. And up until this very moment he’d believed it.
Earlier in the year he’d confidently gotten up in front of his scout troop and, in order to earn a storytelling merit, told a group of 8-year-olds about the time he learned to knit. (“What did they say after the story?” I asked. A hundred possible taunts ran through my head. “Some of them told me they knit too,” he said. I guess at this point I should mention that we live in Brooklyn.) He had thrilled me, a few months before that, by correctly answering an old riddle we used to tell as kids to prove that people were sexist. A boy and his father are in a car accident, it starts. They’re rushed to the emergency room and the surgeon says, I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.
Back in the early 80s this riddle used to leave us dumbfounded. How could the surgeon be the boy’s parent when the father was in the accident too? Was this a trick question?
When I told the riddle to my son he stared at me as though I’d just asked him if bananas were a fruit. “The doctor is the boy’s mother,” he said. And yet, even with the knitting and the female surgeon and the men and women are equal mantra, the world had intervened. There are no women in major league baseball, no women with million dollar contracts and kids wearing shirts with their names on them and people packed into stadiums to thrill to their every scratch and spit. Was this the time to tell him that there had also never been a woman president, that the US Congress is less than 20 percent female, and that women earn less than men for the same job? That seemed like a lot to lay on an 8 year old. On the other hand, he already knew about the Holocaust. Why did I feel it was okay to tell him about Hitler but not about the gender gap?
While I pondered how to answer the baseball question, he began peppering me with followups, each one bouncing forth as he snapped puzzle pieces together in his mind. Why don’t girls like chess was next. Followed by: and why don’t you, Mama, know how to play Battleship? I know how to play every other game in the house. In fact, I mop the floor with my family when we play board games and card games. If I had it to do all over again I’d become a professional Poker player. I can destroy opponents in Othello, Monopoly, checkers, and Connect Four. But I never learned how to play Battleship. When I was a kid, Battleship was for boys.
I didn’t have answers for my son because I didn’t like the honest answer. I didn’t want him to know that there is a thing called sexism, and that life can be hard for women in ways that it isn’t for men. I didn’t want him to know these things not because I wanted to shield him from the horrors of the world, but because I didn’t want him to think less of me.
I wanted to be the strong parent in his life. I make a significant number of the family decisions, I bring home at least half of the bacon, and I explain the world to him. But how strong can a parent be in an 8 year old’s eyes if she isn’t allowed to play major league baseball?
But in the end, I knew I had to give my son a truthful explanation. I told him that for a long time women weren’t allowed to do certain things. There are some places where women are still prevented from driving cars or voting. It takes a long time to get from there to equality, I said. But every year it gets better.
“And also,” I added. “I’d like to learn to play Battleship.”
He smiled and took out the Battleship set. He went over the rules. And then I mopped the floor with him.
Hana Schank is the author of A More Perfect Union: How I Survived the Happiest Day of My Life. Follow her on Twitter: @hanaschank.
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