The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.

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65 thoughts on “The Roles We Play

  1. Boy does this hit home. I, too, raised in a time when girls couldn’t wear pants to school–or anywhere else. My brothers preferred because my mother thought men superior to women in all ways, my brothers obnoxious people who didn’t learn better until way after they left the nest. In my mind, these role didn’t do anyone any good. In fact, they set up the sense of entitlement that men displayed with women that resulted in unwanted sexual advances and harassment. I’m going on an on, but today I feeling a bit angry at the whole 50’s and 60’s environment in which I was raised.

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  2. I love the way you write. I write sharp, quick, and often outrageous humor. You produce elegant, flowing words that lead us on a smooth journey, where we remember, smile, and think of the past. You then let us down gently. I’ve often thought about how gender roles have evolved over the years. Thanks for the great read. Now, excuse me; my wife is putting together a crib for my granddaughter, and she wants me to hold the flashlight.

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    • Thank you for your kind words about my writing, Patrick. And I agree with your description of your own work, especially the “outrageous humor” part. Also, I laughed aloud at the twist of your last line.

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  3. Years ago the New York Giants pro football team had a player named Rosie Greer. At some point during and/or after his career, he got pretty famous for another of his skills. Knitting. He used to be a guest on TV talk shows and demonstrate how to knit.

    Till next time, Janet.

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  4. Wonderful post. I was the second born of two girls in the late 1940’s and the next child was a boy. My goodness the difference in treatment, still rankles a bit when I bother to think about it. He’s the most wonderful brother though, so I can’t hold a grudge. Your story about the torch made me laugh. I did exactly that, while my husband crawled under the house to run a cable yesterday. I shone the torch so he knew where to push the end up through the floor. I wouldn’t crawl under the house for anything, so I’m glad he was there. X

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    • I feel the same way about my brothers. They grew up to be good men who cherish their wives and children. And, in many ways, I think they too were impacted by the limiting expectations of them. “Sissy” was a common term on school playgrounds for boys who didn’t measure up to their manly roles.

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  5. My father’s mother raised three boys in 1920s. She insisted they learn to cook, on principle. She had interests outside the home and refused to be kept in the kitchen. My dad and his older brother became good cooks. The younger brother didn’t take to it. I admire my grandmother for her highly evolved sensibilities.

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  6. I love this. I remember the day I realized it was more fun to run on the playground with the boys and play “Kill the Man With the Ball” than it was to sit with the girls on the blacktop playing jacks. I was the new kid, anyway, so I didn’t have friends (yet) and along with benign acceptable “girl” behavior was the not so benign behavior of being snotty.

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  7. This was fun to read and it was fun remembering those simpler days, Janet. I understand that those roles were not always appropriate, but I certainly fit the male description you gave. I had female cousins that did and did not comply with the girl role and I had a male cousin who never quite seemed comfortable in a male role. He eventually had a sex-change operation.

    Today? I have no idea what expected roles are, but I think we’re getting better. I look forward to a day when all preconceived notions seem as antiquated as the ones you presented here.

    Great post!

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  8. My mother taught me some very useful skills. I learned to iron, wax floors, and refinish furniture, but I also rode my bike like Evil Kinevil and played tackle the man with the football in the front yard. I had two older sisters, so I was influence a great deal by the feminine element in our family. I relish my experiences as a kid in the 40’s and 50’s. Thanks for sharing another enjoyable story.

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    • I relish my experiences during that time period as well, Troy. I had a wonderful childhood, and my siblings and, like you, I broke out of the expectations society put on us without even knowing we were.

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  9. What a great reminder of the gender roles we grew up being taught. There was a time (years) when I never thought I’d be anything but a tom-boy. I would get picked for baseball teams before two of my brothers. (They hated that fact!) Plus I ran much faster. Still, I learned to cook, sew, and care for my baby sister. Today my son is a better cook than his wife, but I can still beat him at ping pong. lol

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  10. I LOLed at your last line because it reminds me so much of my parents. I also really enjoyed the rumor that the tractor-driving woman could out-curse men. Great stuff, AB! Also, my parents were in Las Cruces a couple weeks ago. I didn’t find out until after. It’s a two-hour drive for them. I wonder if you were there at the same time. I wonder if you passed on the street and didn’t know it. Missed opportunity, I say. You all would get on famously.

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  11. Oh, so true. I think I was kind of a sad little girl because I was expected to be “lady like” at all times. No wild running around or loud boisterous laughter for me. But, thankfully, my dad encouraged an independence beyond what most girls were allowed.
    I tried explaining to a granddaughter how different times were for girls and women 65 years ago and I don’t think she could comprehend most of what I told her, because it was so far outside her own experience.
    Once again, Janet, your wonderful post reminded me of memories I’d almost forgotten.

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    • I’m so happy to hear that your granddaughter’s reaction to the stereotypes with which we were raised match the responses of my grandchildren. I really think our society has made progress in the area of gender expectations. Also, I remember when you told me about your dad teaching you to drive and insisting that you drive in the heavy traffic of Las Vegas because you needed to be able to do so. I thought then that your dad must have empowered you in many ways.

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      • Yes, he did… Once, when I told him I couldn’t pull a U-haul he said “no, don’t tell me you can’t, tell me you don’t know how; I can teach you how”. The day I was going to test for my driver’s license he made me jack up the car and put on the spare. “I don’t ever want you stranded because you can’t change a tire”. He was very restrictive in many gender-related ways but then he was also a man of his times

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  12. As always Janet, I enjoyed your post. We are always trying to find our way on what it means to be a man or a woman, when in reality we are human beings with strengths and weaknesses that aren’t necessarily defined by gender.

    When I was growing up, I spent most of my time with my Dad working on cars, airplanes and stuff. My mother tried to get me to be more like a girl, dresses, frilly socks, and lady like pursuits. I remember at times I would just go climb a tree to get out of whatever my mother wanted as she couldn’t climb up the tree.

    I am also reminded of your Dad. After your mom died, he started cooking with abandon. He really loved it! The results weren’t always great, but I remember how much joy he had being in the kitchen.

    I guess that we just make our own way through life and do the best we can.

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  13. Beautifully written, Janet – from intro. to conclusion. And the topic so right on with what’s happening currently. This post was a “smooth read” from the start to the end…A+, buddy!!! ;>) ❤ Miss you….

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  14. I find it interesting that you point out various examples of boys and girls who didn’t fit the mold of their gender expectations. Yet most people clung to those stereotypes anyway. Curious, isn’t it?

    I’m happy to say that in my family we girls were treated no differently than our brother. (We grew up in the 60s and 70s.) My two sisters and I grew up believing that we could do, or be, anything we wanted. Very liberating.

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  15. I hadn’t thought about it, Rita, and it is interesting that we had those who defied expectations, but the stereotypes persisted. I don’t remember looking askance at those who broke the mold, nor do I remember others doing so. How fortunate you and your sisters were in your upbringing.

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  16. Oh how things have changed! I too remember the different “roles” we were supposed to follow….boys to men, girls to women. We couldn’t get “dirty” or play the sports the boys did. We were expected to help clean the house and the boys were to take care of the lawn. Slowly things changed and it doesn’t really matter who does what, you just need to do what you enjoy. Girls (and boys) can be or do anything they want to do or be. So much has changed! 🙂

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  17. I recall early, refusing to conform. Being something of a loner, I rode horses, fished, explored, lay face first in the grass and abhored playing house or dolls, or any rough games. Elderly Maiden Aunts were appalled. Our neighbors were two women, one Easter Lunch when I was about 11, Aunt Nelly asked if I wanted to be a teacher or Nurse- Neither, I replied, “I’m going to be a Lesbian and drive a truck like Miss Torkko”. Beef noodle soup spurted from nostrils, Aunt Bud fled into the toilet, Agnes Doolittle was found curled up laughing in the spare room, Ma never got money from the Aunts in any future Christmas card. I became neither, but still consider it my finest hour…Great post Janet.

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    • Though I don’t know all your hours, Sheila, I’m certain “I’m going to be a Lesbian and drive a truck like Miss Torkko” was among your finest. I reacted to your words like Agnes Doolittle and think Aunt Bud might have been doing the same in the toilet.I would have bet when you were young you defied adult ideas of acceptable behavior for girls and boys; and I am happy that you have remained stalwartly unique to this day.

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  18. My friends and I recently had a vision board session to cut out magazine bits. We were dumbstruck by the old ads that used to run–women “serving” their husbands as they walked in the house from work. More servant than wife. I grew up in a household where my father cooked better, my mom baked better, mom made more money but dad handled the yard, etc. Whatever worked. I’m all for it today! Sounds like you are too:).

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  19. I’ve always thought you were brought up thinking beyond gender expectations, probably because of your mom. I wasn’t. But I eventually realized what you and my grandchildren know; it’s all about whatever works for each of us.

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  20. I’m just catching up on your posts, Janet, and this one really struck home for me. It never occurred to me, growing up, that being a girl had a checklist associated with it – and now every day in the news there is someone rejecting a label that to me is just a word – sort of like a number – not really a THING thing – just the word we’ve agreed to use to try to understand the universe.

    I am baffled by a person who says he/she never felt like a boy/girl, because I just don’t understand what that means, when “boy” and “girl” are words and as with every word, subject to interpretation. It seems ironic to me that in this age of so much greater opportunity and equality, there are people who feel boxed in by what they perceive the definitions to be.

    I like to tell people that I identify as a woman, despite my absent interest in fashion, makeup, and looking nice and though I am flat-chested, have way too much facial hair, and would much rather swing a hammer than wield a paint brush. That said, I am delighted to leave the car maintenance and fix-it chores to Chris and can (mostly) cheerfully plan and prepare meals and do the laundry.

    It seems to me that we’d solve a lot of problems if people could realize that we’re individuals and that no words will EVER really define us – pronouns or otherwise – and that it is okay and natural to develop supporting roles in relationships that are in no way indicative of submission or concession to what may appear to be stereotypical definition.

    And for the record, Tammy Marshall and I CONSTANTLY wrestled away our latent hostility when we were kids, often after a heated game of hopscotch or while our Barbie dolls were taking their naps. 🙂

    Keep up the great and inspiration writing. I miss seeing you.

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    • My heart sang when I saw this lengthy response from you; then I smiled fondly as I enjoyed your well written, wise words. As I read your self-description, I realized you are an example of my belief that the younger generations are less burdened by gender expectations than mine. Still, as you point out, there is progress to be made in realizing that labels shouldn’t define our expectations of others or of ourselves. I especially liked and will remember this thought, “…it is okay and natural to develop supporting roles in relationships that are in no way indicative of submission or concession to what may appear to be stereotypical definition,” as it expresses the next logical thought in altering our thinking. You have a bright mind, Carolyn. I first realized that in eighth grade and, if anything, it is shining more intensely now. Forgive me for this late response. We were traveling when I read it, and I didn’t want to dash off a quick response. Also, the image of you and Tammy wrestling makes me giggle every time it pops into my head. i miss you as well, but, on the other hand, I always have you in my head and heart.

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