I grew up in a girl-boy-girl-boy-girl-boy family. Mostly, girls made good grades, worked indoors and liked to sew, draw, and play music. Mostly, boys made poor grades, worked outdoors and liked to hunt, fight, and work on engines. This is the way we defined the sexes: girls are smarter than boys; boys are tougher than girls. If girls could be overbearing smart alecks and boys could be brutes, well, that was just a flaw in an otherwise perfectly balanced system of non-overlapping magisteria.
In fourth grade my cousin Brenda and I were riding the school bus when she told me her brother was the salutatorian of Gonzales High School.
“What’s a salutatorian?” I asked.
“That means he’s the second smartest kid in school,” she said.
“What’s the smartest kid called?” I asked.
“No boy is smarter than me,” I thought, “I’m going to be valedictorian.” And I was.
My sister Donna has always had a keener sociologist’s eye than I do. For instance, I was twenty-two when she said, “Sharon, we were poor.” I literally felt the scales fall from my eyes. Imagine my shock when I discovered boys were not only tougher but also maybe even smarter than girls. No fair! On the upside, I was armored against certain types of abuse. Many men have tried and all have failed to convince me I’m stupid. (Only another woman can do that to me.) It burns me up how many smart women I know who think they’re stupid.
Several years ago Donna and I were regaling our late friend Franklin Adams, an artist and Tulane architecture professor, with tales from ® when Donna mentioned—for hitherto unappreciated shock value—our default setting was: girls are smarter than boys. Franklin was gobsmacked! My friend Ruth Laney had a similar reaction when she visited a few days ago and my brother Jamie and I described Dunn family apartheid.
During Ruth’s visit I asked Jamie if he grew up thinking boys weren’t as smart as girls. Turns out he’d never thought about it. This is what Donna had to say:
Jamie never thought about it because being smart was only a high value to us girls. The boys found other avenues for self-valuation such as guns, motorcycles, physical prowess, mechanical interests—and the list goes on. The broader culture in which we were born valued boys over girls. It still does. Herbie came over a couple of nights ago beaming with joy over the news that Nina and Yano are expecting a boy. Though he’d never admit to being sexist, it was apparent that this news was, in his mind, a victory. Sad to say, when I was pregnant for Ann, I felt a bit like a failure for not delivering a boy. The anticipation that my baby was a boy was fueled by a lot of unspoken pressure from the surrounding culture that says, somehow it’s better to have a boy. It was palpable then and it’s palpable now. We’ve come a long way since then but this cultural bias is still alive and well. We can pay lip service to being liberated and all thatDuring my immersion in second wave feminism, I remember being stunned to learn that girls outperformed boys in math and science until adolescence when the trend reversed. That had not been my experience. As hopelessly clueless as I was, I had won both the math and science awards at , but the bottom line is women are still regarded as the lesser sex despite our compensatory efforts.Gonzales High School. No wonder I was almost twenty before I started dating. When I asked my sister Valerie to comment, she said:
A memory comes to mind. I think the idea that girls are smarter than boys may have come from the community we lived in rather than our family. I remember a high school assembly where the principal, Mr. Gautreau, spoke before the top-achieving seniors. He praised the valedictorian Randy something for being the first or one of the first male valedictorians. He spoke briefly about how it had been a long time trend in Gonzales [we went to GHS grades 1 through 12] for girls to excel more than boys in school and he seemed pleased that things were beginning to change. Perhaps academic achievement was less valued in a more rural, agricultural area than it was in an urban area.I disagree with Valerie’s conclusions about the origin of our family’s peculiarly distorted ideas on gender differences. In fact, to me, her anecdote is a perfect illustration that the high school principal was relieved his students were setting the natural order aright.
Ruth asked me to write here about how we came to grow up with a notion so out of whack with mainstream culture. This isn’t so easy. As the late Joe Bageant said somewhere asking someone to write about her own culture is like asking a goldfish to describe water. I went over to Joe’s site looking for inspiration. While Joe had described the Scotch-Irish culture of toughness well in Deer Hunting with Jesus, as far as I could find, he only made a passing reference to a “deep southern style of matriarchal family”.
We certainly grew up in one of those deep southern martriarchal families. My grandmother, the first postmistress of our rural family village, christened it Brittany. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Grandmother and two of her sisters, Mag and Rose, homesteaded the area with their husbands and there were mostly daughters in all three families. Grandmother and her oldest daughter taught school even though neither had high school diplomas themselves. The first college graduate in my generation was my cousin Diana who wound up teaching English at GHS. In our extended family Diana was something of a celebrity by virtue of her advanced education and prestigious professional calling. Aunt Mag had a daughter who designed crossword puzzles for a newspaper. Aunt Rose had several daughters who never married and were career girls. My mother was a highly skilled sign painter and ran a small business. Grandmother kept a small, private lending library for the locals. All the women were avid readers and excellent letter writers.
When we grew up, the evidence around us seemed to support the idea that girls were smarter than boys. When I asked my cousin Larry about this recently, he said, “I never believed that, but I can see how you might. Just look at the facts. Mama was smarter than Daddy; Aunt Cleo was smarter than Uncle Bill; Aunt Sue was smarter than Uncle Judge; your mama was smarter than your daddy.” The four sisters—Cleo, Pansy, Susie, and Gerry—were Mormon stalwarts who supplied the energy and momentum to hold the tiny congregation together while they humbly ceded status to their far less devout convert husbands—Bill, Clyde, Judge, and Dan. I’m not sure Larry’s right about who was smarter, but given the fact that he’s a Mormon grand poobah, I get why he thinks the better Mormon was the smarter one. In my true-blue Mormon youth, I drew similar conclusions for similar reasons.
If there’s a single reason religion didn’t take with Donna and me, this may have been it: maleness had higher value than smartness. In fact, from our point of view, a woman—regardless of what she may have to offer creatively and intellectually—could never be a full Mormon unless she was attached to a priesthood-holding man. For us, priesthood-holding men who weren’t close relatives were few and far between. Just this past Sunday, I attended a Relief Society meeting where the teacher felt compelled to construct an elaborate apologia for the lesson title: Brethren, We Have Work to Do. Read it and weep, Sisters.
Brethren, much has been said and written in recent years about the challenges of men and boys. A sampling of book titles ... includes Why There Are No Good Men Left, The Demise of Guys, The End of Men, Why Boys Fail, and Manning Up.... [A] common thread running through these analyses is that in many societies today men and boys get conflicting and demeaning signals about their roles and value in society....Weeell... I’m sorely tempted to say, “Here’s a number to call: 1-800-BOO-HOOO.” Regardless of what a few books with obvious axes to grind have to say, I remember when girls got “conflicting and demeaning signals about their roles and value in society” from everywhere—and they still do. I also remember when girls switched from thinking smart to thinking sexy and when they were encouraged to go to college long enough to get their M-R-S degrees. Yeah, I remember boys who were urged to study science and engineering while I was urged to help them pass Biology 101 and college algebra. I remember when Donna told Mama and Daddy she wanted to be a doctor and they laughed at her. I remember graduating from high school with a 4.0 and winning every award and getting zero guidance as I stumbled around LSU in a daze with no idea what I was doing there. I remember trying to support myself as a student worker on 90¢ an hour while boys worked offshore for a single summer to pay for a whole year of college. So if we helped inflict all this damage on the male psyche when I supported my daughter while she got a PhD in medicine and Donna supported hers while she got an MBA in finance, I guess we’ll just have to plead guilty as charged.
In their zeal to promote opportunity for women, something we applaud, there are those who denigrate men and their contributions.... Some argue that a career is everything and marriage and children should be entirely optional... This cultural emasculation of males is having a damaging effect.
In the United States, for example, it is reported: “Girls outperform boys now at every level, from elementary school through graduate school. By eighth grade, for instance, only 20 percent of boys are proficient in writing and 24 percent proficient in reading. Young men’s SAT scores, meanwhile, in 2011 were the worst they’ve been in 40 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of both high school and college. … It is predicted that women will earn 60 percent of bachelor’s, 63 percent of master’s and 54 percent of doctorate degrees by 2016. Two-thirds of students in special education remedial programs are guys.”
Some men and young men have taken the negative signals as an excuse to avoid responsibility and never really grow up. In an observation that is too often accurate, one university professor remarked, “The men come into class with their backward baseball caps and [their lame] the ‘word processor ate my homework’ excuses. Meanwhile, the women are checking their day planners and asking for recommendations for law school.” ...
Some right-on contributions from my man, Moe Labelle.
Wow! This might be the smartest boy ever.