When I began to write about the gifts we give girls, I was thinking about what our presents convey, especially to preteens and teenagers often so vulnerable to the opinions of others. (I’d been analyzing the recent press on “mean girls”; for more on this see the next issue of LILITH.)
Then things got metaphorical. Here’s what happened.
I have a secret identity. I’m a fix-it freak. Hardware stores make me happy, with their hopeful suggestion that all problems have solutions. Perhaps for the same reason, I love my tool kit. Maybe you feel this too—gratified to be able to build, or to repair, what’s broken or damaged.
Maybe it’s not too big a leap from diagnosing what’s wrong with a stuck door to analyzing how sexism causes women to get stuck.
I began to mull over this parallel the other day after an otherwise pleasant al fresco weekend lunch with my husband. Sunny Sunday. Relaxed mood. And then the talk turned to bar and bat mitzvah gifts. “For my bar mitzvah,” said Bruce, an intellectual who seems to be challenged by anything with three dimensions, “friends of my parents gave me a power drill set.”
Here’s what happened next (and please suspend any Freudian interpretations for a moment): “How come nobody gave me a drill?” I asked, sniffling and querulous. “I would have loved a drill.” Tears started to dribble down my cheeks. The force of my reaction really unnerved me. I never thought I’d experienced as a teen the Jewish exclusions many other girls of my generation did; after all, I went to Hebrew school, I had a bat mitzvah. But the inequities of gift-giving were finally what did me in that sunny morning.
I think I felt, suddenly, that friends and family had known only my most obvious traits. Bizarrely enough, four decades later I still recall many of their gifts: the shape and feel of the babydoll pajamas (for the girly girl in me, I suppose); the Israel bond (from my grandparents); the red leather writing case (Aha!) which I possess to this day; the anthology entitled Adventure Stories for Girls. But few of these estimable presents suggested I had any skills or interests aside from those of a generic, middleclass girl. Where was my power drill? Where was a gift that might have expanded my horizons, taken me beyond the tritest expectations?
The gifts we get say a lot about how people see us. My children, for instance, often grace me with things signifying relaxation. They probably think that I need repair, or at least restoration. These are wonderful, take-it-easy-mom presents: a massage session, scented unguents, luxurious products to pamper the weary and the overextended. Though he has also given me traditional stuff, the best present my husband ever gave me was a fully-loaded Swiss army knife.
So why haven’t I bought myself a cordless electric drill? Or a staple gun, come to think of it? The answer is that, like many women, I haven’t thought enough about acquiring the tools— literal and figurative tools—I might need or want.
Let us rethink how we want to equip girls at bat mitzvah, or young women at graduation. Maybe they also need tools literal and figurative, and a sense of scale. Maybe we need to give large gifts, in large boxes, to remind girls to think big. And we should give gifts that help them see new possibilities for themselves, help them know what they want, so that they can ask for it—or go get it themselves—next time.
No matter how we rail against a culture encouraging anorexia, girls and women still want to be slender, since the oversized are in truth often scorned or spurned. No wonder so many girls grow up with a diminished sense of scale. And as adult women, we too get caught in a culture of scarcity. We often don’t ask for enough of what we need (though the increasing number of philanthropic dollars women give to women’s causes does reflect a growing confidence in the work they support).
Somehow, in a world of abundance, girls and women often find our thinking stuck in the constraints of scarcity. Thinness is another word for it. When I give lectures on women’s philanthropy, I use as a touchstone what I have called “The Baleboste Mentality”; it comes to us straight from that foremother who could make dinner for 10 people with half a chicken. Instead, we must try to recognize and then enunciate what—and how much—we really need.
To that end, I ask you, dear reader, to be aware of the assumptions that underlie your gifts to young women, and the message (whether of expansion or constriction, of abundance or scarcity) that accompanies them.