Dear Natalie

Posted by on September 11, 2013

My dear daughter,

Two days ago you told me that you didn’t care if drinking milk would help you grow up strong, because girls don’t need to be strong. Last night you said you weren’t good at math. I couldn’t tell whether you thought that your being a girl had anything to do with that or not, but after what you said about strength, I was afraid it might. (The truth is that you’re very good at math, at a level appropriate to your age.) I don’t know where you picked up these ideas, but I can’t just stand by and let them go unchallenged.

I could go out and find a book full of little snippets about all sorts of women who were strong, who were good at math. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go through and pick out some excellent examples myself, and put together a little book for you. Just for you, with the role models I think will help you understand that being a woman does not mean that you cannot or should not do these things. It will be a little rough, because I’m not aiming at professional publishing quality or going through an editor, but I think that I can put together something that’s good enough for our private use.

I will tell you about my personal programming heroines. Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers, who wrote possibly the first computer program, before there was an operational computer on which to test it. She did this in an age when girls were usually taught needlework and music rather than mathematics. Grace Hopper, who was one of the early pioneers of computer science in the modern age. She went beyond writing programs and helped to create whole programming languages.

I will tell you about the women who served on the homefront in World War II. How when the largely male workforce went off to war, the women who were used to looking after the kids and cooking dinner stepped into the places now left empty. How they took over the physical work that women were not typically thought strong enough to do. How they built planes and worked the land, and how much physical strength those jobs took.

I will tell you about female athletes. There are so many female Olympians, for example, that I don’t even know where to start. I’ll run through a sampling that covers a wide range of sports, and I’ll point out to you where the strength is required to do that. Sports is not my particular interest, so I’ll have to do some digging, but I’ll do it for you. I’ll find the women who did amazing things, and I’ll find the women who did them in spite of a prevalent stereotype of women as too weak or not good enough. I will share their stories with you.

I will educate you as I educate myself about female mathematicians. I know so little of them beyond my specific field of programming, and that’s my failing. I will expand that to include fields that are not pure math, but use math heavily, like science and finance and engineering and technology.

I will go beyond the women who are famous for these things. The quiet, unassuming, everyday women who did things requiring these skills but didn’t make a big splash are harder to find, but I won’t let that stop me. I will do what I can to uncover their names and their stories too.

Each of these remarkable women will have her own page, and at the very top of the page there will be a picture of her. She will be a face, not merely a name. I will do what I can to make her a real person to you. Names and dates and lists of accomplishments mean very little if you cannot connect to them, I think.

I am doing this because I am sad that you seem to think you have these limitations, these things you shouldn’t care about, just because you’re a girl. It’s true that girls are different than boys — your strength is more likely to be in your legs and core than in your upper body, for example — but different is not lesser. I want you to understand this, that you don’t have to be as limited as some people would have you believe. You’re a girl, and when it comes to intelligence and ability, that means nothing.

I don’t know if this idea will work. I don’t know if you’ll like it, or be interested, or if the intended message will sink in. But I think doing this, and reading through it and talking with you about it, is a way to address the problem. I can hope. I can try. I can show it to you and see what you think.

If it doesn’t work, I’ll come up with something else. I’ll keep sending this message in hopes that if I try often enough, in enough different ways, it will finally get through.

Your loving mother

2 Responses to Dear Natalie

  1. Chabas

    If it helps any: when I was 4, I told my mom I’d never get my driver’s license, because it was “unladylike”. I’d get a boyfriend so he could drive me places. You know me well enough to know I know better now. :)

    I love the book idea. Don’t worry about it over much though. The main things to do, apparently, is to model day-to-day – show that neither you nor Tim stick to pre-determined gender roles, and go from there. I’m confident that you’re doing that.

    –Chabas

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