Both Angel and Tomboy

There has been a recent influx of media attention on the societal position of women and girls in America, most notably by an enormous editorial reaction from Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men. Hanna Rosin outlines the America where men might have actually fallen behind women in education and in the professional world. As well, Greg Hampikian, a biology professor at Boise State University in Idaho even wrote an article for the New York Times entitled Men, Who Needs Them? explaining that biologically, with advancements in fertility medicine, men are essentially irrelevant.

If a woman wants to have a baby without a man, she just needs to secure sperm (fresh or frozen) from a donor (living or dead). The only technology the self-impregnating woman needs is a straw or turkey baster, and the basic technique hasn’t changed much since Talmudic scholars debated the religious implications of insemination without sex in the fifth century. If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.

Rosin and Hampikian’s America seems light years away from Malala Yousufzai’s Pakistan, a country where her outspoken views on equal educational opportunity for girls earned her a trip to the United Kingdom, seeking asylum and a recovery from her Taliban-inflicted bullet wound to the head. Malala’s former world was one where ignorant, brutal men ruled and attempted murder on any one Angel who disrupted the status quo.

The Half The Sky Movement, which is “turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide,” was featured this month on PBS in a documentary of the same name. Half The Sky hangs over countries where women are still objectified, oppressed and literally struggling for their lives. Again, Half the Sky is a far cry from the reality of our American girls who are starting to pull away from boys in all areas of achievement, and it extends far beyond Pakistan.

In our own little corner of Suburbia, the Angels and Tomboys exhibit at the Newark Museum features nineteenth century paintings of girls, mostly immersed in passive and domestic situations. Oppressed in a drastically less dangerous way than our poor Malala, the exhibit still presents a bygone female America with decidedly less opportunity than Rosin and Hampikian’s.

Winslow Homer, A Temperance Meeting (Noon Time), 1874. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with the John Howard McFadden Jr Fund, 1956.

A subtle shift in our two dimensional girls seems to come after the Civil War, when the Tomboy makes an appearance in art, shaking up widely ensconced gender roles of girls. As is typical of artists of every age, our Gilded Age heros with paintbrushes began to depict the female in less glorified and submissive light. We see more mischief making, more physical activity, more realism, more provocation. But rather than portray these images as what the Oxford English dictionary would have called “having been connected with connotations of rudeness and impropriety”, the American Gilded Age tomboy began to emerge as an admired characteristic.

The post script to the exhibition for our girls is one that should outline the simple truth: that although once American women were supposed to hide behind masks of physical beauty, to adhere to strict gender rolls, to not seek opportunity where a boy was considered more suitable, the possibilities for them now are limitless. But regardless of the opportunity that exists for them, one must not forget the plight of women and girls who live under half the sky, which remains oppressive. When those skies begin to clear, as they absolutely must, let Malala be portrayed in an altogether new portrait of an angelic tomboy: one who pushed the limits of her societal gender roll and who will have saved future generations of girls from the same heavy plight that she lifted so ably with her impressively strong arms.

Angels and Tomboys will run until January 6 at The Newark Museum. For more information about the Half the Sky movement as well as future airings on PBS, please see their their website.

Authors note: Hampikian writes in his article, “When I explained this to a female colleague and asked her if she thought that there was yet anything irreplaceable about men, she answered, “They’re entertaining.”

Gentlemen, let’s hope that’s enough.”

As the mother of a 12 year-old son I must include that they are certainly far more than just entertaining. As well, education for boys is in need of an overhaul, and as we begin to live in a post feminist world, as an Adams (and with apologies to the singular Abigail), I must include… “Please, do not forget the gentlemen…”