I hate ironing as much as I hate glass ceilings. When Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention as the first female candidate for president of the United States this week, I heard my nine year-old self say, Finally! Then I pictured myself as a two year-old, 45 years ago, holding a toy iron while completely unaware that moments like this were even possible – or that an iron was an odd “toy” to give a girl.
The image in my mind was from a photo of me taken shortly before I turned three. It looked completely normal in my family’s photo album in 1971. It could have been taken of any little girl I knew at the time. I was an incredibly responsible kid, but I also had quite a temper so I’m not sure it was a good idea to put an electrical appliance that heats up in my two year-old hands when my older brother, who often made me so angry, was in close proximity. At least someone was kind of looking out for the safety of kids back then, because although my toy iron got hot, it didn’t get as hot as my mom’s iron. I knew this because I touched both to compare them. My iron was safe enough that sometimes in the winter when I got cold in the drafty 1880’s-era house that my family lived in, I would plug in my toy and hold it against my skin to warm up.
Young kids usually enjoy emulating the adults in their lives. When I was very young, I enjoyed acting like my then stay-at-home mom and all of the other moms in the neighborhood, who stayed at home and cared for their families. At every home I went to there was always a load of clothes to be washed, always a meal to be prepared, always something to be ironed by the mom. I would actually sigh as I pulled out my ironing board and plugged in the iron and began tackling the pile of crumpled doll clothes, because I thought that was part of the “game” of playing woman. I had bought into the message that “woman’s work is never done.” The things I did as “play” were monotonous and completely unrewarding, because my dolls never even said, “Thank you” when I sewed buttons back onto their clothes that I pulled off, did their laundry in my toy washing machine, ironed their clothes, and shoved the cookies I baked into their plastic mouths. I was proud of myself for successfully behaving like the women around me – who appeared completely miserable prior to having modern conveniences like automatic washing machines, dishwashers, and microwave ovens. Because I didn’t know anything different, I actually remember thinking that Domestic Woman was an acceptable caste to be relegated to at the age of two, three, four . . . and then I started trying out my brother’s toys. His plastic cowboys and Indians set, his Hot Wheels cars and race tracks, his tool box, his chemistry set . . . that stuff was actually fun! It allowed me to use my imagination, my energy, my curiosity, and I realized by comparison just how monotonous and unrewarding domestic work was. I realized how dumb it was to spend time ironing when the cotton and linen fabrics of the 70s would just wrinkle again right away. From that point on, I felt angry when I was asked to fold washcloths, do dishes, dust, and especially – iron, when I never saw my brother doing any of those miserable chores. He got to drive tractors, dig holes, repair broken stuff, and build things on the farm.
Around this time, I began paying close attention to the women I watched on TV. Some did the occasional domestic task, but I also saw women who worked in newsrooms, for the CIA, and as Super Heroes – I never saw any of them holding an iron. I started considering that maybe there was more to life for a woman than being responsible for every domestic activity in a household.
My sexist experience was considered completely normal in my society at the time, but through the chores and toys that were assigned to me I got the message that I was somehow being punished for being a girl. I didn’t quite understand why. Like all of the other kids in my 1970s community, being mostly unsupervised – by hands-off parents following the advice of Dr. Spock – was the best thing that could have have happened to me. I abandoned my toy iron and washing machine for the Big Wheel trike that I asked for on my fifth birthday. I explored the farm, I climbed trees, I built things with my dad’s tools, I created imaginary worlds of opportunity and sky-high possibilities out of anything within reach. I was aware of differences in how boys and girls were treated, but because I was allowed to do pretty much anything I wanted to at home, I was still pretty confident that I actually could do anything when I grew up. By the time I was in third grade, I had a keen interest in politics. I had been a fan of Hubert H. Humphrey for years and I closely watched the presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. I thought that when I grew up I would make a good president of the United States – or president of something – because I thought I had good ideas about how things should be run.
By late elementary school I was paying a lot of attention to the nightly news and reading the newspaper and my parents’ magazines. At age nine, I became fully aware of all of the limitations that American society placed on women. I became aware of the ceiling above women who aimed for the sky. I resented that I was born with it on top of me just because I was a girl. As far as I could tell I was smarter than every boy I had ever met and faster than most of them, so it made no sense that they should have more interesting and rewarding opportunities than me just because they were born boys. By the time the Enjoli perfume commercial came out in the late 70’s I decided that I, too, could bring home the bacon someday, but I wanted someone else to fry it up in a pan because I already knew that I hated the domestic role of cooking. The commercial was totally sexist, because it was about a woman pleasing a man, but the image of a woman making her own money to spend empowered me.
Ironically, I’m 48 years old and I still haven’t brought home a significant chunk of bacon. I made a commitment to stay home and and raise my children, until they were both in school full-time, because I’m good with kids and felt like I could do a better job of raising my children than anyone else. With my art degree and writing focus, it became clear that it it was a no-brainer to go the stay-at-home route since I wasn’t able to find a job that paid well enough so that I could even afford to pay for daycare. I made a commitment to raise my children – I didn’t make a commitment to do domestic work. But, it came with the territory since I was at home anyway. While raising my children I made a point of giving them the opportunity to play with the same toys. My daughter ended up gravitating toward traditional “girl” toys and my son preferred traditional “boy” toys, but at least I hope they never got the message they were being punished for being a girl or a boy because of the toys they were given. Life threw a bunch of curve balls into my plans to someday run at least a small part of the world and I’ve ended up being responsible for the domestic work in my house for the past 25 years since that’s where I’ve been most of that time. Throughout that time I hope I was successful at teaching both of my children that doing domestic work is horrible – for both women and men – and that they should aspire to do something else.
I’ve never considered myself a radical feminist. I’ve just always believed that women and men, girls and boys should all have the opportunity to do what they’re good at doing, to do what they enjoy doing. When I saw the glass ceiling breaking this week at the Democratic National Convention, I found that I was just as happy as when wrinkle-free performance golf shirts became the fashion trend for men my husband’s age a couple of years ago (I’ve barely touched my iron since then). I got teary-eyed and joined American women across party lines – waiting ever since the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s, the 30s, and the 20s when women were first allowed to vote in the U.S. – who cheered, “Hallelujah!” If Hillary gets the job, I hope she wears Enjoli for her inauguration, and sings “’Cuz I’m a woman . . .” as she confidently strolls up to the podium, because as president of the United States, she’ll be bringing home the ultimate bacon. Then I hope we never have to have another conversation in this country about glass ceilings for women or whether or not women deserve the same opportunities – and pay – to race on the exciting Hot Wheels-style tracks of life that men do.
What has occurred this past week means little girls in this country, from this point forward, can pick up a history book, turn on the TV, or pick up a newspaper and magazine to see that women actually can run for president of the United States and that they don’t have to just imagine that experience, the way I did while playing President of the Acorns under the oak tree in my front yard. If a woman can run for president of the most powerful nation in the free world, it seems she can also compete for any job that she is physically and mentally qualified to do – and that she doesn’t have to use an iron if she doesn’t want to . . . unless it’s drafty in the White House, which was built in the 1800s, and she wants to get warm.
Now that my dream of a woman being allowed to run for president of the United States has been fulfilled, I am dreaming of someday having a granddaughter look through my photo albums where she’ll come across that photo of me from 1971. She’ll look at it and ask, “What is that you’re holding, Grandma?”
I’ll say, “That was a tool called an iron that women were forced to use long, long ago, before our country was wrinkle-free.”
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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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