Breaking Stereotypes: Supporting Safety for All
In September 2017, I provided opening remarks for the New York-based nonprofit A Call to Men’s “The Many Faces of Manhood” conference. The Women’s Foundation was the proud lead sponsor of the two-day event that gathered approximately 300 men (and a few women) to explore healthy, respectful manhood in athletics, education, incarceration, fatherhood, faith communities, and issues of gender.
As vice president of the Women’s Foundation and most importantly, the mother of two young boys, I reflected on the role men and boys play in the movement for gender equity.
We know that achieving gender equity and a world of respect, opportunity, and safety for all women and girls is not possible without the leadership, partnership, and solidarity of men and boys.
As a mom, this work is deeply personal to me. In fact, when people find out what I do for a living, they always assume I have daughters. But I love saying that I do this work for girls and women, and for boys, just like mine.
In fact, the boys and men in my life have shown me how men’s identities can be limited by restrictive social norms that confine men in a narrow box, too.
About 15 years ago, I was on my first date with my husband when we had an unexpected experience in public, just because my husband happened to be wearing a pink shirt.
We had gone snowshoeing that day in his hometown of Willmar, a small town located in western Minnesota. We had a ton of fun and after a full day, we headed out to dinner. Here’s where our date took an unexpected turn.
As we entered the restaurant, my husband’s pink shirt began to draw lots of sideways glances.
One man decided to come over to our table and ask my husband why he was wearing “a [expletive] pink shirt.”
My husband refused to be intimidated, so we continued our dinner. But after a little bit, someone who knew our harasser advised us that it would be best to leave.
And, so we did. We knew this guy’s problem with men wearing pink was not our problem.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I took our 7-year-old son out to enjoy one of Minnesota’s favorite pastimes. Not ice fishing, the MN State Fair, or beating the Green Bay Packers.
We went shopping at Target.
Like most of us, I frequently walk out of Target with more items than were on my list — and that was one of those days. My son needed shoelaces. We found the aisle and looked at all the color choices.
He picked out a pair of bright pink ones.
While I was okay with his choice, I wondered what other people would think. I asked him, “Are you sure those are the pair you really want?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean, I want to make sure that pink is really, really the color you want.”
Contrary to what I was saying, I was thinking something very different. I worried whether the other kids would tease him, call him names, and hurt him for wearing pink shoelaces.
I wasn’t sure how to express these concerns without making it a big deal. So, we bought the pink laces.
When we got home and unpacked the bags, you can guess my husband’s first words when we brought out the laces: “You bought pink shoelaces.”
Then, he asked our son a few times if he was sure about his choice, and our son said, “Yeah. I love pink.”
The next day to school, he wore them and he was fine. But my husband and I realized that on some level, despite all we know, we were still bound by harmful gender norms.
Those norms filled us with fear for our son, who was just being himself — and really, he’s just a kid that likes pink.
What we were struggling with is that we didn’t want our son to learn about the ‘man box’ the hard way — through harassment, shaming, or harm by other kids or adults who were already stuck in narrow beliefs about what and how men and boys should be.
We all have our biases. As we move through life, we try to identify what they are, how we can do better, and how we can learn from each other. In the movement to support women and girls, we must also support all the boys and men in our lives to be healthy, whole men.
Only then can we create a more equitable future for all Minnesotans — free of confining, harmful stereotypes that hurt all of us and perpetuate a culture of violence.
As we work together to create a future of opportunity, safety, and leadership for women and girls, we must also equip boys and men as leaders in this movement. Will you join us?
Vice President, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota