Do Ten-Year-Old Girls Need Empowerment?

By design, my husband and I chose raising boys over raising girls. When we decided to adopt, we were asked to state a gender preference, and chose boys, because 1) We discovered that the waiting lists for boys were far shorter than the list for girls and 2) Having tortured my mother from about ages 12-19, I didn’t think I could stand the same kind of treatment from my own girl child.

So we adopted Benjamin and, three years later, Samuel. I don’t regret for one moment the choice we made. My sons are the best part of my life, even on days when I have to tell them, for the millionth time, to brush their teeth already and please stop drinking my Diet Cokes.

Lately, though, there are moments when I wish I’d had a daughter, too, especially when I see other mothers having close relationships with their daughters. Living with only boys and men has been great, but I’d love for someone else at home to even things up a bit, gender-wise—and Nellie, my dog, can only provide a little female solidarity. I’ve also borrowed my friends’ daughters once in awhile, just to get a taste of what being with girls might be like, and it’s definitely a different kind of fun than with my boys, in all the best ways.

The first weekend in June, I participated in a girls-only event called Girls on the Run, a nationwide-program for girls in 3rd to 5th grade. The girls train two times a week for ten weeks, but also build skills in leadership, communication, and friendship. The program culminates in a 5K run, and I was partnered with a 10-year-old girl as a “running buddy” for the final event, plus one practice event in May.

The experience was amazing: Getting to race with my new ten-year-old friend was fun. Running with several thousand girls and their mentors, often parents, was a thrill. Seeing girls feel strong and healthy and capable was inspiring.

But when I told my own sons where I was going, what I was doing, one said to me “What 10-year-old girl needs to feel empowered?”

I told him, that question alone answers the question. But then, I told him that he should know better, asking me a question like that, especially after hearing me lecture (both at home and in actual lecture halls) about gender inequity. And then, I gave him a lecture anyway, because apparently it hadn’t sunk in the first hundred times I talked to him about misogyny and the unfair treatment of women.

Ten-year-old girls need to be empowered, I said, because they hear from a very young age that they are not as worthy as boys, that their achievements—athletic or otherwise—are not as important as boys’ achievements.

When they go to movies or read books, and see that most of the protagonists are boys, they learn that boys are always heroes, and that the endeavors of boys always supersede that of girls.

When they go clothes shopping, and see that a great deal of what passes for girls’ clothes highlights their budding sexuality, they learn that their sexuality will define them, will be their source of power to allure. (If they are in Christian culture, they will also learn that their sexuality is to be sublimated, and that they will be at fault when boys lust after them.)

When they are at school, they will learn that girls are bad at math, and by the time they turn six, they will assume that boys are naturally smarter than girls. Popular culture will reinforce this belief in them, with its shirts and Barbie dolls proclaiming girls are bad at math.

When they take part in religious communities, they will hear that God is our Almighty Father, and—by extension—that boys are image-bearers of God in ways that girls are not. They will also hear that God has designed boys to lead, to have strength and power and discernment, and girls are designed for submission, to quiet their voices and prepare for the “special” roles God has created for them.

They will learn, eventually, that the world can be a hostile place for girls, that one in four girls will be victims of sexual assault, that nearly 80 percent of teen girls worry about being too heavy, that more than nine out of 10 adult women wish they could change some aspect of their appearance.

On an early Saturday morning, when I was running the 5K with my new friend, though, we were focused on finishing. On having fun. On celebrating strength and community and the joy that can come from accomplishing something new. And, in the process, perhaps we learned a bit more about what it means to be a strong and capable girl—one who, in the near future, might change the world. I’m banking on my running buddy to lead this transformation, and on other 10-year-old girls who may not need to be empowered right now, but will someday soon.