It's 2008, and I am in a casino in Las Vegas. I am not playing blackjack; I am working the employee break rooms to help elect the first female president of the United States. I am going from culinary worker to culinary worker, telling them, in English as well as in Spanish, why her beliefs, her plans, her experience, and her education should garner their votes. She is smart, she is qualified, she is female.
I am also a few weeks pregnant with my first child … and I am hoping it will be a boy.
Wait. Of course I hope the baby will be healthy. Of course that is most important above all. But with my next thought, I hope I have a boy first. Then "the pressure" will be off. The pressure that was coming from my mother, my husband, his family, people I don't even know. My father didn't stop until he got his son — it took him seven tries. Even the woman at the checkout stand ringing up my prenatal vitamins was wishing me luck in having a boy.
It somehow will prove my husband's masculinity that he can "make men," and even though I don't contribute the chromosome to determine sex, my body will have complied. Because often we are blamed for not being able to provide the son.
A couple of weeks go by, and at our three-month appointment, our OB-GYN asks us, "Do you want to know the sex?" We say yes, and we hold our breath. "It's a girl" … and I am disappointed. I missed her showing me the ovaries that determined her sex because I am looking at my husband and am feeling bummed. I feel like I have let him down. Yes, he was wishing for a boy. I know this even though he never said it aloud, and of course he wants a healthy baby too … but I see in his posture his shoulders falling for a quick second.
I thought the cultural bias favoring men was something unique to the Hispanic culture of machismo. Men are considered more important, considered to have more value and be better than women. Growing up in Mexico in the '90s meant that any girls who tried to join in on sports in recess were rejected by the boys. The girls rejected them, too. I was told that playing sports with the boys made me more of a tomboy, and if I wanted to sit with them, I had to stop. In junior high school, administrators would rank students monthly based on their grades and put a numerical list every month. When I was at the top of the list one month, the director came to the classroom to berate the boys and bemoan how this "half-American girl could possibly be getting better grades than the boys." My popularity was based on who I was dating, and I quickly learned that most of my value was based on looks and who I could be married to at some point. Maybe this is why my father kept on trying to have a son.
But then my husband, who is African American, also felt this way. And then I realized the majority of my friends, no matter their ethnicity, felt this way. A Gallup poll in 2011 showed if Americans were to have only one child, they would prefer it to be a boy rather than a girl 40 percent to 28 percent (which is up from 38 percent to 24 percent when polled in 1941). So 70 years later, the gender bias has grown stronger. Gender favoritism has no cultural barriers.
Once we knew we were having a girl, society started dictating gender roles and behaviors to my unborn child. The majority of the gifts I received were every shade of pink and purple. I did not receive one Lego set, one truck, or one ball, but I received four baby dolls for her to play Mommy and enough matching hair bows to fill a drawer. And by the way, it wasn't like I was buying those Lego sets for my daughter either. In fact, I think to compensate for the guilt I was feeling about having a girl, I may have gone to the other side of the spectrum and bought half of those hair bows. The room was promptly painted pink, and I started researching Mommy and Me ballet classes.
She was born, and I dressed her up in those pink-and-purple outfits with the matching hair bows and let her play with those dolls and play Mommy. I believed that a woman could be president, fly a plane, be a firefighter, be a surgeon, be a neuroscientist — and watch out, anyone who tells my daughters differently (I had a second daughter in 2010) — but I had not started the revolution at home.
I believed that a woman could be president, fly a plane, be a firefighter, be a surgeon, be a neuroscientist, but I had not started the revolution at home.
Fortunately, we can evolve as humans, as individuals, as women. When my older daughter was three, I started to notice that if she wasn't wearing a skirt that could twirl, she was upset. Pants were an abomination. I thought to myself, Uh-oh, I have been telling everyone around me that looks don't matter and girls can do anything,and I somehow missed communicating this to my two daughters.
So I bought the Lego set (I started with the white, pink, and purple set, and then moved on to the Lego city set). I bought books about women doing amazing things to read to my children, like Grace for President and Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, and now that my eldest is eight, she is tackling the young-readers' edition of Hidden Figures. I encouraged wearing pants, getting dirty, and playing outside, and I spoke to them about having no limitations. I started looking for camps that were science-based and focused on problem-solving instead of the traditional dance camp. It was a struggle at first to get them behind the idea that engineering was cool, but after constructing a roller coaster out of classroom items and building something tangible, they were hooked.
The 2016 presidential campaign provided me with a concrete opportunity to engage with my girls in a way that I had been searching for. They came with me to rallies for Hillary Clinton; we started reading her speeches together. We started having the conversation about equal rights and equal pay, and I was able to illustrate how being a woman is difficult. At one point, I was traveling to Colorado to get out the vote, and my daughters sent me off by saying, "We hope you register lots of voters, Mommy, and it's OK if you aren't here for our basketball game, because it's hard being a woman," and I was overcome with a feeling of triumph.
My husband was feeling like we were done having kids after having our two daughters. Well, here's a little secret: the daughters that I was so ready to be adored by are actually Daddy's girls. The relationship between them is so strong and nurturing that I am so thankful that I had daughters for him and sisters, one for the other. I did have a son four years ago. I won't lie, I am happy that I had him. And there were references to "our little prince" by the grandparents. But the truth is that my oldest daughter is the one who sets the tone for the household and the rest of her siblings. The girls are definitely dominating him and deciding what show they watch and what game they play. I am also more comfortable enrolling him in nontraditional classes like dance. He knows that being friends with girls is important, that his sisters can also play with his cars and imitate a traffic jam, and up until now, his older sisters can and will block his basketball shot. We are also teaching him it is OK to cry, and even at this age (he is four), that no means no, silence means no, and only yes means yes.
When we don't activate and participate in parenting, we allow those long-ingrained beliefs to be our default state. It is more difficult to fight against what has been the status quo. It is difficult to encourage your daughters to speak up, speak out, and to be nonconformists. The changes started off small and grew incrementally. It started with not being hung up on the skirts that would twirl but choosing pants and outfits for comfort. Now, we are sitting around the breakfast table discussing why there still hasn't been a female president and how they are hoping that will change.
Elsa Collins is a graduate of Stanford University and Columbia Law School and a social-impact consultant residing in Los Angeles.