Silence and Echoes: Stopping Subtle Sexism

Kristen Ploetz essays

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There must be a reason Echo Lake is called just that: I cannot get the awful words I overheard there out of my head.

At first, it was quiet. We arrived early, one of the first families there at the lovely lake tucked away in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch. Even though almost 700 vertical feet of rocky ledge imposes upon beach goers from across the lake, it feels surprisingly small. Perhaps that is why so many young families like to go. The thousands of tadpoles visible in the shallow, green water added a new dimension of delight this year. Though it was only 9:30 a.m., the sun had already warmed the shady areas beneath the pine trees. You could tell it was going to be a hot day well before noon.

As I sat waist deep in the cool mountain water, I noticed a familiar sweetness several yards away. Bucket and shovel in hand, and fortified by a tiny life jacket, a young boy, perhaps all of 2-years- old, was happily playing where the water kissed the sand. I watched him for a few minutes. The soft sounds of beach bags being unpacked and mothers murmuring directives for sunscreen slowly began to fill in around me.

My own daughter would have played like that just five years ago, I thought to myself. I switched my gaze momentarily to my daughter who was practicing her new underwater tricks on the other side of me. I silently reminisced about the passage of time and became enamored with her current confidence in the water. I was wholly content with this placid scene.

Then, the spell was broken.

I’m ashamed to be your grandfather! Look, even that little girl is going into the water farther than you! How pathetic. I’m ashamed!

The target? The young boy at the water’s edge. Just in case he did not hear his grandfather’s loud, close range shaming—though how could he not—it was repeated at least five more times over the course of the next 10 minutes.

His words have been on a continuous loop in my mind since we left New Hampshire just over three weeks ago.

Obviously this young child did not want to be in water past his ankles. Like many toddlers, he was just not ready for deep water yet, even when his grandfather scooped him up and carried him into the water himself many times over. It was certainly clear to me, and the other adults nearby, that the boy’s wails and repeated retreat to the shore revealed a staunch protest to being in the water. Those of us around this man were visibly uncomfortable with the words he spewed.

Still, the grandfather remained oblivious, if not unsympathetic. He simply wasn’t taking no for an answer. He was hell-bent on using his own machismo as a yardstick for what his grandson should be doing, even though he had a good 65 years on him. Only once did the boy’s mother make a half-hearted attempt to intervene. “Shhhh, Dad,” she said in an almost inaudible voice, “He’ll come in when he’s ready.” That was the only time she attempted to stop his attack before walking up to her blanket on the dry sand. As she trudged away from him, her gait revealed resignation and futility. I sensed that this was not the first time she’d heard her father talk this way.

It would be very easy for me to duck out of some personal responsibility here under the cloak of not judging other people’s parenting, minding my own business, or even he’s from another generation. These are fail safe excuses for when we need to bite our tongues.

And yet.

Something more than the mother’s lackluster protest and the boy’s potential for unfair humiliation stood out for me: the reference to the girl in the grandfather’s rebuke. He was referring to a young girl not far from me. She was not much older than the boy. Her mother was desperately trying to negotiate the proper positioning of her inflatable princess lifesaver ring at the water’s edge. While she was obviously no Olympic swimmer, it was clear the girl felt happy as a clam in the water, and certainly far more comfortable than the young boy.

I could feel the bile rising inside me each time he publicly humiliated this young minnow of a boy, but especially when he got to the part about “even that little girl is going in farther than you,” because the implication in his tone was clear: girls shouldn’t be strong and confident, at least not more than his grandson. He clearly thought that the ability to overcome difficult mental blocks or challenging physical feats should be inherent for boys, and less so for girls. His words implied that girls are not able, by default, to do as much as or more than boys.

This was also all simultaneous with the Always #LikeAGirl campaign trending pretty heavily in my Twitter feed and on the blogs I frequent. Perhaps that is why I was even more touchy about the man’s gender reference than I already usually am. Whether it’s pure advertising genius or a long overdue mirror for our society, the #LikeAGirl campaign does one thing really well: it highlights that we need to change the way we talk about girls.

Still, I stayed silent. Perhaps I hoped someone else more involved in the situation would chime in.

Why didn’t the daughter stand up to her father as a woman, much less as a mother?

Why didn’t the girl’s mother say anything?

The thing is, I was involved in the situation, at least to a degree. My almost 7-year-old daughter was right there and could have heard the entire thing had she not been utterly distracted with her own swimming. I now ask myself, why didn’t I say anything? I certainly wanted to. But I didn’t. That’s what bothers me. I think all of us, myself included, that could have said anything were simply too afraid to create a scuffle given the serenity the lake otherwise offered.

As I sit here a few months later, I still have a pretty strong sense of regret at not having the courage to tell that man what I was thinking at the time. There is no way I would have let it go if this kind of misogyny was taking place in a professional or some other fully adult situation. Why should it be any different if children are involved? I now realize, it shouldn’t.

Would I have possibly created a minor scene amongst the vacationing families? Most likely, yes, especially given this man’s temperament and personality. It is conceivable that he would have had some choice words for me in return. But, so what? Am I going to let that stop me from correcting a very misguided perspective about boys and girls, men and women?

I’ve decided that I can’t anymore. Even though verbal confrontation is my weak spot, it’s no longer worth the risk of the alternative: my daughter having to listen to things like what this man (and the folks in the #LikeAGirl ad) still say and do even in this purportedly more enlightened era. I’d much rather that I take the heat for that kind of friction than to overlook it and, ultimately, force my daughter to confront it someday.

The bottom line is this: if I and other women continue to remain silent when we hear these underhanded comments—which are intended as encouragement for boys but have much greater consequences for all of us—then we are just as much part of the problem. No more. It’s time for those kinds of men to hear what it’s like when we stand up to them, like a girl. Like women.

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About the Author

Kristen Ploetz

Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and lawyer living in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. She has had pieces published on NYT Motherlode and Literary Mama, and blogs regularly at .

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