“Ladies, there are so many to empower!”
My seven-year-old daughter dances around our kitchen, her arms in the air, her hips swaying to the music. We’re in the middle of our daily Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack listening session, and she and her brother are, as usual, singing as loudly as possible, at times drowning out the music. I smile at them, as I stand at the sink, washing dishes, trying to catch the words she’s saying.
“Honey, say that line for me again,” I ask, as I restart the song.
“Ladies!” she and brother yell in unison.
“There are so many to empower,” my daughter continues. She skips across the kitchen as I chuckle.
The real lyric is, “Ladies. There are so many to deflower.” My daughter’s interpretation says a lot about who she is—and how much of “Hamilton” is beyond her understanding—while filling me with pride at her unexpected feminist rallying cry.
I’ve been surprised how different it is to raise a girl than a boy. When my daughter was born, 22 months after my son, I felt a protectiveness for her I hadn’t with him. I suddenly saw the world differently: I was scared, as if only realizing how tough and harsh life can be for females. It was as if my own experience of being woman didn’t fully come into focus until my own daughter was born. I felt this intense need to protect her, to keep her safe, to stop the world from coming near. With my son, I had felt possibility when he was born. The world was his in a way it wouldn’t be for my daughter—or at least wasn’t yet.
The years leading up to the start of school were, for my daughter, kind. She had friends and adored her older brother. She learned to read and wrote fanciful stories about animals and fairies. She played sports and learned the piano. By age six, she had stamps in her passport, a feat I hadn’t accomplished at her age, and she thought it was no big deal that her cousins lived on another continent, as she could, after all, FaceTime with them often. Already, she saw the world as a smaller, more interconnected place, and she was going to explore it all. She told me that she planned to live in New York City when she grew up; she’d have her own apartment with a cat and the walls would be pink.
Then came time to send her off into the world—to school where she’d land to stand on her own, where she and her ideas of the world would be tested. One such test occurred recently, when she came home with a story I don’t expect her to tell in just the second grade: a boy at school called her a bitch.
“What’s a bitch, Mama?” she asks, knowing it’s a word she is not allowed to say.
“It’s a female dog,” her brother yells from the dining table where he is reading “Harry Potter” and listening, again, to “Hamilton.” “It’s a bad word, right?”
“Yes, it’s a bad word,” I confirm to them both. “And no one should ever call you that.” I remember lying in the hospital bed, right after her birth, holding her in my arms, wondering how I would ever protect her from the world. I hadn’t anticipated we’d need armor in elementary school.
We talk about the boy who said that word to her, how he got in trouble for what he did, how he gets in trouble a lot for saying bad words at school. Thankfully, she attributes the name-calling to his own issues, not hers, yet she still carries the weight of his words. That’s what she is learning to do: to take in the negativity of others and either internalize it or let it go. She dismisses this boy’s anger, and for that I am grateful. I wonder how many times, though, she can take the high road, until it wears her down, and the strong, capable woman I am trying to raise will falter.
We, I am learning, have other people in our lives who are helping her, and girls like her, be the women I want. For Women’s History Month, her class joins with fourth graders to sing Shania Twain’s “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face” before the school. They stand proudly in the front of the gymnasium, singing enthusiastically about all the ways women are accomplished and matter in our world. A slide show featuring women who have changed our world flashes along with the music. Photos of writers, astronauts, doctors, scientists, mothers, teachers, ballerinas, and soldiers pass across the screen. As the song ends, the children hold up photos of women they admire; my daughter’s is of her aunt, one of the strongest women we both know.
My daughter is surrounded by possibility, I realize, as that song ends. We are both learning together how to maneuver through this world, how to be the girl—and woman—we want to be. As we learn, I’ll join my daughter, dancing and singing around our kitchen, yelling the words we both need to hear. “Ladies, there are so many to empower!”