When I was about ten years of age, I recall trying to get three of ‘the girls’ on our street, to throw a baseball the ways boys did, you know, like Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, or Harvey Keane. Those three girls were our regulars, who we could count on to come out and play soccer, football, or even catch frogs with us down at Soules’ Creek. They were, for all intents and purposes, ones of us. Except when they wore dresses. That was usually after church on Sundays, or when they had to be in school or visiting their relatives in various ethnic enclaves between Hamilton and Toronto.
After school and weekends set the scene for many mixed-sex events as described, and these scenes were usually full of laughter and kidding around. Not always however, and sometimes when we boys were too rough, as in daring the three to ride their bikes through old man Ginger’s hedge, they would yell or cry from the scratches on their arms and faces and complain to their mothers that we forced them to do it. But they drifted back always, bravery in tow, for more fun and adventures on Wilson Avenue, just north of the orchard. When their parents preferred the girls not play with us, or one upset parent talked to ours about not wanting their girls to turn out as ‘Tomboys’, things got dicey. The street and woods were silent during those mindful moments. And the other boys didn’t play with the ‘normal’, boring girls on the street. But then the sun would come out, and we would all re-assemble in the early morning, at the horse-drawn wagon when the milkman made his regular stops to drop off cream-topped milk bottles. Our female ‘buddies’ had forgiven and/or missed us, and would actually say so as they patted the Clydesdale mare.
So the four of us were playing catch on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon, and seeing as it was in my back-yard, I was responsible for sketching out the limits to how far we could stray onto the neighbour’s property to fetch a wayward ball. It often happened, since we were all show-offs at throwing, either with speed, distance, or accuracy. But neighbours were neighbours, and that imaginary border took on emotional significance on more than one occasion.
Carol-Anne, Valerie and Betty walked around the corner of the house, and to our surprise, asked if they could play. Since they didn’t have baseball gloves, and we’d never seen them throw a ball, the four of us guys did what was proper and offered to play catch bare-handed and gave them our gloves. We made ourselves into a seven-sided square, being careful no to step on the neighbour’s lawn. So we watched as the three girls threw the ball. They all threw it the same way. No accuracy. No speed. Bad arm movements. And we didn’t say a word other than praising them when we could catch their throws.
We are of course, born male or female, and rarely, a hermaphrodite (either way). What turns boys and girls into men and women, is culture and socialization (the process of acquiring it). Apart from on average having less muscle mass, there is no physical reason why girls cannot learn to throw a ball like a boy (assuming they want to, and apparently there is some merit sociologically among girls in NOT being called a Tomboy by one’s peers). Yet this one act among many, demonstrates how community, school and family life shape our identities. Boys learn to throw a baseball a certain way that is consistent with gendered expectations. Some don’t of course, but they don’t usually engage in playing baseball, and substitute displays of gender in sports by doing something else, like rowing, soccer, football, diving, hockey, and so forth. Or by not playing sports of any kind.
The transition into ‘men’ and ‘women’ for all of us, especially during the teenage years, can be smooth or traumatic. Social institutions like the family, schools, the workplace, non-government organizations (NGOs) can act as a political force in bringing about ‘normal’ gender roles and performances. To this day, in spite of the ’60s counter-culture efforts, girls tend to be identified as weak, delicate, cute and beautiful, and boys as strong, alert, aggressive and well coordinated. With Barbie and GI Joe as more than just dolls in the ’60s and ’70s, but as icons of a lifestyle, to be admired and even sought after, there is little wonder that gender stereotypes in the media, as advertising ‘billboards’, promote conformity around social class, sexual performance and body image. Misunderstandings between men and women, because of these socialization patterns, are common.
Social constructionists would argue that “gender inequality derives not from any inherent biological features of men and women but from three main socio-historical circumstances: the arrival of long-distance warfare and conquest, the development of plow agriculture, and the assignment of women to the domestic sphere and men to the public sphere during the early industrial era.” (Brym et al: p. 272). And there is in general, more gender equality in rich than in poor countries, which suggests that gender equality is a function of – among other things – economic development. Anthropologist Desmond Morris (in his book Bodywatching) has observed that when economic conditions improve, women’s hemlines go up. And there is a resulting boost in interest in pay equity, and subsidized child care, while incidences of sexual assault and sexual harassment decline. Research has also shown that some men still find it difficult to accept the tenets of the feminist movement, in which feminism may threaten men’s traditional way of life and perhaps even their sexual identity. Feminist thought of the past four decades particularly, whether liberal, socialist, radical, anti-racist or postmodernist, has issued a major challenge to mainstream male-dominated politics to vastly adjust social policies to especially extend the relevance of feminism to previously marginalized groups. And to remove the ‘glass ceiling’ women experience in employment and government.
So perhaps ask not if a girl can throw a baseball like a boy, but can both men and women play on the same team – free of prejudice and discrimination?
Robert J. Brym, et al. 2003. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. Thompson-Nelson; Scarborough, ON
Desmond Morris. 1985. Bodywatching: A Field Guide to the Human Species. Jonathan Cape; London