Parenting dodgeball is throwing this one back

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

I am raising three women. They are girls right now, but they will be women when I’m done with them—I hope. That’s the plan anyway. I’m aiming for three distinct versions of confident, fulfilled, kind, and brave badass women. There are so many things I do not care about regarding my children’s futures. I don’t care what career they choose, so long as it’s fulfilling to them.

I don’t care if or whom they marry, so long as they are happy and respected and feel loved. I do not care if they live a life that looks like a carbon copy or a complete inversion of mine—so long as it’s a life that fills them up and gives them purpose and makes them happy to be living it.

I do care a lot about what they think about themselves, though. I care that they know their worth and believe in themselves. I care whether or not they feel like they deserve to stand in the rooms and at the tables life leads them to. I care about whether or not they will grow up to be the kind of people who feel compelled to help where they can and stand up for those that can’t.

I care a whole lot about what kind of people they will surround themselves with, but probably not in the way that might sound. I’m not worried about them choosing friends that look good on paper or partners that will give me bragging rights at parties. I hope they find enough friends that some might call ‘riffraff’ to teach them some of the things their sheltered, suburban lives can’t. I hope they choose people who challenge them and make them think, people so different from them that it makes their heads spin and people who give them grace when they screw up and are still there when their heads have stopped spinning and they come back wanting to know more.

I hope I raise people who come back wanting to know more. I care that they choose partners who value them and respect them; I care a lot about raising women who believe they deserve that.

Raising girls today feels precarious and exhausting and terrifying all at once. Maybe it felt like this to my mom too; maybe it always has. It’s like a game of dodgeball—I’m always playing offense and defense at the same time. I’m trying to teach them one thing while trying to avoid this other thing and keeping an eye out for trouble from the far corner. The world and our culture is flinging mixed messages at us all the time and I’m trying to choose the ones I want to impart and deflect the ones that are no good, all while trying not to get nailed in the face.

It’s exhausting and feels sacred at the same time. That’s why when a story comes along like that of gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster denying access to a reporter covering his campaign because she’s a woman—my head snaps back from that dodgeball to the face.

Mr. Foster said in a statement, that he and his wife made the commitment to “avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.” Ok, sounds good. I have no problem with that. But part of the enacting of this commitment for Mr. Foster is refusing to allow female reporter, Larrison Campbell of Mississippi Today, to accompany him on a 15-hour campaign tour of the state unless a male colleague of Ms. Campbell’s joins them in order to avoid the appearance of an extramarital affair.

My first question would be: is the campaign equally concerned about the possibility of their candidate being seen with another man alone being used to imply he was engaged in an extramarital affair? Because a woman is not required for such assumptions to be made. My guess is that, no, they aren’t concerned about this. Why not? Is it because it’s such an outlandish idea that he might engage in an affair with a man? Possibly so.

But it’s not considered outlandish enough that he would engage in an extramarital affair with a woman for it to be acceptable for him to be seen with one in a clearly professional setting? That seems like the bigger problem to me. But that’s not actually my point.

The problems with a rule or policy such as this are myriad, but for starters it presumes that either Mr. Foster can’t be trusted or the woman he is alone with can’t be trusted. Mr. Foster has stated he trusts himself implicitly so it must be those pesky temptresses, huh? It seems it matters none that Ms. Campbell is a well-known and widely respected reporter in Mississippi and would be trailing the candidate around campaign events with a press badge and a notepad and a recorder—I don’t really know what all reporters carry around these days but you get my point. She would clearly be accompanying him to professional settings in a professional capacity.

To Mr. Foster she is a sexual being before she is a professional, and one he must guard himself against. When, exactly, am I supposed to teach my daughters that fact? How do I work it into bedtime stories and mother/daughter outings that ‘You are smart and strong and also a liability to men who are seen in your presence because regardless of your professional and intellectual achievements—you’re a sexual being and thus a danger to other people’s marriages’?

I’m playing child-rearing dodgeball, trying to raise women who know they can be anything they want to be when they grow up—and now I’m supposed to say, ‘You can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough—oh, but if you’re a reporter, you’ll need to find a buddy with a Y chromosome to chaperone you when you interview dudes, k?’ And since my children already question everything I tell them, there will definitely be follow-up questions to this (maybe I do have some future reporters on my hands).

How will I answer the ‘why?’ that will come? I do not know an answer I could offer that doesn’t devalue them in some way. I can’t think of a single justification for this that doesn’t stink of sexism. I know that’s a dirty word to so many people today. Everybody wants to think it’s not necessary. We’d like to think that sexism isn’t really a big deal anymore because we have evolved past advice columns telling women they should freshen up their lipstick and their cocktails at 5 p.m. before the menfolk get home. But if we allow political candidates to imply that being seen alone with a woman is dangerous but being seen alone with a man is not—then we are not nearly as evolved as we’d hoped.

I get it—I see where Mr. Foster is coming from. Politics is dirty and he’s trying to protect his family from the mudslinging; I don’t blame anyone for that. I respect that intent. But how you do those things has repercussions. A policy such as his punishes women for being women. Mr. Foster wants to be governor of our state but he can’t be alone with a woman, so one can assume he won’t be hiring any women to serve in roles that would require meetings alone together. Men applying for the same positions would not be eliminated from consideration for the same reason—that is sexist and punishes qualified women simply because of their sex.

Requiring a third party be present with a female reporter but not with a male reporter is sexist. Any way you slice it—it’s sexist. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t realize it was—but it was and he’s had it pointed out to him now. He chose to make public statements standing by his policy as opposed to saying, ‘You know what—I can see how this is sexist now. That wasn’t what I was trying to do but I see it now.’ And then either drop the requirement or require it for male and female reporters. But he didn’t do that. Instead he said, “We don’t mind granting Ms. Campbell an interview. We just want it to be in an appropriate and professional setting that wouldn’t provide opportunities for us to be alone.” But he will be alone with male reporters.

The implications of this policy on the next generation of young women are damaging. This kind of requirement tells them that they can’t be trusted. It tells my daughters that being seen with them alone might look dirty. I get that there are people out there looking for ways to twist anything and damage the reputations of politicians. I’m not naive enough to think that’s not a possibility that people in the public eye have to consider. But I’m also a mother of three daughters asking them to consider this as well: what does your image-protecting policy tell my girls? Nothing good.

If a smear campaign is that real of a threat to Mr. Foster, perhaps there’s a way he can protect himself without sending damaging messaging to the young women of the world. Enacting a policy that requires a third party be present for all press interviews, with women and men, is one option. It sounds inconvenient and like it would be a hassle for Foster’s campaign to deal with but if he cares about what his actions say to the world then it’s an option.

I can understand the desire to honor your marriage and protect your family—but surely there’s a way to do that without further entrenching the stereotypes of women as temptresses and men as unable to be trusted with women, because I’m raising a man too. This rule just compounds the idea that men are still ruled primarily by their sexual instincts and I plan to raise a man who knows better than that.

I’m not trying to pretend to be well-versed in political campaign strategy or the reporting of it. I have no idea what it’s like to live life in the public eye with the knowledge that there are people watching to see if you’ll slip up. But I am a woman and I am a mother and I do know what it’s like to receive and to filter the messages the world throws at me and my daughters, and I’m not dodging this one.

I’m not willing to let it sail by and hope it doesn’t do any damage to me or mine. I’m catching this one and throwing it back with my own message attached: my daughters are worthy of being in any room, on any stage, and on any ride-along their hard work has earned them. Excluding them from those places and spaces because of their gender is not okay. I’m the only one who gets to tell them they need a babysitter and that won’t last forever.

I don’t know what the best solution to this situation would have been or should be in the future, but it should never be one that tells girls they are anything other than equal and worthy because my daughters are not a liability to anyone—only assets.

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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