My Parents' Failed Experiment in Gender Neutrality

When I was 2 years old, my father started building a big house behind our tiny starter house. For days leading up to the arrival of the giant trucks and backhoes coming to dig out the foundation, my mother tried to get me excited. "Don't you want to watch the big trucks?!" she'd tease. When they finally arrived, the neighborhood boys parked themselves on our property, transfixed. I glanced out the window and immediately turned back to my toys, ignoring the commotion. As my mother recalls, "It was really a wake-up for me."

This now-infamous family anecdote wasn't the first time my parents tried to shake off gender stereotypes. As a toddler, they dressed me in overalls and cut my hair in an androgynous bowl cut. I didn't have Barbies; I had wooden blocks. Even my first name is evidence of their experiment in gender neutrality. You can't imagine how many times I've had to explain, "No, not Jessica, just Jesse. Like a boy."

In 1978, the year I was born, feminists like my mother were embracing the notion that gender roles were entirely rooted in the way that you were raised. In the 1970s, the feminist fringe was giving up bras, shaving, and diets; they were lighting their own cigarettes and opening their own doors. It was the "new feminism," and where the first movement was concerned with legal equality, like the right to vote, these women were focused on de facto equality: asserting that it was nurture, not nature, that made women and men different. To bust out of gender oppression also meant to assert that there was absolutely nothing different about our biological makeup.

My family, by and large, was removed from societal pressure. We lived in rural Maine, we didn't have a television, and my mom and dad had matching short haircuts. (A few years before that, they'd had matching braids that went all the way down their backs.) But my parents' little project in gender neutrality (namely, me) was, from the get-go, a total failure. As soon as I could speak, I demanded they replace my overalls with a long, pink, lacy dress. Far from gender-neutral, I was emphatically, defiantly a "girl."

"We all thought that the differences had to do with how you were brought up in a sexist culture, and if you gave children the same chances, it would equalize," my mom says. "It took a while to think, 'Maybe men and women really are different from each other, and they're both equally valuable.' "

Since then, of course, countless studies have shown that men and women think and behave differently—to the point that it's not the existence of these differences, but the source of them, that is the subject of any debate. By the time my generation came of age, women could call themselves feminists and also embrace the standard trappings of femininity. We could wear pink, spend money on fancy shoes, and simultaneously expect—no, demand—the same success as men. Femininity and feminism were no longer a contradiction.

But maybe my generation is evidence of our having swung too far in the other direction. In the last decade, the reigning role models for young girls included Paris Hilton, swathed in pink and practically bedazzled. "There's so much emphasis on appearance that is part of what women have to do [today]," says gender-studies professor Susan Brownmiller. "You have to be a babe, in addition to everything else. Looking like a sex object but also claiming the rights of women who are not sex objects—that's tricky." By turning our back on our mothers' gender-neutral principles, all while taking it for granted that they had fought the great fight and won, we were unprepared for the fact that sexism still exists.

My generation is different from my mother's, in countless ways. But just because we chose high heels over Birkenstocks, it doesn't mean our commitment to equality should be any less than ardent. Now that I'm older, and a little bit wiser, I love that my parents were so consciously trying to foster androgyny. Ultimately, the whole point was to ensure that I had the freedom, and choice, to be whoever I wanted—which is, after all, what feminism is all about. And even though it's still cause for confusion, I even like my name. Actually, given that the alternatives included—true story—Oyster and Wing, I love it.