Family's Gender Neutrality Experiment Failed, Writer Says

Filed under: In The News

Jesse Ellison (left) with her cousins Gillian Andrews (middle) and Thayer Andrews (right) in Northport, Maine, in 1980. Photo courtesy of Jesse Ellison

From the time she was born in 1978, Jesse Ellison was her parent's experiment in gender neutrality, she writes in Newsweek. It was an experiment that failed, she says.

Ellison, the author of Newsweek's Equality Myth blog, grew up television-free in rural Maine, wearing overalls and sporting an androgynous bowl cut.

"Even my first name is evidence of their experiment in gender neutrality," Ellison writes.

In the era of 1970s "new feminism," Ellison writes, "women were focused on de facto equality: asserting that it was nurture, not nature, that made women and men different."

Still, despite her parents' efforts to provide her with wooden blocks instead of Barbies, Ellison wasn't interested in staying on neutral ground.

"(My) parents' little project in gender neutrality (namely, me) was, from the get-go, a total failure," Ellison writes. "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.' "

Ellison's mother says they didn't realize gender neutrality wasn't an issue of nurture-over-nature.

"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," the writer's mom says. "It took a while to think, 'Maybe men and women really are different from each other, and they're both equally valuable.' "

Far from gender neutrality, Ellison's writes that when her generation of women came of age, "Femininity and feminism were no longer a contradiction." However, she wonders if now there's too much of an emphasis on appearance.

"You have to be a babe, in addition to everything else,"says gender-studies professor Susan Brownmiller. "Looking like a sex object but also claiming the rights of women who are not sex objects -- that's tricky."

Now that she's older, Ellison says she appreciates her parent's efforts at a gender-neutral upbringing.

"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," Ellison writes.

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