I distinctly remember the moment in high school when I realized that every single one of my mother's close friends was a teacher.
Well, to be more precise, it wasn't the moment I realized it, but the moment I realized what it meant.
My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and the fact that virtually all of the adult women I knew were teachers as well -- including every single member of the tight-knit crew with whom my mother had gone to New York's Hunter College -- was just one of those facts that had never merited any special consideration before. It was just something about my world that I had absorbed, like the fact that we were Jewish, or that we lived in the suburbs.
But one day the implications of it finally dawned on me: it wasn't an accident or a coincidence that all of those women were teachers. They all became teachers because there just weren't very many options for women graduating from college in 1952. (Mom also knew a rogue nurse or two, to be fair.)
Perhaps that's why I had always harbored a romantic fascination with the one friend of my mother's who had refused to conform. Sue Slade marched to the beat of her own very distinctive drummer: an honest-to-goodness Bohemian, she became a theater casting agent and even once worked as a secretary for Marlon Brando. Sue eventually wrote a play called "Ready When You Are, C.B.," which ran for 80 performances on Broadway, directed by theater luminary Joshua Logan. It's still performed in schools and community theater from time to time. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971, the year she turned 40. I never got to know her.
By the time I graduated from college almost 40 years after my mother and her crew, the idea that women could only be teachers or nurses seemed to me like a quaint relic, something akin to Victrolas and corsets. It had been drummed into my head throughout my childhood (see: Title IX, Free To Be You and Me) that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be and the fact that I was a girl wouldn't limit me in any way.
I laughed when my first editor after college, after watching me turn around a transcription project at lightning speed, warned me never to let anyone know how fast I could type. It seemed charmingly anachronistic. He was mostly kidding, right? Because no one really thought that way anymore, did they?
I'm now the mother of two young sons who have female doctors and female soccer teammates and a female Senator. Maybe I haven't been watching the messages we're sending little girls these days as vigilantly as I should be, but I naively assumed that we were still mostly on the right path. (I do take credit for sending a letter to Nickelodeon a few years ago complaining about their blatantly sexist marketing of Dora. I loved that my then-2-year-old son was a fan of a show with a strong female lead character like Dora. Why did they only make Dora merchandise suitable for little girls? Did they really need to spin off Diego just because he was... a boy?)
Which is why I let out an exasperated sigh every time another company is caught with its hand in the sexist cookie jar, so to speak. This week it's The Children's Place, selling shirts suggesting girls are good at shopping and dancing, but (insert high pitched, flirty giggle) not math. But in the past it's been Land's End, in 2010 ad copy that seems straight out of the Mad Men era, suggesting girls' jackets must be "pretty and playful" while pitching their brothers jackets that are "rugged and ready."
It's been simplybunkbeds.com, selling "manly" bunk beds for "tough and cool" boys and "sweet" ones for girls, who only care about "style." It's been Marvel comics. It's been J.C. Penney and Gymboree. The list goes on and on.
I'm not sure which is more depressing: the fact that these companies are still breezily putting these products out there (do they raise no red flags on the inside?), or the fact that at a time when a woman president of the United States is an entirely credible option, there are, apparently, still parents who will buy such things for their daughters.
For the record, marketers of the world, I'm perfectly ok if my sons sleep in "sweet" beds. They are neither particularly tough nor cool, and I'm fine if things remain that way for a while.
But you know who is tough and cool? And rugged and ready? Their 10-year-old cousin, Alexandra. In fact, like scores of little girls before her, she regularly treks to the ice rink with big dreams.
You know. To play hockey.
So take that, The Children's Place and Land's End and the whole lot of you. I'm choosing to believe that Alexandra is the kind of little girl we should be raising in 2013, one who won't fit in the ridiculously outdated stereotypes you still insist on trying to sell her, and one who definitely won't be wearing a shirt celebrating her lack of math skills any time soon. And you know what? I bet Sue Slade would be proud.
A version of this post appeared on Clever Title TK.