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I am pleased to introduce Susan David Bernstein, â€œBeyond Pink & Blueâ€™sâ€ first guest columnist! Susan teaches literature and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has published widely on contemporary feminist theory and the Victorian novel. She is currently working on a study of women writers and activists in the Reading Room of the British Museum, as well as a memoir titled Unlikely Loves.
I discovered new realms of gender profiling before my child was born in August of 1992. Although the sex chromosomes of this eventual baby were recorded in my OB/GYN file, I was adamant that I did not want to know. â€œDonâ€™t tell me!â€ Iâ€™d shield my eyes, when a nurse or doctor opened my file at an appointment. At that time, it was increasingly common for people to have this knowledge, and from what I witnessed, prenatal gendering took off with a vengeance. Iâ€™d hear comments like, â€œI know this little guy is going to be a quarterback! What a kicker already!â€ Baby showers became gendered affairs, and the first outfits for the ride home from the hospital were tooled to match that chromosomal information. I was happy instead to receive an array of baby clothes, some blue, some fuschia, one with a rodeo pattern, another with vegetables in reds, greens, and oranges.
So even back then, it was unusual to answer the â€œwhat kind of baby are you having?â€ question with, â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ I had an elaborate birth plan which even included a provision about birthing room announcements: I asked my doctor not to say, â€œItâ€™s a boy!â€ or â€œItâ€™s a girl!â€ but simply, as he did, â€œCongratulations, you have a healthy baby!â€ My partner and I even joked about how weâ€™d try not to know those gender-defining genital features of our baby (weâ€™d have someone else do the diapering and bathing for the first month), so that our ingrained notions about gender would be kept at bay. And, we thought, so would those of the world we lived in. Not possible, I discovered, from day one.
I did of course learn I had a daughter within in minutes of her birth, and she was quickly swaddled in a pink blanket. A nurse held out a basket of caps for newborns, all knitted by a womenâ€™s league, and I chose a white one with lavender and blue stripes. But later that day my partner and I requested a different blanket, yellow perhaps, or green or white. We learned that the maternity unit only had blue and pink blankets.
This was Madison, Wisconsin, a university town with a history of progressive values; Tammy Baldwin is our congressional representativeâ€”the first open lesbian to be elected to the House. Today, in 2009, my daughter is taking a terrific womenâ€™s studies class in her high school (the same one Baldwin graduated from); all four public high schools in Madison offer such courses. But in 1992, there were only pink and blue blankets at the hospital. So I asked for a blue one. A nurse entered my room the next morning, glanced at the bassinet, and then asked me cheerily, â€œAnd how is your little boy today?â€ I responded, â€œI do not have a boy.â€ The woman peered in the basket, looked a bit alarmed, and hurried out of the room.
Within a few years, the hospital expanded its newborn wardrobe to include prints and other colors. Still, there remain many ways in which the straitjackets of gender identity flourish from before birth through high school. My daughter spent all four years of high school competing on the cross country team where the girls run 4K meets to the boysâ€™ 5K races. And now sheâ€™s one of two girls on her high school team of forty wrestlers. Sheâ€™s also in the gender minority in her advanced chemistry and physics classes. As a family, weâ€™re still learning to navigate the updated variations of pink and blue that we first encountered in 1992.