I have two women friends who are good at all the things men are traditionally good at. Both of these women grew up in Idaho. I’m convinced that women who grow up in Idaho are raised differently. When they were girls, these friends both learned how to hunt and fish and camp, how to drive trucks, boats, and sitting lawnmowers. They learned how to ski and mountain bike and rock climb. And all the things that they didn’t learn how to do, like build a camper from scratch or rewire a toaster, they do anyway because they figure, why not?
I’m pretty handy myself. I fixed our microwave with a twist tie. I saved us a bunch of money by reattaching our torn soaker hose system with a tampon applicator. Just last week I rehung our gutters and rewired lights that were pulled down in the snowstorm. But I’m not like these can-do-all-things-male friends. They possess an attitude of confidence that I strive to emulate. I’m a tinkerer. I’ll try anything, but these friends, they embody a different kind of attitude.
Every summer when I was a kid we would drive twelve hours from our house on the South Side of Chicago to our grandparents’ cottage on a lake in Minnesota. We’d stay for a few weeks and fill our little city lungs with fresh air. We ate our grandmother’s cooking — goodies we never got at home like creamed corn, hamburgers, heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
We played hours of cards in the bunkhouse devouring the bags of chocolate Twizzlers our grandmother’s kept stocked with her kitchen linens. We wrote and performed skits with our cousins who journeyed to this midwestern paradise from their home on the west coast. The lake house was my favorite place to be.
Our grandfather, a stern Presbyterian physician was deeply invested in giving all of us grandkids a true lake house experience. He taught us to sein for minnows and took each of us out in the boat fishing with him alone at least once every summer. After dinner he’d stand up, stretch, look around the table and ask which one of the cousins was going to come in the boat to go fishing with him that evening.
A few times each summer he took us in the small sailboat. He taught us all to water ski and required us to pick up twigs and rocks from the expansive hilly yard he’d mow with his gas push mower. We all helped in the garden picking green beans and tomatoes from their small crop.
Grandpa made sure we all got the same experiences at the lake, except for a few things that were only for the boys. One of these boy-specific experiences was driving the boat. Only the boys got to drive the boat. Though the girl and boy cousins were all about the same age, only the boys got to drive the boat.
One summer when we were all between ten and twelve, the boy cousins got a lesson on how to prime the motor, pump the throttle, put the boat into gear, and pull the ripcord. But the girl cousins — my sisters and I — were not allowed to operate the boat. We still had fun — the boy driving the boat sat at the back with the motor, looking forward like a true captain and howled orders at the rest of us, crunched up in our life preservers, facing him, as he turned up the throttle and sped nose up into the middle of the lake. The all-powerful (boy) driver of the boat.
When we were kids we would all laugh about this, that the boys got to drive the boat. My sisters and I didn’t question this gendered line in the sand. There were lots of other subtle only-boys-do-this things that happened at the lake. The boys baited their own hooks. The boys pumped the gas into the gas tank for the fishing boat and the bigger motorboat. The boys operated the gas lawnmower. The boys hung out in the garage with Grandpa.
My two friends, the can-do girls from Idaho, never seem to question their abilities, even if they lack confidence, even if they’ve never done a task before. When I take on something like fixing the microwave, it’s a big deal. I second guess my every move. I often think of these friends who seem to simply skip the step of second-guessing. They just get right to whatever task is at hand. And why shouldn’t they? When they were girls, these Idahoans were expected to do all the things boys could do. And now as adults, they are badasses.
As the mother of a daughter, I’ve tried to impose ungendered expectations on my daughter. I have taught her to install a smoke detector. I challenged her to switch out the starter on our gas grill, which she did in less than an hour. I taught her to install her own hooks to hang her towels in her bathroom. I try to model doing non-traditional work like chopping wood or fixing the toilet. Sometimes I wonder if I have done enough to give her the confidence that will help her become a badass.
It’s inspiring to watch these friends of mine take on any challenge. It’s remarkable really. We’re in 2021 but we’ve still got a long way to go. We need to watch how we limit our girls. We need to give them every opportunity that we give boys. Every experience. It’s taken me a long time to have the confidence to mess with the electrical outlet in the house or examine the blade of the lawnmower when it’s stuck. I am slowly building my skill set, more confident each time I try something new, but I can’t help but wonder what kinds of things I’d be doing if Grandpa had taught me to drive the boat too.