Brownies' ambitions

Last term, when I was still helping with Brownies, we had an interesting evening which I've been thinking about regularly since.  The Brownie meeting is on a Monday night, so a lot of what we talk about is what people did at the weekend.  This specific week, we were doing a craft and I was sitting on a table with some Brownies who are about 8.5 years old so in the middle of the age range for Brownies.  I asked them what they'd been up to recently: one said she'd spent the weekend doing gymnastics and swimming, another one had been playing lots of football with her older brother and his friend, another had visited her grandparents and gone for a long muddy walk and another had played princesses with her little sister whilst watching Frozen for the umpteenth time (I taught them the word 'umpteenth', they quite liked it!).

The Brownie who had been playing football said to the princess-playing Brownie that princesses was a girly game to play, and she thought it was better to do boys stuff like play football.

Princess-playing Brownie said she didn't like football, and gymnastics Brownie said it was good we all liked different things, then before anyone could say anything else everyone's attention became distracted when another Brownie laughed so hard (at something else) that she fell off her chair taking her neighbour with her (no one was hurt).  

I thought no more about what these Brownies had said, until half an hour or so later when we were doing a different activity, in different groups this time.  The girls were talking about what they want to do when they grow up, and had the usual suggestions of teacher, police officer, actress, 'something in tv', author, vet.  The Brownie who had played princesses said she wanted to be a 'baby nurse'.  Another Brownie, who hadn't been part of the earlier conversation I'd had, said to this Brownie that she should be a doctor, not a nurse, because doctors are better than nurses, nurses are just ladies whereas doctors are men and ladies and girls can do anything boys can do.

I really quickly corrected her about a few things here - without making a big thing out of her being wrong, I said that men could be nurses as well as women, doctors have different training to nurses but this makes them differently-qualified, not necessarily 'better' but that yes, girls can do the same as boys if they want.  

I asked the Brownie who wanted to be a 'baby nurse' what she meant by this, she said she didn't want to look after mums (I'm presuming midwife), she wanted to be a nurse who looks after poorly babies who are born when they aren't old enough, and asked me if there was a proper name for this.  I suggested maybe 'neonatal nurse' for someone who works with poorly little babies, or perhaps 'paediatric nurse' for someone who works with older children.  The Brownie said that sounded good, and so she's going to be a neonatal nurse when she's older.  I told her that's a great thing to want to be.

Walking home from Brownies, I kept mulling over these conversations.  Two separate Brownies had made comments to another Brownie that her hobbies and career choice were 'girly' and she should do something different, implying better.  I don't at all think they meant this maliciously, it was just said in the honest way children talk to each other.

I want my Brownies to find hobbies and interests they enjoy, whether that's football or gymnastics or dressing up.  I want them to think about all the possibilities open to them, whether they want to be a nurse or a doctor or an author or hedgehog rescuer.

There has been lots of news coverage about campaigns such as Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys, as well as backlash to clothes companies such as Marks and Spencer who recently sold 'boys' tshirts' with dinosaurs on them - implying girls won't be interested in dinosaurs.  I support these campaigns, as I firmly believe that blue=boys and pink=girls are outdated ideas (and historically, pink was actually associated with boys).  I refuse to buy 'new baby' cards which are blue or pink (although this seriously limits my choice, come on Paperchase, broaden your horizons!) and I won't make a baby blanket in solely blue or pink (unless the parents specifically asked me too, and knowing my friends, I can't see them actually doing this).  A whole chapter in my PhD thesis is about breast cancer and the pink ribbon and related ideas.

I suppose what I've realised is that some girls want to be 'girly'.  Take my princess-playing Brownie - she enjoys playing princesses with her little sister, emulating Frozen's Elsa and Anna.  She clearly enjoyed doing this, she wants to be a nurse when she's older, a profession I assume is still heavily female dominated, and she was wearing a pink coat and  pink hat.

I think what I'm trying to say is that all this encouragement of getting girls to realise they can do, and be, whatever they want and of encouraging more young women into STEM subjects (as someone now working within academic medicine, I see this everywhere) is great - there should be no limitations on people's ambitions.  But alongside this, traditionally feminine career choices and ways of dressing shouldn't be seen as lesser alternatives.  I'm clever, and did well across the board in all my exams, but physics, chemistry and maths were never my strongest subjects.  I was never going to end up doing a maths degree or being a chemist.  But I have female friends who have done this and that's great.  We should be celebrating our successes, and the successes of others, in whatever field those successes happened.  If my Brownie wants to be a neonatal nurse, good for her.  If she wants to be a doctor, or an astronaut, or write best-selling novels, good for her.  As long as they are choices she has made, and that those around her have provided her with these opportunities.

I'll end this post with a conversation I had with a just-turned-six year old Rainbow this week:

"Amy, where do you work?"
"I work for the university."
"What do you do?"
"I do research, so we'll have a question, and then we will try our best to find the answers to the question.  What do you want to do when you're older?"
"Eat lots of biscuits without Mummy telling me off."


  1. I too want to eat lots of biscuits when I grow up without being told off :D
    great post Amy, 100% agree with your points, and even though the Brownies might have accidentally been mean or misunderstood that doing 'boy things is better' its so wonderful to read that they are even having these debates, because talking about this stuff helps us grow, as individuals and as a society, and I feel hopeful for the next generation that they are aware everything isn't as 'black and white' as we perhaps might have been brought up to think, or our parents/grandparents were.
    Really splendid read :) jenny xxx

  2. I am reading a fantastic book at the moment which discusses how feminist activism can exclude or sideline women who present as feminine (including trans women, who have often been criticised by mainstream feminism for choosing to present in a traditionally feminine way). Anyway, a major argument in the book is that feminists and lesbians (and lesbian feminists!) have for years implicitly said that anything feminine and traditionally 'girly' is subordinate to anything traditionally masculine (for example, she writes about how in both the gay male and lesbian communities, the people with the highest sexual status in terms of perceived attractiveness are those who present as masculine/macho while those who present as feminine are much less popular on online dating/the gay scene). It's really fascinating to pick apart certain preconceptions about pink=girly=bad for girls. The battle should be more about removing associations between certain colours/activities as gendered in a way that restricts children's choices. Am I making sense? I just worked non-stop for 10 hours so I fear not...!

  3. I'll write something more serious later, but for now, one of the best things about being an adult is being allowed to eat all the biscuits!


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