Girls can shed sexist upbringing

I don't much like shopping. But there is one advantage to my rare trip into the world of consumerism. Every time I make such an expedition, I find myself thinking hard about the culture I live in.

I found myself shopping the other day near a young girl following her mother. The girl must have been around 7 or 8. She was crying.

The mother was remonstrating with her daughter.

"You don't want to be looking around over there," she said. "Those are boys' toys. That's the boys' aisle."

My stomach hurt.

I was a child who loved playing with "boys' toys." I loved trains and Matchbox cars and race tracks I could set up and try out.

But I got to play with those sorts of toys only because I had a younger brother, who got such things in abundance.

I liked playing outside with the neighborhood kids. Some of the things I liked playing, such as baseball and basketball and touch football, were, back then, mostly boy things.

I grew up during what historians call "second-wave feminism," when women fought for better pay compared to men and the acknowledged right to go by their maiden names after marriage.

When I was first married, I expected my generation would be the last to grow up in a culture that defined children by their gender.

I teach my college students that they are lucky to live in a culture in which their ability to achieve will be measured by their brains, not their brawn. This means, I tell them, that women can compete right alongside the men.

Then I go out to shop and hear mothers tell their daughters to stay in the girls' section, where so much is pink, flowery and about playing house.

I know a number of toddlers. The girls are inevitably dressed in pink and purple (sometimes blue). The boys wear orange and green.

I almost never see a girl in green, unless the green is part of a flowery landscape filled with pinks and purples.

Pinks and purples are just another layer in a world that teaches girls to head for the aisle with dolls and their little homes.

What happens as they get older?

I recently went shopping with a 12-year-old for clothing to wear at a family event, and 100percent of the dresses on the juniors rack were strapless or clingy or both - the sort of things I associate with Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe.

Here's the amazing fact: Some of the strongest, most capable, most efficient women I've ever known are born and raised right here in the South, where girls are told not to play with boys' toys.

Two of my closest friends were born and raised in the South. Both are well-read, rational and unfailingly polite and gracious. Neither knows pretense or show. They are unafraid to say (gently) how they feel or what they think.

They are smart, savvy, elegant women.

I hope that little girl wipes the tears off her face and grows up to an independence that gives her the right to check out the "boys' aisle."