Christmas morning of 1968, when my identical twin sister and I were 5, we received a gift from our mother that came with a lesson I never forgot. She had bought Sherry and me identical (naturally) toy toolkits so that we could help our father build a bookcase. Inside the shiny white and red metal boxes were a small hammer, some nails, a miniature saw, and a few other items of interest to an aspiring carpenter. As we ripped open the wrapping, our mother was more concerned about explaining what was on the front of the toolboxes--a picture of a young boy staring lovingly at his father, with a caption that read, “For a boy to help his Dad.”
“Don’t pay attention to that,” my mother said, clearly exasperated--in contrast to her usually festive mood on Christmas morning.
“I told that store manager he shouldn’t label toys for boys and girls. Girls can use hammers too. It really irked me.”
My mother, who was so gender conforming in her parenting style that she sewed dresses but not pants for my sister and me, was still livid that this gift was targeted for boys. She knew how much Sherry and I liked to hang out with our father and “help” him with his various projects, and she was very aware of how we might perceive that image on the front. I was still convinced if I wore pants that I would turn into a boy, so she had good reason to be concerned in my case.
Why is it that over 50 years later I still had to go to the boy section of a nearby store to find an aviation-themed gift for a friend’s new baby? Why did I have to pass by all the pink unicorns and ballerinas in the aisle labeled for girls, and sort through the dinosaurs in the boy section, just to find something with an aviation theme? Let’s start giving girls some airplanes, because as my mother would say, “Girls can fly airplanes too.” And they sure can’t fly a unicorn.
Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., is a Professor of Aeronautical Science at Southern New Hampshire University, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor. She is an industry expert on human factors in aviation and is a published author.