The year that a US president who boasts of “grabbing women by the pussy” was inaugurated, the year that women (and some men) from Hollywood to Silicon Valley said ya basta to unacceptable sexual behaviour, the year that #metoo saw people across the globe share so many stories of harassment and assault, just happened to be the year I gave birth to my daughter.
She was born in early July, a few months into the steady trickle of stories that has gathered momentum from Uber through Harvey Weinstein. I was knee deep in my loved-up newborn bubble, not reading much news, not really engaging on social media, but it was pretty much impossible not to notice the unfolding. And - as if the cultural baggage of the mythological Jewish mother were not a heavy enough load already - as it unfolded, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would all mean for my baby.
Parents are only too aware of the potential difficulties facing their precious offspring in the future. Jewish mother stereotypes aside, anxiety and worry are key parts of parenthood. For girls, dangers have a very specific hue, and the events of 2017 cast them into stark pink and blue.
What woman isn't a "me too"? Who hasn't been on the receiving end of an unwanted touch, look, or word – or worse? There I am, 16-years-old or so, working as a waitress. Whenever I go into the café’s kitchen, the cooks say things that make me feel horribly uncomfortable. I pretend to understand the joke, but I know it has something to do with my being young and female. There I am a few years earlier, standing on the tube, when a man starts rubbing himself on my leg. I can still remember his face. Like many women, there's more where that came from.
There was so much shock at how much #metoo resonated, but were women really that surprised? Surely, they knew all along. Women carry the knowledge of a lifetime of the frustrations and humiliations they suffer because they were born with two x chromosomes.
Parents try to protect their children, but mothers do not necessarily warn their daughters (or sons) what lies ahead. Women understand through myriad messages that we should be attractive, pretty, feminine. That we should shave our legs and be wanted by men. We are not warned that we will be so reviled for complying. We find out the hard way.
When I look at my five-month-old daughter smiling and struggling to learn as much as possible every day, she seems no different to her male counterparts except for genitalia and parents’ choice of clothes. Yet, we treat our girl and boy babies differently enough right from the start that at some point, they diverge beyond the biological aspects of gender differences. They diverge to such an extent that the overwhelming number of voices clamouring “me too” are female, and the overwhelming number who have abused their positions of power are men.
As a friend who also had a daughter this year put it, it seems easier to teach girls to look after themselves than to ensure tomorrow’s men behave otherwise. Would I even be thinking about this if my baby had been a boy? When I discussed this with my father, he reassured me I would raise a strong woman who could stand up for herself. But why is this something she should have to learn? Is it so hard to imagine a world where women don’t need to do that?
Becoming a mother confronts you with any feminist ideals you might have on a daily basis. Like some bad joke about political correctness, I tell my daughter how sweet and beautiful she is and then quickly balance with a list of not typically feminine words: brave, intelligent, etc. God forbid I over-egg on the weak, girly front.
I avoid too much pink or frills, everything available to identify her too much as a she, so as not to make her victim of her gender. I smile to myself if strangers mistake her for a boy, not because I want her to be one, but because it gives me a chance to point out once more that boy and girl babies really aren't all that different.
These aren't trivialities. We teach our little girls that it is important to be nice and pretty and we teach our little boys to be so very different. The problems highlighted by this year's developments are at least partly a result of this.
As 2017 comes to a close and outlets publish their reviews of the year, sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are the stars, if you will, of the past 12 months. Time Magazine named “silence breakers” person of the year. Even Merriam-Webster, the dictionary, named “feminism” its word of 2017.
Perhaps this really will be a turning point. Perhaps by the time my daughter is old enough to understand, attitudes will have shifted so much that the #metoo stories will seem anachronistic and even more outrageous. After all, much has changed even in my lifetime.
Legislation to deal with sex discrimination and sexual harassment has been enacted in various countries, and this year millions of victims spoke out with one voice. But in order for the pervasive nature of sexual assault and harassment to truly be a thing of the past, we must address how differently we treat men and women right from the beginning of their lives. We must address the different expectations we have for boys and girls. If not, how can we make sure that women no longer need to take the responsibility for making themselves feel safe?
Alona Ferber is a writer and editor based in London. She is currently on maternity leave.