‘When you grow up and start dating, never let anyone put their hands on you,” I told my daughter after seeing a television show about domestic violence. “Never let anyone hit you — you are worth more than gold.”
She looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m only 7.”
As a mother and college professor, I have taken every opportunity to be on the lookout for lessons for my 16-year-old Angel. (That’s her nickname.) I’m not just talking about platitudes such as “girls are as good as boys” at sports or in school. I’m talking about raising an intelligent, strong, self-reliant daughter by attempting to be a living example. I don’t want my daughter to have to rely on anyone for her self-worth — and certainly not a man.
But what do I do when my daughter does something so strong and independent that it makes me uncomfortable?
That’s what happened last month when Angel, standing in our kitchen, revealed that she wanted to attend her junior prom with another girl. Not a girlfriend — a girl who is a friend. She proudly informed me of her plans six weeks before the event, saying she didn’t want to wait on a boy to ask her.
My mind was stuck in neutral. I should have affirmed her — saying, perhaps, “Yes, love, you are absolutely right” — but I felt disappointed. I held my tongue, trying not to express what was actually going through my mind: “A girl? Really?”
Though I believe in and teach others about the power of independent women, I still wanted my daughter to attend prom with a boy. I asked her about going with some of the boys she had talked about in the past, but she insisted that they were mostly knuckleheads and that she preferred to go by herself or with a female friend.
As the day approached, we purchased a beautiful gold-and-white strapless ballerina dress and flesh-colored, patent-leather shoes. As Angel talked endlessly about the dance, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she and her friend would be the only same-sex couple at prom that did not identify as lesbians. I assumed there would be other same-sex couples at the dance; her Montgomery County, Md., high school is largely accepting of gay students. According to Angel, the students who have openly discussed being gay aren’t teased and are respected among their peers. If Angel were a lesbian, attending the prom with a girl would have seemed normal. But she’s not, so I kept thinking: “Why not attend with a boy instead of a girl?”
I told myself I was being silly. I should be happy about Angel asserting her independence as a young woman. Even the mother of the girl Angel was going to prom with told me that she didn’t see the event any differently than if her daughter was going with a boy. And as one of my best friends pointed out, had Angel planned to go to the dance with a boy, I would have been worried about what he would’ve had in mind afterward.
Over the past two years, Angel has often complained that boys are full of themselves or don’t seem to understand girls. She has had a number of young men interested in her — texts and tweets from boys pinging her phone — but she hasn’t taken them seriously. As a woman who’s made clear what girls can do on their own, I should have been elated by her decision.
So why wasn’t I? Because I had to delay the speech I’d written years ago to the young man she would attend prom with — “Young man, you must treat her with respect, keep your hands to yourself and bring her home by midnight”? Or was it because, for all my feminist ideals, I still wanted to see a boy arrive nervously at the door and pin a corsage on Angel’s dress, walking out of the house arm-in-arm with my daughter?
I think it’s the latter. Perhaps in all the talking I’ve done over the years about not depending on a man, I’ve been trying to convince myself of something I don’t completely believe.
When the big day arrived, Angel’s father — thrilled that he didn’t have to worry about a boy’s intentions — dropped her off at her friend’s house so they could get ready together. That night, just before the girls left, I arrived, camera in hand. As they entered the dining room with their pretty dresses, heels and make-up, I was more than proud of Angel. Both girls were grinning confidently, aware of how beautiful they looked.
The day after prom, Angel shared the details of the event. She thought the DJ was “horrible” and the venue nice, but way too small, and she talked about how most of the other girls wore long dresses. She also said, “Mom, next year I want to go to the prom with a boy.” It appears that she grew tired of the chatter about boys from her friend during the prom and thought, why talk about them when you can have one as a date?
I want to say I had a feminist epiphany and, free of the clutches of the patriarchy, told her she could attend prom with whomever she wanted, male or female. But I can’t.
Without a doubt, I was ecstatic to hear those words. Next year, I can see Angel walk out of the door on the way to prom, holding hands with a boy. I can give my speech. I can see my daughter live out a tradition. And I can watch her put into practice all of the lessons I’ve taught her over the years.
Maybe Angel is a better feminist than Mom.
Terri M. Adams is an associate professor of criminology and gender studies at Howard University.