She confesses to me, “Mommy says I have to go. She gets mad when I say I don’t want to.” I wonder, I judge, but I hold my place as temporary authority. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have fun. All of your friends will be there!” She looks away from me, but I can still see her worry. Her name is Ella and I am her nanny. I love her fully while she is in my care. In my love, I too worry about where I am taking her, but I do it because I am told; I am the nanny, I have no choice in the matter. “Let’s go get you ready, I’ll braid your hair,” I say, in hopes of consolation.
I am taking her to Cotillion. A program for children based on an 18th century French dance, often in the form of a formal ball. The concept is new to me. Girls are to wear proper dresses that must be knee length, and with no less than two-inch straps. They are to wear stockings and white gloves. Boys are to wear suits, dress shoes, and have groomed hair.
We walk into the brightly lit ballroom that rumbles with the sound of social hour. There is a full bar for parents. Unbeknownst to me, parents (and chaperones in my case) were to be dressed in business or “country club” attire. Ella clings to me, holding so tightly onto my arm that it actually hurts. We both look at each other, with a sense of internal panic. One of the greeters coaxes her to the chairs surrounding the dance floor. She finds a friend, and I find a seat in the corner, hoping to not stand out amidst the pearls and perfectly groomed appearances. I am looked down upon because they can tell I am just the nanny.
As the program begins, the parents continue to chat with one another, sipping on their Pinot Grigio. A woman dressed in a conservative party dress approaches the middle of the dance floor – she looks like a retired beauty queen. She, and many other assistants all dressed similarly, lead the children in their first lesson. They learn simple dance steps like the Cha-Cha and are taught how to sit, how to approach one another, how to be proper in this civilized world. It is all seemingly harmless at first, although a bit humorous to me. Ella looks okay; nervous but becoming interested. I start to look around, and slowly notice that I am amidst a sea of white faces. Not uncommon for the town, but still, I notice.
While I started to see her unwind and smile a bit, I couldn’t ignore the pit in my stomach. Something was not right here. I tried to shake it off, bury my head into the book that I brought to soothe my boredom, but I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t stop my mind from rushing with thoughts; and then I started to see it. “Gentleman, take your ladies hand!”, “Ladies, let your partner lead you!” , “Gentlemen never panic.”
Aha, the patriarchy disguised as chivalry – it strikes again. I knew what this was, and analyzed it in detail. This is the same patriarchy that permeates our workplaces, our homes, and our communities. It keeps women small, and gives men more than enough power to rule our lives, even if they don’t mean to. Here it is now, colonizing these kids’ minds before they even have the chance to know anything different. Men are to lead, women are to follow. My eyes rolled, my blood started to simmer. The lack of concern from the now buzzed parents’ section angered me to say the least, but it wasn’t surprising. What did surprise me came soon enough. The teachers’ role play a scenario for us:
“What’s going through your mind,” says the man.
“Lots of things” she replies, “here he comes, I hope he doesn’t ask me.”
“Would you like to be my partner for the dance?” he asks.
“Yes, thank you!”
To which he then notes, to a room full of 8 year olds, in 2017, “And that’s what you say, ladies, when you don’t want to dance with him.” This was the teachers’ demonstration of what to do when a boy that you don’t want to dance with asks you to dance. You say yes anyways, they tell them.
I sit there, amidst the laughing parents, utterly stunned. I’m sure it shows on my face. I scan the room, looking for a hint of shock on anyone else’s face, but I find solace nowhere. Then suddenly, a lump forms in my throat, because here I am witnessing something so incredibly horrifying. I understand that feminist ideology is still challenged in some settings. I understand that teaching manners and politeness to children could be a good thing. I even understand that saying yes when you want to say no is just to avoid hurting feelings. But something must be understood here. To teach these children that to avoid hurting feelings, we must deny our own impulse to exercise the right to say no, the right to our own space and preferences, is incredibly damaging. That idea is what puts people in danger of being taken advantage of, being harmed against their will. In fact, this screams rape culture. The normalization of women not being able to tell men no, and that in order to be polite, we must keep our mouths shut. It’s truly infuriating that this would be clapped for by parents.
Women have gone through the trenches for centuries to debunk the myth that we are second class citizens. Women are no longer accepting that we are to stay in the home under husband’s rule. We are no longer accepting unwelcome advances towards our bodies with the same submission that used to be encouraged. I truly hope this does not come as a surprise to anyone, but women are just as strong, smart, competent, and capable as men. I hardly have the patience to explain this because to believe otherwise is not something that I will accept.
As the lesson goes on, my mind races with thoughts of concern. Should I let someone know how dangerous this all could be to these kids? Should I tell Ella’s mother? Maybe they just don’t understand. I’m sure they all mean well; but I know that their intentions are not enough. The damage is done, and will continue once I leave that ballroom. It is woven into the fabric of this tradition. I leave feeling powerless, just where they want me.
After the boys have gotten their partner a cookie and punch, being careful not to hold their cup the wrong way or God-forbid let the girls get their own snack, I find Ella. I hug her and tell her she did a good job, keeping my rage to myself. She did do a good job. She doesn’t yet know the messages her young psyche has soaked up. She has not a single clue of the reclaiming she will have to do for herself later. With every ounce of my being, I hope that she will never say yes anyways.