Last winter, before Abby Sunderland set sail in an attempt to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe, there was a "girl power" glow to her effort: "I admire you so much," gushed a 14-year-old girl, "and I think that you are the ultimate symbol of girl power." Source One parent wrote: "My 6 yr old daughter is getting a good lesson in 'girl power!' from her. Go Abby!" Source
Abby's journey came a year after her 17-year-old brother, Zac, made the voyage, and followed closely the voyage of Jessica Watson, another 16-year-old looking to set a record sailing solo around the globe. Jessica made it (but not in accordance with regulations), and her trip was marred when she fell asleep and crashed into a sea freighter. Source
While there might have been some marginalized criticism that Ms. Sunderland and Ms. Watson should not have set sail because of their gender, if it existed at all, it was de minimis. Those critics opposed to "sailing solo with vagina" were vastly outnumbered by critics of the voyages who questioned the sailors' inexperience.
Yet some folks insisted on constructing a gender straw man by framing the girls' efforts as a struggle against the forces of gender oppression.
There was some minor gender discussion in the blogosphere. One blogger wrote about Jessica Watson: "It gives me a little buzz every time I hear about her attempt; there was a little bit of fuss when she set out because she is so young, and, I suspect, because she is a woman, cause you know, women can’t do that kind of thing. I think that it’s so unusual to hear of a young woman doing such a courageous, dangerous and extraordinary thing; we really, as a culture still find it quite shocking."
"Shocking"? I am aware of precisely zero evidence for that.
Most of the gender talk came from the young sailors and their families. "The Sunderland parents anticipate another round of criticism . . . . They faced disapproval about Zac's voyage, and they expect the volume to be louder about an even younger child -- a girl, no less -- attempting something so dangerous." Now read this next breathtaking quotation closely: "Laurence Sunderland, 46, a shipwright and lifelong sailor, chooses to ignore the criticism but acknowledges the risk. 'I do grapple with it,' he concedes as Wild Eyes, a light and speedy craft that craves a tail wind, struggles to make 5 knots. 'Because she's a girl, it's harder for me to acknowledge her desires and have all this happen.'"
Spoken like the classic beneficiary of patriarchal privilege who has seen the oppressive errors of his ways, doesn't it? Let's translate: "Yes, world community, I, too, though that Abby shouldn't do this, but the reason everyone feels that way is that she's a girl, and therefore, whatever concerns we might have about her inexperience or age are really grounded in sexism."
Young Abby added her own gender take to the imaginary debate: "A lot of people see that I'm a girl and don't support me as much as they did my brother," Abby said. "It's understandable, and I do acknowledge that I kind of have disadvantages, but I'm just as capable as Zac is."
Ms. Watson and her family also supposedly experienced sexism. Her mother purportedly endured criticism so unrelenting that she "spoke out against what she called gender-driven bias." Young Ms. Watson regaled the press with tales of her own gender oppression: "Watson reflected on times when, as a girl growing up and learning about sailing, she had been overlooked because of her gender. 'As a little girl . . . people don't think you're capable of these things. They don't realise what young people, what 16-year-olds, and what girls are capable of. It is amazing when you take away those expectations what you can do and what you can achieve."
The sexism reported by the young sailors and their families was, of course, conveniently subjective, impossible to objectively verify. In fact, there is no evidentiary support for the suggestion that there was significant opposition, if there was opposition at all, to the girls' journeys due to their gender.
So why was the girls' gender raised at all? Consider that the girls' parents were subjected to significant criticism because they were allowing persons barely old enough to drive a car -- and not old enough to legally drink, to vote, to fight in a war, or to enter into a non-voidable contract -- to sail around the world alone. It is reasonable to wonder if the gender card was played in an attempt to silence otherwise legitimate criticism about the girls' voyages, to shame anyone who would dare suggest it wasn't a good idea.
And if that's true, in light of Ms. Sunderland's mishap last week that required a massive search and rescue mission, it's fair to ask whether imaginary sexism isn't sometimes improperly used as a sword, to benefit those who wield it, and to distract all of us from more important issues.