Wisdom from a five-year-old

Hi all,

Sorry I’ve been quiet; we had a bit of a family medical emergency here that took up much of my energy. Sometime late last week, my five-year-old daughter injured her knee, and with each day that passed it seemed to worsen. By Tuesday her knee was a huge, red swollen mass with a puffed-up white area on top. (Hang in there with me, as there is an eventual point to all of this.)

After getting the knee drained of pus and going with her for a follow-up visit yesterday, she and I were chatting while I administered her antibiotic and helped change the Band-Aid. She was telling me all about how painful it had been to have it drained, in the kind of detail only a kindergartener can muster, when we started talking about doctors. She made some comment about how doctors are girls.

“Well, boys can be doctors too,� I told her.

She didn’t contradict me (for once), but I could see from her face that she didn’t really believe it. And as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve realized that she doesn’t remember ever having been to a male doctor. She had one male pediatrician when she was a baby, but besides that, every doctor, every dentist, every eye specialist, every physician’s assistant she’s ever had has been a woman. I think that the only male doctor she’s ever seen has been Doc Hogg on “Bear in the Big Blue House,� and I’m not sure that counts because he’s not human. J

With the exception of the dentist, all of that was unintentional on our part. (When we moved to Kentucky and I was looking for a dentist, I succumbed to a wonderfully sexist ad in the yellow pages: “Gentle dentistry with a woman’s touch.� I picked up the phone immediately, and I’ve never been sorry.) Jerusha must think that the entire health-care industry is driven by women. And, of course, education, as she’s never had a male teacher or school principal. Oh, and publishing, since almost all of the colleagues who’ve visited me here at the house have been women. In her mind, maybe all that men do in the professional world is bring truckloads of books, since the representatives who come every day from UPS, FedEx, Airborne Express, and the post office are all guys.

Is anyone else astonished by this? Things have changed so much in a short time. I’m only 34, and I keenly remember my mom going out of her way when I was Jerusha’s age to tell me about women in various jobs and affirm that I could do anything, be anything. But I didn’t know any women doctors until I went to college. Ditto for women pastors, engineers, business executives, or college professors. As you can imagine, going to Wellesley was like coming home. I felt hedged in with possibilities.

It seems that Jerusha is already there. What makes me happiest is that since she was three, her answer to the inevitable “what do you want to be when you grow up� question has been immediate and consistent: “I want to be a mommy.� What’s wonderful is that mommy-hood is what she sees as highest and noblest even when she has already experienced what my mom tried to give to me: she simply takes it for granted that women can be anything.

What else can change in a generation, I wonder?

15 comments for “Wisdom from a five-year-old

  1. October 14, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    My wife has decided to become a pediatrician and is currently applying for residency programs. I think she’d enjoy reading this post, so I guess I’d better show it to her. :mrgreen:

  2. Glen Henshaw
    October 14, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Unfortunately, engineering (my field) is still very much male dominated. As is science in general outside of biology. I’d be interested to learn more about the dynamics that led so many women into medicine. Does anyone here know?

    Like you I have a daughter and like you I go out my way to tell her about all of the things a woman can do and be. One of our favorite bedtime stories is about Amelia Earhart and her beautiful red airplane in which she flew across the Atlantic. And Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. And Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle. And on and on. She doesn’t make any distinction between what boys can do and what girls can do. That makes me very happy.

    Here’s hoping engineering and the sciences can change in the next generation.

  3. Will
    October 14, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    I can’t name a single female physicist other than Madame Curie. Can anyone help me out?

  4. Julie in Austin
    October 14, 2004 at 6:24 pm


    She may not be internationally prominent (yet :) ) but I am pleased to report that a close friend of mine is a physicist. This is a woman about whom books should be written: I once sat next to her at some stake RS thing and was stunned as woman after woman approached her and talked about their lives. She wasn’t in any leadership position, but she knew and, you could tell, cared about them all.

    But I digress.

  5. Ben Huff
    October 14, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    Great to hear, Jana! And congratulations on her implicit compliment.

  6. diogenes
    October 14, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    I can’t name a single female physicist other than Madame Curie.

    Actually, Curie was more of a chemist — although admittedly, back then, it was hard to tell. If you’d settle for famous female chemists, that’s fairly easy . . .

    Can anyone help me out?

    Rosalind Franklin, maybe? X-ray crystallography should probably put her in physics at least as much as Curie.

  7. October 14, 2004 at 9:44 pm


    Things certainly have changed. To demonstrate how much better the ether (where we pick these things up) is now from 25 years ago I’ll share a mortifying but true story of my own.

    When I was five years old I came home from kindergarten one afternoon to find my mother typing away as I always did. She announced with great pride as I walked in that she had almost finished an essay she was writing. In response I said, “Gee, Mom, that’s good for a girl.” She quickly pulled me aside and we had a little talk about my misconceptions. To drive home the point about how far we still had to go on these issues (this was in 1979) she published this story (much to my chargrin). As you might imagine I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to show her I learned my lesson well. :)

  8. Rosalynde Welch
    October 14, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    Fun post, Jana. The women’s movement certainly has wrought major changes with astonishing speed, and I have directly benefited from so many of them. (Of course, there have been some unexpected social consequences, as well, not all of which have been positive for all groups.) I am my mother’s first daughter, and I’m continually amazed at how many more possibilities and resources are available to me than were to her: the scholarship I was awarded at BYU in 1992 wasn’t even offered to women when she applied to the Y; the idea of pursuing graduate education was utterly natural, even inevitable, to me in 1998 whereas the thought hardly crossed her mind in 1974; the flexibility to have children while in graduate school was built into the system by 2001 when my daughter was born, whereas this would have been almost unthinkable (barring full-time daycare) in the 70s.

    Ironically, my experience in this new world might lead me toward somewhat more limited vistas. I’ll be supportive of whatever educational choices my daughter makes, of course. But if she asks me what I really recommend, I’ll have to admit that I hope her passions lead her to a field that can be brought home: it’s so much easier for me, a writer/researcher, to combine my work with a satisfying family life than it is for dear friends who are ballet dancers or scientists.

  9. Glen Henshaw
    October 15, 2004 at 9:36 am

    Dr. Jill Tartar is director of the SETI Institute and one of the most famous astronomers in the world. That’s not really physics either but it’s close.

  10. Kristine
    October 15, 2004 at 10:10 am

    Ha!! I knew someday it would come in handy to have a physics professor for a dad (sometimes it was downright painful, like when he’d yell from the sidelines of my baseball games “shorten the lever–move the fulcrum a little!!” instead of “choke up!”). Here’s what he had to say about women physicists:

    Here’s a Web site where you can see who is doing what these days, and also some stats:


    In general, physicists are not as far along as chemists and biologists in terms of fractional participation by women; I suspect much of that has to do with early math education problems, because it’s usually mathematical depth that separates those sciences from physics (except in physical chemistry, Henry Eyring’s field, for example). As for women in physics, my favorite is Maria Goeppert Mayer (Nobel laureate for quantum theory as it relates to light), but you would also have to name Emmie Noether (distinginguished theoretical physicist of the late nineteenth century), Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin (Harvard astrophysicist), Lise Meitner (who did not get the Nobel but should have for fission), and of course Rosalind Franklin (trained as a solid-state physicist). Among current practitioners, I’m a big fan of Baerbel Rethfeld, a Leibniz-prize winner in Germany who works on ultrafast laser-materials interactions. Time will tell, but she has the capacity to do both experiment and theory, and is a terrific person besides. Check out this Web site for more information:


  11. Doug
    October 15, 2004 at 11:03 am

    Educational research is increasing its efforts to understand the gender gap. Women over took men in college enrollments in the late 1970’s, both groups have continued to increase since, with women at a slightly faster pace. The latest research seems to be focusing on the disadvantage for males. I will not be surprised to see more research in the coming months/years about the lack of role models for males in things intelectual (public speaking, writing, getting good grades…). For many males it is not “cool” to be smart in school.

    I will be interesting to see if society is much more sensitive to the gender gap than the achievement gap for minorities.

  12. cooper
    October 15, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    One of my best friends at church has her doctorate in plant pathology. She is currently teaching at the community college waiting for her youngest to graduate high school. She had great role models as her mother and father both have doctoral degrees in science related fields.

    Unfortunately, she is also regarded by many in the ward, as being intimidating because of her chosen field. It is utterly untrue. She’s the most down to earth person I know and would rather spend the day with her than most people I know.

  13. Carrie
    October 15, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    I love your story. I still remember a time when I was around 4 or 5 and a plumber was at our house to fix our water heater. I said something to him about how I wanted to be a plumber or astronaut, but I wasn’t a boy. Bless his heart, he looked at me and told me that girls could grow up to be anything they wanted to be–what a guy.

    As a woman studying mechanical engineering, where the percentage of women is much lower than in most other areas of engineering, this issue is very close to my heart. =)

    I think one of the main reasons more women don’t choose to study engineering (or physics) is that many women set a priority on helping people and doing good in their careers. It’s easy to see how being a doctor or a teacher will help people, but it’s a bit more difficult to make the connection between designing missiles or rockets and doing good. (Of course, engineers do do a lot of good and have helped our society in numerous ways; it’s just a matter of communicating that to girls who are trying to decide what to study.)

    Also, people tend to make their career decisions based on the subject areas in which they feel strongest and most comfortable. Even though there are many women who are strong in mathematics and science, I’d guess that most of them do better in their English classes than in their math and science classes. (To use myself as an example, in every standardized test I’ve taken, I’ve done extremely well on the math portion–but I’ve always done equally well or better on the verbal portion. In addition, the lowest grades I’ve received have all been in math or science courses.) Since people often falsely think that engineers need only math and science skills, many girls who want to use their strong verbal and interpersonal skills may not even consider engineering.

    There may never be an equal number of male and female engineers; but I think that the numbers would be more equal if more girls entering college viewed engineering as an area in which they could make a positive difference and if more girls understood that strong verbal and interpersonal skills are highly valued in engineering.

  14. Glen Henshaw
    October 15, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    Carrie- good for you! Where are you studying and how far along are you?

    Incidentally I always scored higher in English than in math too.


  15. Carrie
    October 18, 2004 at 12:36 am

    Thanks, Glen. I’m at Arizona State University, and I’ll get my degree this December–assuming all goes well between now and then. =)

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