When I was a pre-teen and later a teenager, it was determined that I was deeply lacking in vital life skills. These skills were specifically female and constituted an essential part of becoming a successful Southern Russian wife and mother.
Many decades before, my Don Cossack great-grandmother had to sew several elaborate dresses for herself as a dowry. These dresses would be displayed during the wedding to demonstrate the awesomeness of the bride. In Soviet Russia, Cossack dresses were no longer a thing, but the idea of passing essential milestones in preparation for becoming a successful wife and mother still lingered. Instead of embroidered gowns, we now had to prove our suitability by acquiring a set of skills that would surely guarantee our womanly success.
In elementary school, it was scrapbooking. Paper was cheap. Pens were cheap. Craft materials were not, nor were they readily available, so the majority of special projects we had to do consisted of getting an “album,” a watercolor notebook about the size of a typical piece of print paper, cutting things out of postcards, magazines, and newspapers, and gluing them in a pretty way. This was accompanied by paragraphs of explanatory text written in the best handwriting possible and finished off by calligraphic heading.
Lenin’s birthday coming out – everybody makes a Lenin album. May 9th, the day of Nazi Germany’s surrender and the official end of WWII in Russia – everybody makes an album. February 23rd, the official Armed Forces Day – everybody makes an album. And universe help you if your album has a fingerprint somewhere or if your writing is crooked, because it will be held up in front of the class and ridiculed, because everything was turned into a competition. Boys got a pass, but you were not a proper girl unless you could make a pretty album.
Do you know how boring it is to make a fiddly scrapbooking album when you are eight years old? The stupid albums generated such a staggering amount of stress, I still vividly remember my mother helping me make them late at night, while I cried and she chewed me out for not doing things correctly.
The scrapbooking insidiously wormed its way back into my life in middle school, when “anketa” became popular. An anketa was basically a little notebook, which you would decorate with flowers cut out of greeting cards. The first page would have a survey and you would push this thing on all of your “friends,” so they could prettily fill it out. The more glitter you used, the better.
As the result of this and industrial shortages, markers became highly prized. All markers were called flomaster, and a good set avaialble for purchase would generate a line of teens around the block. It’s now been years and years, but to this day, I have a hard time passing by glittery gel pens. Something deep inside tells me that this is treasure and it might disappear if I don’t buy it. 🙂
The anketas were a way to discriminate. People would push their anketas onto popular kids and getting an invite from one of them to fill out their anketas was a big deal. I tried my best for a bit and then realized that this was a) boring because I wasn’t that popular and b) stupid because my mother asked me why in the world would I be giving other girls ammunition by telling them private things about myself. My decision to bow out was met with great scorn. 😉
I have continued on my merry way of failing various female milestones. When I attempted to sew an apron, I was told by a well-meaning but deeply tone deaf economics teacher that I sewed it the way a cow pees on the road – backward. This was said in the ear shot of my nemesis who smirked and then proceeded to tell everyone about it. In all fairness, she made a way prettier apron. I lost track of her after she dropped out after 8th grade and enrolled into a factory seamstress school. Sewing was clearly her calling. I hope she is doing well.
I had a hard time making a pretty vinegret salad.
I was eleven and my knife skills weren’t great. My knitting was a mess. Unsurprisingly, I did well in shop class, because my grandfather built things with his hands and since he mostly raised me while my parents worked, I am good with a saw and a hand planer. I saw the mechanical one in a home improvement show and it blew my mind. Somehow I have never realized that it was a thing. Sadly, shop talents didn’t count.
As I have raised two daughters to adulthood, it occurred to me how few of these skills are actually useful now. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy knitting and I can make spiffy flower arrangements and cook elaborate pretty dishes. My charcuterie board has no chill. I can sew now, although I do it the way other people make war. But I learned these skills mostly because I wanted to. They are hobbies. I still suck at calligraphy and have the greatest respect for anyone who can make a pretty scrapbook. My point is, none of these supposedly important talents were really required to “woman” successfully, whatever that might mean.
There are so many other skills more vital to being a capable woman, whether you were born a woman or journeyed to becoming one, and these skills are not gender specific. They just help you be a well-rounded person. Being able to cook for yourself. Knowing what the simple common health problems are and being able to administer the right over the counter medicine and first aid. Being able to budget. Being able to identify common car problems.
Why did we do this to ourselves?
I am so glad my kids never had to make Lenin albums. They can both cook. They both know what to do when waring lights in the car come on. They understand that cold medicine often contains acetaminophen and shouldn’t be taken with Tylenol. They know not to ignore their own health and mental problems. They know how interest rates work. I am satisfied with that.
And if they ever show an interest in glittery gel pens, I will open up my secret stash and dazzle their minds.