My daughter turns 21 today. In contemporary American culture, that’s a significant milestone. As of today, she can drink alcohol legally and the cost of her car insurance decreases significantly. She’s very excited about the former and I about the latter, but I’m sure there are other legal dimensions of turning 21 that neither of us has thought about yet.
According to the American legal system, Anna is an adult, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. And yet, she’s still in college (covered by her dad’s health insurance for a bit longer), with no plans in the foreseeable future for a wedding or children. She sees herself as too young for any of that. More immediate are thoughts of her first job, more travel, maybe grad school.
Of course, for most of human history what we consider adulthood started much, much earlier, and there was no real childhood as we know it today. In ancient Israel, the pressures of the agricultural economy and the threat of high infant mortality meant that young women likely reproduced as early as physiologically possible (12? 13? 14?). And all people, young and old, contributed in some way to the family’s survival. Children were workers–able to pull weeds, gather stones, and accomplish light labor. Research compiled by Carol Meyers in Discovering Eve suggests that by the time children were 5 they could contribute more calories to the family’s sustenance than they consumed. Even though the NRSV translation of Zech. 8:5 speaks of boys and girls playing in the streets, both “playing” and “streets” likely looked far different from their modern Western counterparts.
As I described in a chapter of Challenging Prophetic Metaphor, ancient expectations for daughters were far different from those where I live. Rights to determine sexual access to a woman were never considered her own but were transferred directly from her father to her husband. While most girls in this culture are dependents for a portion of their lives, ancient women were forever dependent on the males who controlled their food, their property, and their reproduction.
Unfortunately, there are too many ways in which old ways of thinking about women and women-as-daughters are still going strong. Women are still conditioned to evaluate their worth by their attractiveness to males. In fact, the stakes have been raised by the availability of more and more consumer products. There’s no excuse any more not to be thin, acne-free, fit, and gray-free hair for the rest of your life. If you don’t come by it all naturally, buy it.
But modern women have new expectations, too. They’re expected to be smart, get lucrative jobs, and make a lot of money. According to Usher and Cosmo, they should be a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed. The new expectations haven’t replaced the old ones but have been piled on top of the already towering heap.
I wouldn’t want to trade places with ancient women, or to have my daughter do so. But I also believe that women today —young and old– live with pressures that are new and difficult. Welcome to adulthood, Anna. I wish it were going to be easier, but then again I wish your youth had been, too.