The making of little wimmin

Annemarie Grabrucker is a 13-year-old `experiment' in non-sexist parenting. Deborah Holder reports
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The Independent Culture
THIRTEEN-year-old Annemarie is proud of her mother and the feeling is clearly mutual. Not unusual, perhaps, but things could have turned out quite differently; for Annemarie was once the subject of what her mother calls "my experiment".

When Annemarie was born her mother, Marianne Grabrucker, wrote in her diary: "A child is born, a new woman has arrived. And her future is going to be different." Her daughter would not be like the women of her own generation, she pledged, but would demand much more from her education, her work and her relationships.

"I did not want her to be compliant, to keep her opinions to herself and to smile sweetly instead of contradicting. I did not want her to be always checking and rethinking her ideas before daring to open her mouth, unlike her male counterparts who would say everything three times and then repeat it once again. And I did not want her to be devoted to some man who would be continually finding fault with her until she lost faith in herself. I wanted her to avoid having plans for the future which were modest. My daughter was going to reach for the stars."

Marianne's experiment involved keeping a diary of her daughter's first three years. The result was There's a Good Girl, which became an international bestseller and is being reissued as an updated, 10th-anniversary edition. The book details a mother's attempts to observe and monitor the social conditioning on her daughter and discourage gender-specific influences. All this she recorded.

Marianne Grabrucker herself defies all stereotypes; she is neither a boiler-suited man-hater nor a thrusting career animal in shoulder pads. She is a slight and conservatively dressed middle-aged German lawyer. In the dingy hotel in Shepherds Bush where we meet, she is so soft-spoken I can barely hear her above the clatter of breakfast cutlery and tinny muzak. With her is her daughter, who doesn't look particularly like the product of a feminist anti-conditioning experiment. She looks like a pubescent girl: slightly self-conscious, tending to puppy fat and polite to grown- ups. Neither is quite what I expected.

I should have known better. My own first child was a girl, and I went through very much the same thought processes as Marianne did 10 years before. I was given her book by a friend and found much I could relate to. Like Marianne, I felt strongly that gender-specific socialisation had a lot to answer for, and like her I believed I could beat the system. My daughter would play with trucks if she wanted, speak her mind when she felt like it, stand up for herself and aspire to whatever she wanted. For my part I would provide a supportive environment and a role model.

But it didn't work out like that. Before she could even walk my daughter crawled towards buggies, dolls and all things pink, the frillier the better. She didn't like trucks; she liked Barbies. As soon as she could, she chose dresses; as soon as she could talk, she talked about people not things. She wasn't interested in cars, tools or mechanical things but loved fantasy games that centred on relationships - wicked queens and wayward daughters, orphans and their faithful dogs, but most of all princesses and their handsome saviours. She seemed to have a strong nurturing bent and wilted in the face of aggression. Biology was destiny after all, I reluctantly concluded.

Mothers everywhere, including Marianne Grabrucker, have had the same experience. "In the course of time," she admits, "I began to doubt and was often on the point of abandoning my theories and accepting a belief in innate gender-specific behaviour; so many `feminine' aspects of my daughter's behaviour could not possibly have been learnt from me." But Marianne stuck to her guns and, over three years, concluded that she had started out with a false premise. Her mistake was to believe that mothers are the main influence on their offspring. "The influence of the mother is maybe only 10 per cent," she says now.

She concluded, as I did, that social conditioning, in particular gender conditioning, is so all-pervasive, so much a part of our culture, that no one can avoid it. From its first day a child is exposed to thousands of tiny, apparently inconsequential acts of gender prejudice. It might be the way people always comment on a little girl's appearance but rarely on a little boy's, the way boys are encouraged to assert themselves verbally and test themselves physically while girls are cosseted and comforted.

"You can't tell a three-year-old, `Look, Grandma is a very conservative person but we do things a different way'," says Marianne. "You can't educate other adults either. Sometimes I wanted to separate from friends whose behaviour left me speechless, but then I would think, `No, this will make a good chapter'." She says this with a laugh but adds, "You can't protect a child from the real world. I thought it was better that she got used to it and grew stronger."

Ten years on, Marianne still rejects the notion of innate gender differences and warns these must not be confused with individual differences. "There are girls who are very feminine, and you can't change them into hard-nosed career women. There are boys who are vital and full of energy. You can't change characters and wouldn't want to. The problem arises when a girl is confident and energetic and is not allowed to express this, or a boy is soft and emotional but is not allowed to be anything but macho."

The greatest endorsement for Marianne's experiment comes from the subject herself. Annemarie says: "Even if my mother's diary sometimes gives you the feeling that her methods of bringing me up in a different way failed, I think the end result was a success." Annemarie now goes to school in England. At 12 years old she decided that it would be the best way to learn English so she sorted it all out herself.

"Annemarie has a great deal of inner independence," says her mother. "She doesn't wait passively for others to make decisions or act, but takes matters into her own hands."

Annemarie's parents split up when she was six but her father, too, believed in the benefits of a gender-free upbringing. "He was very supportive during those years," says Marianne, "baking the bread and doing a lot of the housework. He tried very hard but made the same mistakes as I did. But this was unconscious; we shared the same intentions, and he even gave up his job to spend more time with Annemarie. People could not understand this, and in the end it was too much for him. We didn't succeed together, so I had to do it alone."

Indeed the most obvious gap in Marianne's analysis is the role of the father. And her sensitivity to the influences on girls appears sometimes as harsh judgement on the bringing up of boys. When, as the new mother of a little girl, I read Marianne's diary, it all made perfect sense. Re-reading it four years later, having had a son in the meantime, I felt that she was only seeing one side. Boys are subject to just as many stereotypical generalisations; you just see one side of the coin when you have one kind of child.

In her book, for instance, Marianne records a trip to visit Santa with two-year-old Annemarie. While they sit happily singing carols, a disruptive little boy tears around the hall ignoring the singing and present- giving. The boy's mother comments proudly on his "spirit and fearlessness". "I'm amazed at the way Erich's mother ignores the truth," observes Marianne. "How simply and quickly a boy's mother can interpret lack of communication and sensitivity as manliness and strength." Maybe the mother was simply acknowledging her child's high spirits.

Marianne Grabrucker has only one child - and she's a girl. She freely admits to having identified with her daughter since discovering her sex in the fourth month of pregnancy. It is often the case that a mother identifies very closely with her adored first child: with a second child it's easier to see your perceptual bias as a mother and to laugh at it. When that second child is a different gender, you see how it is possible to interpret things in quite a different way. In other words, you see the other side of the story.

Annemarie doesn't feel her mother pressured her into any type of role. Unsurprisingly, pressure to conform has come from others. "I have to be very careful what I say with people I know have had a different upbringing," she says, but she feels that as long as she has support at home it isn't a problem.

A school friend of Annemarie's is not so fortunate. "She has the same sort of outlook as me - more likely to read National Geographic than Just 17 - but she comes from a family that is very traditional. She has problems at school, and with other girls, because she has to fight against her family background. She has to live two kinds of life, and she doesn't quite fit in either. With me, everybody knows what I am thinking."

She chose a girls' boarding school in England and is pleased with the outcome. In Germany she attended a mixed day school. "There were 12 girls and 16 boys in my class but the boys were so noisy and dominant that it seemed like there were 20 boys and only a few girls." Worse still, "the girls worshipped the boys and the boys looked down on them".

A girls' school has been a revelation. "Suddenly I notice that girls can be noisy too, that girls can put their hands up to answer a question without blushing. Now I have some girl friends who think the same way as me. Maybe there were some girls thinking the same way as me in the mixed school too, maybe they just didn't dare show it." As for boys, Annemarie can see why they are unlikely to change. "They have the advantage - why would they?"

! `There's a Good Girl', 10th-anniversary edition with new introduction and afterword, was published by The Women's Press on 23 March, at £5.99.