How to Raise Your Children to be Feminists, or as I like to call them, People

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Teaching Children the Meaning of Gender Parity

I was in a recent virtiolic debate level-headed and meaningful discussion with a couple of friends over this previous post regarding the inequities in pay between female and male pro-sports figures. I happily report that everyone came out of the discussion unbloodied and, at least on my part, grateful for the opportunity to gain more understanding about the variety of factors that inform both perspectives on athletics in general and attitudes regarding women in sports.

Even more interesting, however, was the question posed by one friend who is the father of a toddler: “what would your take be on how to raise a son who is masculine and plugged into his wild nature, yet sees women as equals and not to be coddled?”

You can imagine the wicked delight in which I reveled for a few brief moments, pondering the myriad ways to go about answering this question while drawing fully upon the thunderous and venomous righteousness of the grand-poobah-feminist-on-high authority granted to me by virtue of my awesome and powerful gender—then I relaxed and came back to planet earth. It’s a serious question, and one that I’d never really considered before.

But consider it I did. The foundations of our value systems begin to be laid at birth, and our first and often most influential teachers are our parents. Despite the fact that I will never be a parent, I believe the pervasive rumor that parenting is hard. When I started to consider what it would take, given certain conditions within our society, to teach children ideas about and appreciation for gender parity, it hit me how hard that job really is. As a personal thought experiment, it seemed like an interesting challenge to figure out what values I would want to pass on to any children that were incautiously left in my care, and how I would demonstrate those values (while attempting to avoid the “do as I say, not as I do”cliché).

There is so much more to it than this—as no doubt every parent would tell me—but I think these are a good start.

  1. Rape and sexual violence are never a joking matter. If you feel like making a joke about it, remember that 4/5 women you know have experienced it. Would you make a joke about rape if your Mom or sister had been raped? Probably not, so don’t do it. Period.1.1 If someone around you makes this kind of joke, remind them of the above.1.2 Make children realize that the goal isn’t for women to learn how not to get raped, but for men not to rape them.

    1.3 When they are old enough to start getting frisky with someone, they should never assume silence is consent.

  2. Using physical dominance to get your way is only appropriate when you are being attacked and have to defend yourself, or are playing a sport where size is part of your advantage and wielding it accordingly is acceptable. People who win arguments by hurting their opponent are hardly more enlightened or advanced as a species than gorillas or ants.
  3. Awareness is crucial. Seek out and understand how strategies employed in language, images, stereotypes, pay inequities, historical accounts, media, and culture in general work against minority groups and women (and in many cases, promote violence), i.e., phrases like “you guys” as a catchall for addressing a group; “you run/cry/throw like a girl”; “you’re a pussy”, etc. Explain how terms like “feminazi” are an attempt to conflate women who identify as feminists with an unreasonable, dangerous, and violent political force that got what was coming to it (thus implying that feminists should “get what’s coming to them.”) Be aware of the epidemic in movies/TV shows where women’s only roles are as supporting characters for men, or TV shows/movies where the hero “gets the girl” (which are most of them, and whether she ever showed interest in him or not). Know what the Bechdel Test is. Burn magazines like Maxim. Understand that when you see commercials where a scantily dressed, attractive woman is draped across a car/bike/billboard/fill in the blank, the message is that both the object and the woman are part of the package, and both equally attainable as an object to the buyer. Realize how things like TV commercials about products like laundry soap or floor cleaner where women are pitching the product 99 out of 100 times reinforce stereotypes about women’s roles being “in the kitchen,” “domestic servants,” and NOT suited for “real” professions or careers. Teach children how using words like “bitch” for women who stand up for themselves or refuse to kowtow to an expectation of how women should behave (because of gender roles and rules), is wrong and an intimidation tactic to keep women “in their place.”
  4. Respect everyone, not just people who can beat you at arm wrestling or keep up with you on a trail run, i.e., people who can physically dominate you.
  5. Teach a son that his masculinity (whatever that is) isn’t threatened if a girl beats him on a math test or has a better vocabulary than him.
  6. If you’re a father, demonstrate equality by half the time being the partner that cleans the floor and does the laundry while your wife/partner takes it easy on the couch with a beer.
  7. Be a vocal advocate for gender parity. If, as a man, you win your race division and get $100 and the woman who wins her division only gets $50, protest this, and tell your children how and why it is wrong.
  8. Foster friendships between boys and girls.
  9. Make sons understand that birth-control is equally their responsibility.
  10. Help children read the Bible with the understanding of women’s roles at that time and in those cultures, and why those roles are inappropriate, particularly in modern society. Ensure they know that the Bible has never been translated by a woman, and (regardless of your feelings about religion) those who wrote and translated it had a vested interest in preserving patriarchal roles and value systems.
  11. Teach children that modern chivalry is not about women being weak, but about being polite, thoughtful, and willing to protect other people because it is right, not because they’re your property or you want something from them.
  12. Seek out historical accounts of events that were written and experienced by women, as women have been erased from most of history and their contributions are still less frequently taught in modern curriculum. Same for minority groups. Ensure children know what the effects of past things like war, famine, politics, etc. were on the women that lived, fought, and died during them.
  13. A biggee—sexual politics. Make them understand that a woman who has multiple sexual partners is no more a “slut” than a man who is just “sowing his wild oats.” Teach them how these terms are wielded differently to condone sex as acceptable for men but not for women. Teach them how women’s bodies have been used historically as tools of patriarchies for ensuring the continuation of men’s lineage in hierarchical systems. In other words, how women’s bodies and sex were controlled and treated as the property of men.
  14. Make sure children understand that welfare originated because prior to the women’s and civil rights movement, it was legally permissible for an employer to pay women less, thus making it impossible for women to earn a living wage without being married to a male “breadwinner.” There were so many widowed women and disabled people after WWI that the nation realized they would have a starvation epidemic on their hands if they did not do something to supplement the wage gap. Teach them how these economic inequalities also imposed heterosexuality on those who might not otherwise have been.
  15. Understand that women who self-identify as feminists are not all the same, and that they’re people first, just like children. Teach them that the majority of feminists don’t hate men. They hate being treated as less than men.
  16. Teach them that catcalling or unsolicited comments on how a woman looks or dresses are not complimentary; most women consider this intimidating, violating, and/or threatening. Understand this and honor women’s rights not to be afraid to walk down the street. [And by the way, have you heard of the Hollaback movement? Pretty much the coolest grassroots street harrassment-fighting initiative ever.]
  17. Teach them that gender is not a binary but a continuum, and that enforcing gender roles, such as only allowing women to wear skirts and only allowing men to serve in combat, is exclusionary and discriminatory.
  18. Remember, men are not a standard. Never judge the worth or credibility of something strictly by how many men contributed to or were involved with its creation. The reverse is also true. Never automatically discount something’s worth or credibility based on how many women contributed to or were involved in its creation.
  19. Learn that beauty is just a physical characteristic of person, and not a measure of their value or worth. Also teach them that beauty is a moving target, not a fixed ideal. Teach them to recognize that fake, airbrushed images of so-called beautiful women are a lie and serve to obfuscate the myriad differences and qualities in women of all kinds that make them beautiful on many levels.
  20. Understand the realities for women of lower socio-economic classes who are victims of domestic abuse. Before blaming women for staying with an abuser, learn about and understand the cultural forces that ingrain in women a low sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and trust in their own self-reliance. Understand that many women, especially those with children, have no alternative to staying with an abuser in order to continue to support their families.

Like I said, just the tip of the iceberg. But taking each of these points individually and using them every day as a foundation for helping children develop an understanding of the world and the contributions they can make to improving it, seem, at least to this non-parent, not terribly daunting. What other methods can we, as a just society, incorporate in our collective child-raising responsibilities to promote respectful and egalitarian future generations?

My thanks to The Amazing Hip for prompting this post.