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Nov022008

Raising a Feminist

In Canada in 1929 women were declared persons.  There is a statue on Parliament Hill commemorating the five Alberta women — Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards - who fought hard for this declaration, which was instrumental in the women's rights movement in Canada.

Today as I explored Parliament Hill with my two children, a boy and a girl, I was thinking about how to raise a feminist. That is, how to raise a child that will stand up for the rights of women and will not let anyone say that a woman can't do something she wants do do because of her gender.

Some things are obvious to me. I won't push my children into specific gender roles and I think our family with a working mom and stay at home dad are a great start at modelling non-traditional gender roles. Also, the society that we are raising our children in is one where women have achieved a great deal of equality, partly with thanks to leaders like Pauline Marois and her colleagues.

I will not push them into specific activities or toys based on their gender. If my son wants to knit and my daughter wants to play hockey, then so be it (although in reality I hope neither of them wants to play hockey!). But with toys that I give as gifts (rather than ones they choose themselves), I find there is a fine line between what society says they should like based on their gender and what I think they will like. My son loves cars, trains and construction vehicles. My daughter does too, but she already has so many of them to play with because our house is full of them. So when it comes time to choose gifts for her, I do tend to try to fill the gap and nurture other interests that she has that may be considered more "feminine".   I do give my son gifts that might be considered "girly" by some. I have a number of my childhood toys that I am passing down to my kids. I gave my kitchen (made out of wood by my dad) to my son and bought him the food, pots and pans, and so on to go with it. This year, I will be giving my daughter my doll house and buying new furniture and people for the house.

I will let both of my children believe that they can be anything that they want to be and won't tell them that they can't do this or that because they are a girl or a boy. I've never felt like I was held back in life because I was a woman. I've had all the same opportunities that my brothers and male classmates had. I've competed head to head with men for jobs and promotions and never had a fear that I would be passed over due to my gender.

In my post on the bias against boys, I made some recommendations for raising boys, several of which I think contribute to making a boy a feminist:

  • Teach our boys to be nurturing - give them the power of emotional intelligence.

  • Limit access to television and Internet and ensure that materials are age appropriate and do not include images of violence or unhealthy sexuality

  • Teach them about healthy sexuality and encourage them to ask questions

  • Encourage them to express their emotions and rather than keeping them bottled up inside

  • Teach them to respect people, including teachers, women and girls, those that are weaker than them, those that are different from them

 

I've also read some interesting posts called how to raise a feminist son and raising feminist boys.

As for my daughter, I want to teach her first and foremost to respect herself and be confident. I think those two traits will go a long way in warding off the effects of any sexism that she may encounter along the way. I want to teach her that it is okay to be a woman or be womanly (that does not make you weak), but I want her to be self-aware enough to not let anyone take advantage of her for being a woman. I want to teach her about healthy sexuality, so that she can minimize the risk of being taken advantage of and so that she can be an equal in her relationships with others.

I think we're off to a great start (as evidenced by her big grin sitting next to Emily Murphy on Parliament Hill today), but it is a journey we'll have to focus on each and every day.

What will you be doing to raise your girls and boys as feminists?


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Reader Comments (9)

It's hard to believe it was so recently that women were declared persons. What a long way we've come.

Those are great recommendations for raising boys - and for raising girls, for that matter.

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

I wonder why I dislike the word feminist. In my mind it is often bound to radical feminism and men-hating, not to women fighting for voting rights or against job discrimination. I've also seen it used in various contexts which explicitly attack the existence of gender differences. Some words seem too heavy with meaning, so much so that they are rendered meaningless. But whatever word you want to use...

Regardless if son or a daughter (I have a son), I want my child to be able to think, to follow a logical argument, to try to understand the other person's point of view (to empathize), to be nurturing. I do not think I will be able to protect my son from the stereotyping of the outside world (TV or no TV) - it seems that above the age of 7 kids are more influenced by their peers rather than parents. So the ability to think could come in handy. No idea now to nurture self-confidence though - I seemed to have been born with it, and some people claim that the ability to develop into a self-confident person is largely innate (that is if you don't have it nurture makes little difference).

If I do have a daughter, I might try to make her stronger (either in the "thick skin"/"self-confidence" sense or the "look-at-life-philosophically"). It takes many years for change to really set in, and even today, even in the western world, women need to fight against at least subconscious stereotypes.

As a woman scientist, two findings made a big impression on me:

1) If you take a journal article and ask scientists to evaluate it, both men and women would rate the article higher if the name of the first author was male rather than female, irrespective of the actual merit of the article.

2) A follow up study of highly mathematically gifted women who had decided on careers in engineering/physical science (classically "male" fields) found that a large fraction of them had quit by the age of 35 to pursue "more personally satisfying careers" in administration, social science, etc. A similar study of women opting out of information technology jobs (again a typically male field), found that one of the reasons quoted was "interest incompatibility" - among them the fact that women felt excluded from the general culture at work.

These two studies tell me two things: 1) we (both men and women) are responsible for the work-gender stereotypes, and 2) we are far from having dealt with the social causes of discrimination at work, to declare that small number of women in certain professions is a result of "personal choice". Both make me think that a woman today needs to have a strong will (thick skin and confidence) in order to overcome these and be really "free" to choose.

And finally getting rid of job "discrimination" (being able to tell apart or distinguish between people) is not what I want. I want parents (regardless of weather mothers of fathers) to be treated differently at work -- explicitly to be allowed to take more time off to take care of their children, part or full time, over those important first few years, without penalty of loosing the job or forgetting about any career prospects ...

Sorry for the long (and somewhat tangential) arguments.

Thea

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthea

@thea: I agree that peers have a lot of influence on kids, more than parents in many instances. That is why I believe it is important to continue to nurture a close relationship with our children even as they grow older. The book "Hold on to Your Kids" has excellent ideas on how to do that and why it is important. I don't want my children being raised by their peers. I want them being raised by me.

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] to join from The Hippie Housewife, who is also participating. I already posted on November 1 and November 2 and this will be my post for November 3, so I guess I’m of to a good [...]

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNaBloPoMo « PhD in Paren

Thanks for the link. Definitely some food for thought there. For my boys, I used to think that non gender stereotyped parenting was enough, but now I'm starting to worry about how to help them explore their "feminine" side, without leaving themselves exposed to teasing or bullying from the rest of the world.

I have no solutions, but it's nice to read others worrying at the same problem!

November 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpenguinunearthed

Lots of good ideas here! I'm the mother of an almost-4-year-old boy and found this post from a link in a mothering.com discussion. I'm also a social science researcher studying male life-course development.

Thea wrote:
"A follow up study of highly mathematically gifted women who had decided on careers in engineering/physical science (classically “male” fields) found that a large fraction of them had quit by the age of 35 to pursue “more personally satisfying careers” in administration, social science, etc.
[...]
These two studies tell me two things: 1) we (both men and women) are responsible for the work-gender stereotypes, and 2) we are far from having dealt with the social causes of discrimination at work, to declare that small number of women in certain professions is a result of “personal choice”. Both make me think that a woman today needs to have a strong will (thick skin and confidence) in order to overcome these and be really “free” to choose."

I agree with those two things, but I think there are other things to be learned or pondered here: 3) women moreso than men find satisfaction in working directly with people, and 4) women moreso than men feel it is acceptable to switch from "hard" science to social science. The way you have "personal choice" in quotes, and the way you talk about women needing to be brave enough to choose traditionally male careers, make me wonder if you think it CAN'T be truly a matter of the woman's preference because, like, everybody knows physical science is a more serious, real, intelligent profession than social science, so everybody would stay in it unless driven out by sexism.

I think it is high time to increase men's freedom to choose traditionally female careers, both to give men the same wide range of options that women are beginning to enjoy and to fill the vacancies in teaching, nursing, and childcare created by women choosing other careers.

Why are so few men interested in social science? Why is it considered unmanly to take a pay cut in order to do work that helps people? What can we do about the workplace culture of traditionally female professions to make men feel welcome? Is the small number of men in certain professions simply a matter of personal choice? I think those are some interesting questions that don't get enough attention.

You might be interested in the story of how Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department increased its female enrollment.

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

[...] Raising a Feminist [...]

What a great post!
I plan to let BiP choose what she wants to do ... I always wanted a train set and was always told it was for boys, as I got older I wanted a small air rifle and I was met with the same response. SO if BiP wants to play football and rock climb rather than do ballet I am all for it!

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMummyinProvence

I love this article! Thank you so much.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeah Perez-Lopes

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