Want a Feminist Son? Tips From a Veteran
"So Dan," says I, “What would you think if the woman you wanted to marry decided to keep her name?”
“Well mom,” says he, “I don’t think I’d want to marry a woman who didn’t want to keep her name.”
He was around ten then (he’s 30 now), in the car with us, listening to his dad tease me, as he has for years, that he “wouldn’t have let me” have his name if I did want it. Not a serious discussion of male oppression exactly, but humor teaches lessons too.
Someone asked me how we raised feminist sons. I don’t have a checklist. And if I were to respond seriously, I’d start with something really corny: teach them to respect people – all people. The elevator man. The bus driver. Their best friend’s mom. The guy at the candy counter. Their friends. Their parents’ friends. Their baby sitter. They were Manhattan kids, but they were raised to think of the feelings of every person they met. Of course, that meant all women, too. That was an advantage.
Oh, and we respected the two of them right back.
In the families they knew, most of the moms worked as hard as the dads. Since moms at home were an exception, they were used to two-income families. The daughters of these moms, the girls they went to school with, wouldn’t put up with much nonsense, either. That also helped.
We preferred offering choices over fiats. Most boys go through a Playboy phase. Call it curiosity. When the magazines began to stack up behind the old-fashioned radiator in our bathroom, we didn’t seize them. We talked about what it must have been like for the women in the pictures and how their parents might feel. I may have said (of course I said) that it offended me, but if they wanted to keep buying Playboy, they’d have to pay for it from their allowance and keep them all put away. Eventually the fever broke and the magazines disappeared.
I also changed the endings of a lot of stories I read to them when they were really little. No princess was given by her father to the guy who solved the riddle or won the quest in our versions. (I also had to change stories like Mr. Poppers Penguins because of terrible racial stereotypes, by the way) We read Harriet the Spy and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great as well as Encyclopedia Brown and Superfudge. (For more on great feminist Young Adult fiction, The Book Lady’s Blog covers a Ms. Magazine piece called Kick-Ass Girls and Feminist Boys in Young Adult Fiction) Also, back then when it was new, we listened to Free to Be, You and Me until the tape wore out. When we did come across unpleasant images of women on TV or at a movie, we talked about them.
Those movie moments were also “teachable moments.” As any parent knows, those scenes can enable a dialogue that might otherwise be impossible, whether it’s about smoking and drugs, bullies, sex, or the partnership between women and men. They’re always popping up; not just in entertainment but also on the street, with family and friends, and in easy conversations. We made the most of those, too.
I’ve sort of written things down here as I thought of them and now as I reread this, I realize how much I’ve focused on image and media. I guess that’s because those sorts of opportunities were overt and therefore highly productive tools.
The modeling that went on at home was also critical of course. We were nowhere near as exemplary as couples are now in their parenting and household equity. It was the 70’s and 80s. Even so, we were very aware of the issues we needed to pass on and both worked to do it. (For a more contemporary look , try The Feminist Breeder, who, in a consciously egalitarian marriage, describes her own thoughts on raising feminist boys. or Penguin Unearthed as she offers her own perspective.)
Our boys, from when they were little, learned to cook, iron (that was our babysitter, not us), do their laundry and clean the kitchen. They made their beds (mostly) and helped out at our parties. Each has always had close friends who were girls, and later, women. They still do.
As I conclude though, I return too to the concept of respect. If you are steeped in a respect for all people – not as a political habit but a deep, personal value, it’s a lot tougher to use your maleness to seize control of a household, a family or a workplace.
Finally, beyond all the values and logistical and modeling issues lies a fundamental fact. A child who is well-loved and respected is far more likely to accept the values we choose to pass on, and that underlies everything else.