On Raising a Male Feminist

by david

I’ve posted before about our goal of raising a daughter who rejects our culture’s marginalization of women. We want her to see herself as capable and equal and independent. I haven’t figured out how to do that, exactly, but keeping the goal in the forefront of my mind keeps me aware of my language and the messages she’s getting from her environment, and that awareness helps me make better decisions.

Well, now we have a son, too. He’s three months old. He’s great: a smiling, amiable, dimpled and unsleeping bag of semisolids. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to mold him into a misogynist. Heck, I’m not sure he knows the difference between me and the cat. Forget men and women.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my daughter, it’s that kids are QUICK learners. Every single day my daughter says something that reveals not just what she’s been actively taught, but what she’s been passively taught: what she intuited from our behaviors, our preferences, and our silences. From my haphazard approach to organization, she’s already learned an anti-orderliness we need to work on together. From my endless praising of “funny,” it’s become one of her cardinal virtues. Our focus on apologies taught her that the crime is not the crime: failing to apologize is the crime. Oh, that bud is getting nipped.

I’ve no reason to think my son will be any different. He is already watching everything. In a few months, he’ll be forming ideas, and in another year, beginning to express them. And so, surprise, I find myself thinking about how we can raise him to natively reject the marginalization of women. I want to make sure he has no rights or privileges that his sister does not, and to be certain he doesn’t expect them. I think about how we can raise not a gentleman, opening doors for charmed thankful ladies, but a good man making sure doors aren’t shut on deserving, equal women.

Parents with good intentions can easily raise a polite but chauvinistic man. The world doesn’t need more of those, but it’s what most of us are, and it’s what the media helps to manufacture. The American conception of a successful man is of an athletic or corporate conqueror, whose prizes are wealth and blondes. The American conception of a successful woman is the gorgeous blonde princess who captures the quarterback and has it all. Men are supposed to beat men and win women, and women are supposed to please the best men. We don’t say these things, but they’re everywhere. We teach misogyny implicitly, not explicitly.

We want to raise a son who can recognize this and act and speak against it. Not because women need him to in order to see themselves as equal, but because for society to normalize as equal, change has to happen from both sides. My daughter doesn’t need her brother to be a feminist in order for her to recognize her equality, but she needs her brother to help change male behavior. It shouldn’t take courage for a man to speak up against the sexist behavior of his friends, but very few men do or would. Despite our knowing what’s right, we live in a culture where what’s right isn’t normal, and it does take some courage to act against that. We still live in a culture of men as conquerors and women as prizes. For well-intentioned men to make a difference, they have to overcome their advantages. A major advantage men have is that we can do nothing and pay no consequence.

I haven’t thought this all through yet, but I’m beginning to think that fathers have to model a new way for their sons. It’s not enough for a boy to have strong women to learn from: he should see men pushing against the culture, the culture in which the Violence Against Women Act was not only endangered, but in which a Violence Against Women Act is necessary. It’s not enough to be a man that disagrees with the norm: quietly disagreeing doesn’t change anything. Quietly disagreeing reinforces the notion that nothing’s amiss, that the culture isn’t broken. Parenting a better generation requires better than that.