Five Things I Want My Daughters to Learn about Feminism

My seven-year-old daughter has pictures of Betty Friedan taped to her bedroom walls.  The pictures are on leftover handouts from the college English course I teach.  My daughter hung them after I explained to her Betty Friedan’s importance.  (In 1963, Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, largely considered to be the start of second-wave feminism.)  Before this discussion, my daughter had laughed at the picture.  She explained that her friends had laughed at the picture and she had followed suit.  These young girls mocked something that they do not understand, and this concerns me.  Consequently, I want to make sure that both of my daughters inherit a legacy of feminism.

Yet it’s not the major figures or the dates of the feminist movement that matter when children are young.  As I thought about how to educate my daughters on feminism, I decided that it’s more about how we raise our daughters to think and feel, rather than being able to recognize Betty Friedan’s picture.  The following is what I want my daughters to know about feminism.

1.  I want them to know that their bodies are a normal, beautiful creation that they should embrace, no matter the shape, size, or color. 

We’ve taken a step in this direction recently when my oldest daughter expressed a curiosity about breasts.  Knowing that children usually need information about five years before they will use it, I immediately purchased a copy of The Care and Keeping of You, published by the American Girl company.  This book covers everything from grooming and braces to breasts and puberty.  There is even an illustration of breast development, to which my daughter immediately said, “Yuck!  That’s gross, Mom.”  Because of her statement and the pictures, we were able to talk about how breasts are not gross, but a normal part of the female body with real and important functions.

The book also covers freckles, something that my daughter already dislikes about herself.  Because of this book, we’ve been able to have a conversation about her body image and about her future development in a mature and open way.  I’m sure there are other books that accomplish this same feat.  Perhaps the importance of such books is that they promote honest conversations about the body.

Along the lines of body image, I think that the example we set for our daughters is equally as important.  I have heard of girls thinking themselves fat in first grade, likely because their mothers are constantly worried about their own appearances.  My daughter came home from school once to tell me that she was going on a diet like her friend, a boy who was “dieting” because his mom was.  Keeping a healthy body through diet and exercise is important, but worrying our young, healthy kids about it is not.

2.  I want my daughters to know that motherhood isn’t wrong and doesn’t make you crazy.  Likewise, being a working woman isn’t wrong either. 

I have been scorned for being a working mom.  I find this reaction to my job surprising, especially since many of the women I know work from home.  (My work as an adjunct instructor takes me outside of my home for about six hours a week!)  Somehow in my community, moms who work outside the home are still at odds with the traditional stay-at-home mothers.  I don’t think this is right.  I think women should be accepting of each other and work together to raise happy, healthy children.

On the other side, some perpetuate the idea that mothers who work are somehow greater/better/smarter than those who don’t.  Working moms are revered as people who “do it all.”  Those who give up the working life—leaving behind friends, colleagues, money, prestige, a sense of accomplishment, and (don’t forget!) the wardrobe—are considered lazy.  This view of stay-at-home moms shouldn’t exist, nor should the competition between those who work and those who don’t.

The other problem is the media.  During the first several months of my oldest daughter’s life, I watched television more than anybody ought to.  The television became my connection to the world, a place I seemingly left after becoming a mother.  Despite the lifeline and noise the television brought, I began to think the silence (and loneliness) was preferable, as the constant media barrage only contributed to the baby blues and feelings of inadequacy stay-at-home moms sometimes have.  While I thought the black box was my friend, it stabbed me in the back, telling me of my incompetence by becoming a mother.

The most vivid example of this was a Century 21 commercial that featured a pregnant woman stopping a school bus to ask the children about their school.  She asks questions the children can’t answer.  She even refers to one child as “you, with the funky hair.”  The bus driver rolls his eyes and pulls away, with the pregnant lady running behind him as fast as I know I could never run while pregnant.  This seemed funny to me at first, but then I realized what the commercial reinforced: the notion that pregnant woman (and mothers) are crazy.  One of the children on the school bus remarks, “She’s crazy,” before the bus driver pulls away.  Even he agrees with the child that the woman is crazy, so he drives away as fast as he can to “protect” the children from the mother-to-be.  Is this stereotype fair?  Are we to believe that pregnant women are crazy or that children should be frightened of young mothers?

The “crazy” pregnant woman stereotype is certainly common.  During the 2004 trial of Scott Peterson, one of the dismissed jurors noted feeling sorry for Peterson, saying that “pregnant women are crazy.”  I had no idea that this was a defense for murder.  This idea that children should be frightened of young mothers must certainly affect young girls in many ways, one of which is through body image.  The message is that because your body is biologically programmed to give birth, you are automatically inferior intellectually and emotionally.

And although the media tells us that mothers are essentially “crazy,” celebrity is above this.  I can’t count the number of times Oprah gawked over a celebrity mom on her show.  The “young” celebrity would talk about how wonderful it is to have a newborn.  Oprah would then tell the celebrity that she is glowing and looks fabulous.  I’d glow and look fabulous too if I had a nanny and kitchen staff and housekeepers.  Alas, I don’t.  Neither does the vast majority of the United States, let alone the world.

From the media, we learn, and so do our daughters, that if you are a celebrity, it is cool to be a mother.  If you are not rich or famous, you are considered crazy and/or incompetent.  I don’t want my daughters to believe this because it isn’t true.  I want them to be confident in their womanhood, whether or not they choose to become mothers, and to feel like they can make that choice without being judged or labeled.

3.  I want my daughters to learn that they are capable of being anything they want to be.

This obviously goes along the lines of motherhood and/or being a working woman, but how do we teach this?  As controversial as she is, Barbie did this for me as a child of the 80s.  I learned by playing with her (besides the unrealistic body image) that women can do or be anything.  My Barbies were rock stars, doctors, astronauts, mothers, teachers, and athletes.

Probably a more effective way of accomplishing this is to allow our daughters to try anything.  As a toddler, my daughter had blocks, dinosaurs, and cars along with baby dolls, dress up clothes, and stuffed animals.  Now, she takes ballet, practices piano, and plays on a soccer team.  I don’t care which one she chooses.  I care that she has tried and has decided for herself what she likes.

4.  I want my daughters to know that women are just as important as men.

I already see my oldest daughter, who just finished second grade, feeling discouraged because the boys are better than her at math.  Susan Jacoby, a columnist for the New York Times, calls this “a self-inflicted female disability” of which I am guilty (190).  However, I will not allow my daughter to fall into this same trap.  Instead of reinforcing the stereotype and agreeing with her that boys are better at math than she is, we do a lot of math practice at home.  Through her hard work and determination, my daughter is catching up and staying at grade level, something her female teacher commented on with enthusiasm.

In addition, I want my daughter to stand up to the boys at school.  She has had boys play mean tricks on her at recess.  These are normal playground behaviors, but I want my daughter to stand up for herself.  Whether this involves revenge or simply speaking up is her choice, but she shouldn’t accept aggressive treatment.  It’s okay for girls to raise their voices, especially if it is for the right reasons.

5.  I want my daughters to know that being smart is more important than being pretty.

I’m not perfect at this because I enjoy primping, but I think a start is to avoid the mall and focus instead on education as a way of spending time together.  We read books each night with admirable heroines, ones who stand up for themselves and promote strength and intelligence.  So far, one of our favorite heroines is Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona, a tom boy with short hair, skinned knees, a spunky personality, and a boy for a best friend.  They play brick factory together and have musical parades for birthday parties, rather than princess parties.

The other series we really enjoy is the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Laura is the plainer sister, something that irks her, but she focuses instead on the hard work her parents must perform to settle the west and make their family life happy.  Neither of these books is about princesses with princes who must come and save them.  In fact, Laura saves her sister Mary many times from danger, and as they age, Laura’s role becomes that of seeing and interpreting the world for Mary, who has gone blind.  These books are about strong girls who think for themselves and families that stick together.  The characters are realistic, and my daughter can relate to them.

Now, why did I have a handout about Betty Friedan for my college English class, you ask?  Well, I find that many of my students believe feminism to be a dirty word.  We often read essays about gender and family.  Inevitably, a student asks the question: “What is feminism?”  Of course, there are many types of feminism, but a standard answer is the idea that men and women deserve to be treated equally.  Students usually realize that they already espouse feminist ideals because they agree with equality for the sexes, equal work for equal pay, and that household responsibilities are no longer considered the woman’s sphere.

Despite this knowledge, my students can’t believe that their future lives will involve inequalities at work between men and women.  They have a hard time believing that men still earn more than women or that women still face sexual harassment at work.  In addition, I live in a conservative area of the United States, where many of the women aspire to be mothers, an admirable goal.  But consequently, they think feminist issues don’t concern them.  Feminist issues concern everyone.

When I entered the workforce in the early 2000s, I faced sexual harassment from the start.  Luckily, the company I worked for took my concerns seriously and fired the offender.  During this same time, I had a female doctor that consistently treated me unkindly when my husband was not present.  She sarcastically commented on my job as a secretary.  She never gave me the chance to explain that my duties as a secretary included proofreading and editing, and that I was biding my time before working my way up to becoming an editor.  I did become an editor, but not without starting at the bottom and working my way up.

My point is that women must model what successful feminism looks like to younger generations.  They must embrace young women and encourage them to continue the legacy.  I found this doctor’s criticism of my career path disheartening, especially when everything else I said or did in her presence was ridiculed.  This troubles me.  If young women see that “older” feminists are contradictory and curmudgeonly, they will be less likely to associate feminism with positive gains for women.  They will instead see the movement as outdated and hypocritical.

We must model feminism for our daughters.  Raising children can be a joyous experience if one is educated and has the ability to pass a free legacy onto her daughters.  We must make sure they know and admire the women who have sacrificed much to guarantee their own equal marriages, opportunities in the workforce, and the right to choose when it comes to having children.  Teaching our daughters about feminism isn’t drilling facts and dates into them. It’s about instilling the values and qualities that feminist activists have fought for in order to continue to make progress.  It’s about allowing our daughters to embrace and benefit from the sacrifices of others, and to in turn continue the legacy so that our granddaughters might enjoy even more equality, freedom, and self confidence in being women.


Jacoby, Susan.  “When Bright Girls Decide that Math Is ‘a Waste of Time’.”  The Brief McGraw-Hill Reader: Issues across the Disciplines.  Ed. Gilbert H. Muller.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 190-92. Print.


49 thoughts on “Five Things I Want My Daughters to Learn about Feminism

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  1. There are so many kinds of feminisms; I hope young women will realize that essentialism–which is the kind most often criticised–is but one.

  2. I like Betty Freidan the Feminine Mystique! I read a lot of her work a couple of years ago regarding the problem with no name, and now I am actually reading the book to refresh some of the things she wrote about. I am glad you are teaching your daughters and allowing them to explore the opportunities available. We need more of this in our society. Thanks for sharing

    1. I love her book too. I am also hoping to get a copy of Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring from the library soon. It is about the problem with no name and everything that ensued following Friedan’s book.

  3. I love this post! Unfortunately I never took a feminism class so I don’t know names and dates. But I am aware of the brave women who fought for voting rights, who broke into male oriented careers, stood up against sexual assault and harassment and even successfully made spousal rape a real thing under the law. We owe so much to these women and it is a shame that their extremist reputation is often what is brought to mind. I think it is wonderful that you are doing your utmost to teach your girls their legacy and to love themselves for who they are. I think raising children in this day and age, especially girls, is a constant battle for their self-esteem in the face of a ruthless media and more and more extreme bullying. God bless you and your precious girls!

    1. Thank you, Caitlin! It sounds like you know plenty. It is really amazing the sacrifices some of these women made that we cannot even comprehend having to deal with. We are so lucky to live when we live and to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Emily: Good Night. !

    Very interesting your writing about feminism. I have great interest in the subject, not by the question of feminism itself, but by changes in the family that feminism has caused. I am totally in favor of the emancipation of women, but I am against certain results of radical feminism, like abortion, and a political discourse that presents the male as “something bad” … This ideology, discourages marriage and encourages promiscuous unions …. But I agree, that in the past (and still), men did (and still do) women suffer a lot. And feminism has not been able to improve this situation, but worse. (Many women today, they imitate the mistakes of men ….) It’s good that women work, study and independent, but are happy in their families: men, women and children …

    I also have a Blog. I started writing, but as it is not my office, I had to interrupt, but has three items you might be interested because this theme: women and family. One is an essay on the “Housewife”, and the other is on the American series “MAD MEN”: A reflection on the changes in the family, based on episodes of the series. I’m sending a translation into English, and I confess: I used the google translator service, and then made ​​some corrections. I hope the translation, has been good.

    I’m currently writing a book: A novel based on 50 years. I hope to finish later this year.

    If you want to add me on Facebook, my e-mails! Is:

    A big hug!

    Eduardo Pereira.
    Sao Paulo – Brazil.

    1. I understand your reservations toward feminism. It is a big word and there are several types. I am not extreme, which maybe makes my views a lot like yours. My interest in feminism applies mostly to literature, but I also like to see equality in real life as well. As to societal changes, I think with any shifts, there will be consequences, good and bad. Thanks for pointing that out. Perhaps with the family, men can and already have been more involved, and that can only be good for children. I am with you on abortion (I can’t see myself ever having one) but I do think the option should be available, especially in cases of incest or rape. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Fantastic post! I’ve thought about if/when I have children, how I will raise them- daughters AND sons- to be feminists. Also: in one of my Spanish lit classes, a teacher asked us to raise our hands if we were feminists. I was the only one. It is a dirty word for so many people, and I can’t figure out why.

  6. Great post – and lovely to see you banging the feminist drum! ‘We read books each night with admirable heroines, ones who stand up for themselves and promote strength and intelligence.’ – this is such an important factor. It always amazes me that people claim their children fall into gender stereotypes = boys/girls will be boys/girls, when they read them the type of books that propagate these stereotypes to the nth degree. You sound like a fabulous mother, and your daughters are lucky to have someone who cares so much about their sense of self.

    1. Thank you! I try to be a good mother. I am not perfect. I often joke that being a mother has made me less patient, rather than more patient, as people claim becoming a parent will do. But we try, apologize, and try again. I know for sure that I want my girls to be stronger than I was and am! And isn’t that what parenthood should be about: making sure our children are somehow better than we are? And to me that is what feminism is about too.

  7. I love all of these points. I desire the same for my girls (if I have any). It is very sad that feminism is so misunderstood and unfortunate that many “feminists” are actually just women who put down all that is male. One of the first things that happens when I start sharing my views and put the word “feminist” out there is people start listing all of the horrible things that women have done in the name of feminism. This reminds me of a post by Everyday Epistle: Out of curiosity, since I don’t know if I’ll have boys or girls or both, do you have any ideas of how to teach young boys to be encouraging, loving, and respectful of women?

    1. Thanks for reading! As to boys, I don’t now, but I do know that the best way to teach children anything, good or bad, is by example. Good luck! It will be fun to see what your family ends up being once you are ready for little munchkins. 🙂

  8. I am a 17-year-old girl from Italy, and I call myself a feminist. My interest in feminism started when I read “Dalla parte delle bambine” by Elena Gianini Belotti, a book about the way parents and teachers enforced stereotypes about differences between sexes by treating girls and boys in a different way. I consider this book a guide for me. I wonder if it has been translated into English.

    Your article is inspiring and I agree completely with you; I noticed, too, that girls don’t know what feminism is, and most of them think that it means hating men and sex.
    I don’t know yet if one day I’ll be a mother, but in case I’ll follow your suggestions.

    Have you read “I am an emotional creature” by Eve Ensler? I think your daughters will like it when they’re older, 13-14, perhaps.

    I wish happiness for you and your family, and I thank you for this simply great post.


    1. Thank you for your kind words! I have not read the Ensler book, but I will now and share it with my daughter when she’s old enough. I am glad that you call yourself a feminist. I think most of the people I know are feminists, but they don’t know what it is so they do not identify with it. I guess we can try to change that. Thanks for your comments!

  9. This is a great post and just what I needed to read right now!

    As part of the Daily Post’s blog challenge in which I am currently participating, one of the tasks was to expand my reading of different blogs. So, this afternoon, I sat down with my laptop and entered a few keywords in my WordPress Reader. I stumbled across a blog post which irked me so much: the author wrote about the “evils” of second-wave feminism and how she was lucky to have “survived feminism” when she was in college, because there were so many radical feminists pushing their own agendas.

    I knew I should have simply clicked onto a different blog but I ended up posting a polite comment about how I believe feminism to be simply about equality between women and men, as well as the right to choose without being judged or harassed. Her response to my comment left much to be desired. Instead of a civilized discussion, her comment was patronising — apparently my beliefs are simply due to my age (“You must be very young”). Blah!

    Although I accept that people have the right to believe what they want, I wish people wouldn’t distort feminism into something which it is not. Thank goodness for people who know that feminism isn’t a dirty word.

    1. Oh my! I totally respect her right to have an opinion on the matter, but I dislike uncivilized commenting and responding. I think being respectful online is important. But that’s just me! I know there are plenty of sites that encourage mean comments and attacks. I do think feminism has changed, and there are many types of feminisms. I guess I can see why she would feel the way she does, but I do think that no matter how much we disagree with second-wave feminism’s style or tactics, we have to admit that those women accomplished a lot for all women. We benefited because of that movement. I’m glad you liked this one, Grace. It is one of my personal favorites!

      1. Her lengthy response irritated me more than it should have done. I usually stay away from potentially inflammatory online debate about divisive issues because I’ve seen too many discussions spiral into rudeness and antagonistic behaviour.

        Although I have strongly held personal beliefs, they tend to stay personal unless I am in a space where I know people are going to be respectful and non-judgemental.

        It is a wonderful piece of writing. And your daughters are fortunate to have a mother who teaches them well. 🙂

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