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.