In 1979, my mother Phyllis Chesler was interviewed for a New York Times piece on raising feminist sons. She told The Times that she thought one of the most important things in raising a male child was to involve fathers in daily childcare. She also reported that I (then 19 months old) was given lots of toys to choose from including “teddy bears and trucks,” but that I wanted a female doll, which I cuddled with and fed and called “Baby.” She quickly added that I was “quite a whiz bang on [my] bicycle.”
Other feminists, such as author Robin Morgan, had their sons play with “dolls as well as blocks,” pointed out feminist issues to their sons, and told bedtime stories about heroic women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Eleanor Smeal, then president of of the National Organization for Women (currently president of the Feminist Majority Foundation), described setting an example in the division of household chores so that her son would see “there are no women’s jobs and no men’s jobs.” Author Lois Gould similarly had her sons perform typically female tasks at home such as doing the laundry, vacuuming, and helping to prepare meals.
Still others mentioned exposing their sons to strong female colleagues engaged in typically male professions, or bringing their sons to work. Responding to the fear that sons raised in feminist ways would grow up to be homosexuals — a fear reminiscent of the recent backlash to Target’s decision to stop labeling toys for boys or for girls — author Letty Cottin Pogrebin retorted that the “homosexual threat” is always used when “we challenge the patriarchal system that keeps men in a supremacist position.”
In other words, other than the phrase “whiz bang,” all of the content in a 37-year-old article on feminist parenting is very relevant today. Should we laugh or cry first?
Indeed, the same pointers for feminist parenting are made in many recent articles on parenting, including the continued importance of allowing children to play with all sorts of toys, making sons do the dishes, having fathers engaged in childcare and household chores, the use of homophobia and sexism to police boys’ gender expression, and the absence of women in children’s media. In November 2015, The New York Times even published a roundtable debate on raising boys which covered the ideas of modeling inclusivity, speaking up when boys are subjected to gender limitations, and encouraging individuality. And, earlier this year, feminist Joanna Schroeder suggested 18 easy ways to raise feminist boys, which included concepts voiced in 1979.
A Huffington Post piece profiling powerful women on raising feminist sons from this May even mirrors the 1979 article, and features Jillian Michaels describing letting her son play with a doll, Feminista Jones talking to her son about sexism and historic heroines, Ilyse Hogue imparting what she knows about feminism to her son, Reshma Saujani planning to show her son equity in household chores and gender roles, and Geena Davis promoting teaching children about sexism in movies and television shows.
As a boy raised by a feminist, I was exposed to authoritative women, read books by and about women, and played with dolls and a diverse range of toys. I was also told and shown that men and women could do anything, wear anything, be anything — that women could run countries and that men could be tender, present fathers — and so I learned to value individuality and self-determination. All of these things also taught me how to listen to and love women, how to learn from them, how to honor their narratives, and how to move beyond narrow visions of masculinity that limit and dehumanize men and boys. I also believe these ideas made the modern hands-on dad possible and inform how I parent my daughters every day.
But, I also know that I was deeply impacted by the culture in which I was raised. Thus, despite all these great foundational lessons inside my home, I internalized the sexism around me, including from my favorite childhood movies and television shows and in the misogynist rap music I grew to love.
I suggest we recognize two things.
First, feminist parenting is primarily about analysis and awareness and doing our best to raise non-sexist kids while living in a sexist society. Even we feminist parents have internalized sexism and remain works in progress, and so we must constantly challenge ourselves as well as our children. This work lasts a lifetime and will remain necessary until we are able to change the power structures in our society.
Second, the feminist values we teach our children will be contradicted by their media, peers, and by the adult world. As Lucia Valeska noted to The Times back in 1979, we must focus our attention on moving women into the public realm, as this “will change the situation in the world.” Nell Scovell, the film director, in her op-ed advocating for more female directors, recently put it this way: “Awareness without change is worse than ignorance.”
In short, the first order of business for feminist parents must be to demand more female representation in government, business, and Hollywood. Until we really change those things, we will continue to have our work cut out for us at home.