To Barbie or not to Barbie. That was the question.
That, and whether to allow my preschooler to wear all pink, all the time, complete with elaborate hairdos, jeweled tiaras, and a tiny feather boa. We had so much glitter going on—all over the house, all over her, all over me—that a coworker once asked if I was moonlighting as a stripper.
Was this all some cosmic joke? The woman who’d had short hair since fourth grade and never wore a skirt had somehow become the mother of the girliest-girl of all.
As a new and very busy mom, I learned to choose my battles. Were Barbie dolls really as evil as my progressive friends kept telling me? Would Disney Princesses turn her brains to mush? Was it hurting anyone that my child wanted to be a magic-kitty-fairy for Halloween and not Eleanor Roosevelt? While she loved accessorizing (and absolutely refused to wear anything as blah as blue jeans), she wasn’t hurting in the self-esteem department. She could run faster and was better at math than any of her male classmates. In fact, she had no doubt whatsoever that girls were superior. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the poem that she and her cohorts used to chant in the playground.
Girls go to college to get more knowledge,
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
On the one hand, I applauded this display of “girl power”; it was immeasurably important to me that my daughter grow up to be a feminist. I’ve identified myself as a Feminist with a capital F since third grade. My best friend’s mother was celebrated author and women’s health activist Barbara Seaman (The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, Free and Female). This amazing woman encouraged my creative writing and introduced me to Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan. In 1972, at the politically astute age of 10, my friend and I campaigned for Shirley Chisholm.
On the other hand, the little poem didn’t seem to be in the spirit of Steinem’s definition: A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men. I was appalled (after I had a good laugh). Clearly I had some work to do.
So, I began to look for teachable moments. Somehow I sensed (rightly, I’m now certain) that lectures would earn nothing more than that potent demonstration of daughterly disdain, the dreaded eye roll. I had to be careful not to get on too many soapboxes. I had to show her, not tell her, what it means to be a feminist.
My challenge became tougher as my daughter progressed from a child to a tween and then a teen (I chronicle many of the ups and downs of parenting during these stages in my blog and in my recently published book Lovin’ the Alien). Suddenly, there was pressure to be popular, to be skinny, to have a boyfriend. I was aghast when I learned that in the emotionally charged cafeteria pecking order, cheerleaders ruled the school.
Between mean girls and predatory boys, texting and sexting, and mass media that celebrate Miley Cyrus twerking and Kim Kardashian’s generous booty, it’s hard to help a teenage girl focus on what really matters—like her brain, strength, passion, and conviction; her rights as a human and as a citizen of this country. This is one of the most important jobs I have as the mother of a daughter. Here’s how I’ve tried to guide her over the years:
Marry a feminist—I didn’t actually do this for my daughter, I did it for myself. But it’s certainly helped her see past any “traditional” stereotypes. My husband respects my success in business and he does most of the cooking.
Help her love her body—Eating disorders are too common among girls my daughter’s age. I try to demonstrate a healthy lifestyle (regular yoga and Zumba classes) rather than complain about my midlife weight gain. And I reframe any comments she makes about her own body. “My thighs are too big” is immediately countered with “You have incredible thigh muscles because you are an equestrian eventer.”
Encourage her passions—My daughter’s focus (“obsession” is a word we sometimes use) on horses, riding, and competing have helped her through many a teen trauma. In fact, I’m often taken aback by how a snarky comment by a sometime friend can intimidate her when she’s perfectly confident riding a 1,200-pound animal over a 3-foot fence. The upsides of her expensive sport are physical fitness, strength, and discipline. And the bonus is that it is a sport, and a fairly demanding one, that is absolutely dominated by women.
Give her a sense of her own political power—I’ve taken my daughter to the polls with me longer than either of us can remember. When Hillary Clinton stepped out of the presidential race, I took time to explain my grief (there’s no other word for it) to her. She’s already looking forward to voting (hopefully for Hillary) in 2016.
Surround her with strong women—This is the second year in a row that my daughter’s Honors English reading list has been devoid of women authors (and in most cases women characters). I supplement this with my favorite classics: Jane Eyre, Little Women, The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, anything by Jane Austen. Granted, her recreational reading tastes veer more toward Gossip Girl and The Carrie Diaries. But at least it gives us something to talk about.
Help her compare her life to that of girls elsewhere—I want my daughter to support women’s rights, but I don’t want her to feel like a victim. It’s important to recognize the progress our country has made and to see her life in the greater context of women of the world. To this end, I’ve taken her to human rights exhibits and to documentaries like Girl Rising. Armed with insight into less progressive societies, she may be able to affect even greater change.
Honor her foremothers—A couple of years ago, my daughter came home with a list of approved Social Studies projects. She had chosen the whaling industry. I took one look at the list and completely freaked out. Breaking my own rules, I forced her to switch to the Seneca Falls Convention. I didn’t regret it. Neither did she.
Through it all, I’ve steered clear of preaching (all right, maybe a little about the Social Studies project). But I’ve pointed out inequities when we’ve come across them. I knew I had won when she started pointing out these inequities to me.
What I learned trying to raise a feminist is that there are things beyond our control. I’m reminded, often, of something my daughter’s pediatrician told me when she started to eat solid, real-people food. “You can’t control what she eats, you can only control what you put in front of her.”
That’s where I’ve succeeded. Not in controlling what my daughter thinks (or, heaven knows, what she wears) but in what I have exposed her to. My daughter is 16, and she is a feminist.