As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.
Life Lesson #73- Feminism
In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Hilary Clinton cracked, but did not break, the ultimate glass ceiling. Feminists mourned the lost opportunity to advance the status of women everywhere. In fact, it seemed we had taken a huge step backward.
But then came 2017 and the all-out mobilization of women in this country. They responded. There were marches, local elections, the #MeToo movement, and a slew of strong female characters in pop culture. Merriam-Webster named ‘feminism’ the 2017 Word of the Year, citing a 70% rise in look-ups over 2016 along with intense search spikes correlating with news events.
I’ve wanted my three sons to be feminists since each of them was born. One reason is that their mother is a feminist. Another is that I am a feminist. But the biggest reason is that the world needs more feminists, especially males. The silver lining in this tumultuous and often painful time is that this a poignant moment to instill in them the value of feminism.
First, let’s dispense with this wacky notion that feminism is a dirty word. Unfortunately, it has been co-opted, then marginalized and sullied, much like liberalism and progressivism.
News flash- I am a pretty progressive thinker (my vegetarianism and valuing civil rights being just two clues). If someone throws “progressive” at me as an insult, fine. Whatever. But at its core, being a progressive is about pushing for progress, and who could really argue that that’s a bad thing? So I own being progressive.
“It’s not enough for my sons to hear about feminism. They need to see it, especially in me.”
Feminism is not radicalism. It’s a term that is patriotic, actually. Our founding fathers (oh, and I wish I could use “parents” there) did scribe that “all men are created equal” and they were talking about white men. But our country has repeatedly come to redefine that phrase as, “All people are created equal.” The struggle continues on all fronts, but feminism recognizes the equity of sexes.
Feminism is about good economics. Research has shown that when more women are educated and join the workforce, economies grow. The rising tide of women raises all boats.
Being feminist will help my sons be good people. If they treat women and men equitably, they will have stronger friendships and working relationships. They’ll be citizens who rightly respect and consider all candidates and leaders, never disqualifying someone without a Y chromosome. They will be better boyfriends, husbands, and life partners. Should they ever have daughters, they will be better fathers.
I had a rather gradual journey into feminism. My parents shielded me from sexism and misogyny, but they never preached the virtues of feminism. They divorced when I was young and for several years my mom was a single-parent role model. I watched her work very hard through school and into a professional career.
I went to Brown University, as liberal a college as there is, and got a heavy dose of feminism there, academically and socially. In grad school and at every place of work I have been in the minority as a male; I’ve had many female bosses.
I don’t want to assume that my sons will just find a path to feminism like I did. The stakes are too high and the forces of sexism too pervasive. So my wife and I are being intentional about paving that path. Here are some ways we are laying the bricks:
Unpacking the Word
Feminism has to be about action. But it’s important that my sons know the word and what it means. Merriam-Webster defines feminism two-fold:
- “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”
- “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”
In our family we began with that first definition, boiling it down to “everyone is equal, women-men, girls-boys.” We’ve been adding in the domains, discussing things like how women and men should earn the same amount of money for the same work.
“Female heroes are everywhere and counter the stereotype of women valued just for their appearance and sexuality.”
The sports world, specifically tennis and soccer, has given us opportunities to get into this idea. Isn’t it obvious that Serena Williams should earn the same prize money for winning Wimbledon as Roger Federer? We’ve pointed out the political reality and ramifications of, for example, having so few women in the U.S. Senate.
The January 2017 Women’s Marches helped to explain the second meaning of feminism as a movement. My wife has told the boys about what she learned in pursuit of her Women Studies Certificate in college. Over time we’ll look to be increasingly involved in the activist side of feminism.
Celebrating Female Role Models
My sons have plenty of male role models since they are so easy to find. Fortunately, there are just as many female role models, we just have to work a bit harder to illuminate them.
We look back. My wife has a long list of historical heroes (“bad-ass women,” as she calls them): Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Marie Curie, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Dian Fossey, Susan B. Anthony, and Maya Angelou. We talk about the contributions and accomplishments of these and other remarkable women. Our sons have read about some of them, and the stories of a few have been captured on film.
We look around. Female heroes are everywhere and counter the stereotype of women valued just for their appearance and sexuality. In our family women from politics and the arts get their props: Oprah Winfrey, Kirsten Gillibrand, Gloria Steinem, Rachel Maddow, J.K. Rowling, Patty Jenkins, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Emma Watson, and Kamala Harris.
Again, sports have given us so many moments to nurture feminism. We’re a family of soccer fans and were much more invested in the U.S. Women’s National Team at the last two World Cups than the men’s team; it helped that the women were much more successful than the men. Our guys watched their father and mother go bonkers at the clutch Olympic performances of Allyson Felix, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky, and others.
We’re also basketball fans, and one of my very favorite experiences was when Jen and I took our oldest son, Josh, to see the University of North Carolina Tar Heel women play the Maryland Terrapins when he was younger.
Both teams were highly ranked and brought their A-games to Chapel Hill that afternoon. The game was thrilling and went to overtime, where the Tarheels prevailed. Afterward, Head Coach Sylvia Hatchell took the microphone to thank the still raucous crowd for their constant, ear-splitting support. To this day we talk about how awesome all of that was.
And of course, there is their mother. My wife is a bad-ass woman, if I may say so. She juggles the demands of parenting three active boys with a full-time career. I point out to them her many talents- she sings beautifully and is one of the best writers I know. She somehow finds time to volunteer and support causes important to her and to all of us. Of course, she traveled to Washington D.C. last January to march as my sons and I proudly watched news coverage from home.
Am I the ideal husband who does no wrong? Of course not. I mess up all the time. But then my sons see what an apology looks like.
Calling out Sexism and Misogyny at Every Turn
My wife has told our boys about how their maternal great-grandmother had to give up her education in the 8th grade in order to support her family after her father died. Then their maternal grandmother was essentially given two career choices when she was in college: teacher or nurse (now our sons are more likely to be treated by female physicians than male physicians).
Their grandmother was engaged by the time she was a senior in college and we’ve explained to the guys that the norm at that time (the 1960’s) was for a women to be married around graduation or be labeled an old maid. Females make up the majority of university student populations, but we need our sons to understand how that was not always the case; many major universities got their starts as finishing schools for women.
The abhorrent behavior that ignited the #MeToo Movement has been tough to discuss, but we have tried to do so in age-appropriate ways. Josh is a teenager now so it is imperative that he understands “no means no” and the insidiousness of rape culture. We don’t tolerate a “boys will be boys” mentality and, thankfully, have had scarce “locker room talk” to shut down.
We’re about compassion, sensitivity, empathy, and kindness. Our sons play basketball and soccer, engage in plenty of rough-housing, stage epic Nerf gun battles, and often act like knuckleheads. We also let them cry when they’re sad or hurt, never shaming them for showing such emotion. The lesson we’re trying to teach them is that feelings are not assigned to one gender or the other.
Walking the Walk
It’s not enough for my sons to hear about feminism. They need to see it, especially in me. Many times they’ve been to where I work, Southeast Psych, where women are in the majority. They see me interacting with colleagues and fellow leaders who are women. I also model friendship with the opposite sex. I don’t claim to be perfect, but I really try to show them how to respect all people and to carefully use words- and words matter.
Jen and I share in the housework. I wash dishes and clean toilets. Our sons probably see me doing laundry more than their mother. Before they move out of our home they’ll be fully versed in the art of house-cleaning. They won’t assume that a girlfriend or wife’s job is to wipe up after them.
Which leads me to the most important way that I walk the walk: treating their mother like the full partner that she is for me. We are a two-name family. All the males are Pohlmans and the female is a Neitzel.
I don’t recall how old Josh was when he first asked why we don’t all share the same last name. But Jen explained that there was a time when women did not have a choice about the matter. Wives took their husbands’ names, period. Now women have that choice and she chose to keep her name because she really liked it and felt connected to its history.
They also need to know how I reacted to her decision. Actually, there was no reaction. There was no discussion, let alone a debate. I had no expectation that she would take my last name. She either would or she wouldn’t, and either way was fine with me.
Feminism makes so much sense to me that I’m baffled why anyone would reject it, or even demonize it. Being a psychologist, I often try to analyze the sexist mindset. What factors drive a man to look upon women as inferior, to treat them as objects? It’s a topic that’s been studied. There’s thinking that males have been programmed for sexism since the advent of agriculture, which led to men accumulating more resources than women.
Feminism and sexism are linked in that they are about a power dynamic- one equitable and the other imbalanced. Asserting power is a driving force for sexist men. That power could be economic or status-driven (keeping a woman in her place to get a bigger share of the pie). All too often it could be garnering sexual power.
I believe an antidote for the lure of sexism (and it is everywhere, despite our best efforts), is self-confidence. Not entitlement or arrogance, but an authentic belief in one’s own self-worth. If my sons feel good about themselves, if they truly believe they have contributions for the world, they will not view power as a zero-sum game. They will be much less inclined to push someone down to make themselves feel better. Rather, they’ll pull others along with them.
Are all these efforts working? My sense is that they are. Josh has female friends. The guys admire women athletes. They are invested in the work their mother does in education and social justice. They take for granted that pediatricians and psychologists are women. And there is just one superhero on the wall of my 7-year-old son’s room.
Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!