When you're growing up as the middle child in a family of three girls in the 1990s, girl power was the name of the game. My sisters and I laced up our cleats and ran onto the soccer field, we ran wild in the forest behind our house, and we headed to Girl Scout summer camps where we went spelunking, rock climbing, and canoeing. Without a brother around to tell us, “No girls allowed!” we were pretty confident that girls did, in fact, run the world.
The night before last year's presidential election, I texted a friend. “I have to admit, I’m kind of jealous you have a girl to share this moment with!” I told her, picturing her and her daughter celebrating what I then thought would be a historic moment. With two sons, I occasionally felt that the legacy of feminism I had learned in my all-girl household was without an heiress.
While I might not have a daughter to whom I can promise, “Girls can be anything!” I have two boys who need to hear that exact message just as much.
According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, only one-third of men define themselves as a feminist. While the optimist in me wants to believe that in actuality, there is a higher number of men who believe that both genders are equal, and that the low number has to do with the strong feelings people have about the word “feminism,” the fact that only one in three men considers themselves a feminist shows that women’s concerns are still not high on most men’s radar.
As a mother, and as a woman, the idea that my boys might grow up to not care about the challenges another person faces due to their gender (or race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, disability) pains me deeply. Concern for others is one of the bedrock values of the faith that my husband and I have passed onto our children, with an emphasis that this compassion is rooted in the dignity of the person, not popularity of the cause. I want to raise feminist children even though – or specifically because – they are boys.
In many ways, I'm a feminist failure. I quit my job to take care of a family, and while I know, I know, feminism is about supporting whatever choice a woman wants to make, I realize that my children are growing up with a fairly old-fashioned worldview because my husband makes the dough, and I bake the bread.
The children of working mothers are more likely to end up as feminist success stories. The girls are more successful, and the boys grow up to contribute more around the home, according to a Harvard Business School study. Luckily for my children (and their future spouses) I'm a fairly incompetent housekeeper so they do see their dad do plenty of laundry, dishes, and mopping.
Without a daughter to empower, or a glass ceiling-shattering career of my own, at times I feel like my feminism is all dressed up with nowhere to go. But to assume that my boys don’t need to hear the same messages of equality that girls do is negligent, at best. Dangerous at worst.
One out of every four women attending college in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted, according to a survey by the Association of American Universities. While this number is staggering, no amount of teaching women self-defense, encouraging them to walk home in pairs, or reminding them to guard their drinks can go as far to reduce assaults as educating men about the importance of respect and consent. Sexual predators, unsurprisingly, have negative gender-based attitudes, coasting along in a culture that preaches a message of equality only to its girls.
But the safety of my fellow women is not the only reason I want to raise boys who respect everyone. I believe that they would also benefit from a world where men and women are equal players. I shudder to think what scientific breakthroughs we could have made already if more women had been encouraged in STEM fields, and how many families could have had kind, caring fathers at home raising children had those fathers not worried what others might think.
Last weekend, my sons marched with us and thousands of other men and women in our hometown to support equal rights for all. They waved signs saying, “Love Thy (Black, Gay, Trans, Female, Immigrant) Neighbor,” and “Help the Earth.” My youngest, knee-deep in the potty training stage, had initially requested a sign that simply read “Poop,” but I overruled. At four and two years old, it didn’t take any convincing to get them behind the idea that boys and girls should be treated equally.
As anyone who has had to split the last cookie exactly in half knows, most youngsters do believe that the world should be fair. It's only when children grow older that they begin to drift away from their earliest ideals of fairness. Perhaps they become aware of what they stand to lose from equality – men would no longer be granted exclusive rights to positions of power, to total financial control, and decision-making ability.
But I hope that my sons, as they grow older, can focus not on what they might lose, but what they would gain from a world where both men and women have the ability to achieve their dreams. I might not have a daughter to empower, but I have two sons who need to see the power of a world where that can happen.