For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.'”
– Emma Watson in her speech at the UN in September 2014
A couple weeks ago, I read an essay by Courtney Martin, an author, activist and mother to two daughters. It was called “The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood.” In the essay, she commented that her husband, John, is relieved to be raising daughters. John is definitely male, but not an alpha. He doesn’t identify with the masculine stereotypes of yesteryear, so daughters seem like a more comfortable fit. He knows the message he wants to deliver – Be strong; be yourself; transcend your limitations, etc. John’s lucky; he also married a ringer of a role model– a super intelligent, strong wife, who wears the pants in the family, just like he does.
Sons? John’s not so sure what he would say to them. It’s confusing enough to be a young man in today’s world, much less raise one. (He’s right; it’s way easier to teach someone to step into their power, than to temper it.) Being a journalist, Courtney ran a little informal poll and found lots of men who felt the same way. Whew! I’ve got girls. I know the message I want to convey: empowerment, strength, personal freedom. It’s disappointing they don’t feel like they could give boys those same messages, but I get why. The implication for a boy, based on historical evidence, is that male empowerment, strength and freedom comes at a cost, usually to everyone else. Patriarchy flourished over the past millennia on the backs of the “other,” namely women, the weak and the poor.
Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game, by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashion of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which really angers some long-time feminists.
But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. It’s NOT because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a vote about it in the first place! We didn’t help make the rules; we didn’t get to pick the venue, or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored, or what determined the winner. It was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were just so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It may have been a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc. and then face criticism if they don’t meet some pre-determined standard.
Young women are ‘leaning in,’ but not to the patriarchal, “winner and take all” game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists, of both genders, are trying to invent a new game – one where everyone can play to their own strengths. Everyone is invited to the conversation, to take leading and supporting roles, to find their niche in a system that honors all of who they are – the masculine and the feminine – the parts of themselves previous generations had to deny when they were locked into the essentialism of their gender at birth. (Essentialism is just a fancy word for the false belief that men are THIS and women are THAT – biologically and entirely, with no exceptions.)
Now, I know that oversimplification might ruffle a lot of feathers in the blogosphere, but in broad strokes, I think there is something to it. We want more parity, but not just according to the old paradigms. (Change happens on the margins, so if you want to see more examples of where this happening, look no further than the young women flocking to the Bernie Sanders movement over Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or the huge emphasis on the T and the Q in the LGBTQ community. Gender non-binaries are where it’s at!)
So what does all this have to do with raising a feminist son?
After I read Courtney’s article, I sent it to Tim, who I thought might understand where her husband was coming from, but in fact, Tim was super disappointed in John’s perspective. In his email back to me (and my mellow brother-in-law, Nathan, who is raising three girls), he wrote:
“I feel the opposite. I’m happy to raise strong women, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a son that isn’t a typical alpha-male. The world needs less of those, so I’m glad I get to play a part in moving things forward rather than backward. But whoever we are raising, I think that we need to raise them with less gender constraints and more humanity.”
Hot damn! Is it any wonder I love that man?
I just wish his perspective was more common among Courtney’s husband and their peers. If any of them have sons, I know they will step up to the plate, but I wish they were more excited about the prospect. We need to change the narrative about parenting. We can’t change our daughters’ futures unless we change our sons’ as well! We can’t leave our sons in the dark, while we lift our daughters into the light. It is going to take the evolution of BOTH genders to bring about real gender equality.
But I know Tim and I aren’t alone on this belief. In our circle of friends, we know a ton of boys who are being raised to see girls as their equal, and to treat them with the respect due a peer, not a princess. Some of these young men are even willing to be vulnerable, to have conversations with each other about their dreams and disappointments. They are intentional about who they are and how they want to be in the world. Finn and his friends give me a lot of hope for the future and so do a couple of other people out there in the wider world.
One of them is Glennon Doyle Melton. She’s on the other side of the country in Florida, but I share a lot of her work on Facebook and sometimes link to her through my blog. About a year ago, she wrote something about her son Chase that she reposted recently. I think it’s a perfect model for how to raise a feminist son. She wrote:
When Chase was eight, a woman approached us at the grocery store and said, “What a handsome boy! What do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?” Chase looked at her and said, “I plan to be kind and brave, ma’am.”
Chase wants to be a human being who is kind and brave and he is already that. He knows that his “success” does not depend upon whether he lands some job or not. He knows he’ll be a success if he continues to practice kindness and courage wherever and with whomever he finds himself. Today he is a kind and brave sixth grader and one day he’ll be a kind a brave high schooler and one day maybe he’ll be a kind and brave teacher or artist or father or carpenter or friend. His roles will change but his character will remain. He is already who he wants to be. So he can just go about being himself forever. Following his curiosity. One Next Right Thing at a time.
Glennon and her husband Craig are not raising their son to play the old-school game, of winners and losers. If you are yourself, if you are a person of character, if you are conscious and compassionate, YOU WIN! This kid is going to be a feminist, but not just because he is growing up in a home with sisters who are his equals, and a strong mom. Perhaps most importantly, he has a strong dad, a man who doesn’t derive his power from dominance, or by diminishing the ideas and gifts of those around him.
The second example is a little closer to home. Here in San Diego, there is a little church called Sojourn Grace Collective. It was founded about two years ago by a couple, who pastor together: Colby Martin and Kate Christensen Martin. We’ve stopped by a few times and we love what the church is about. But what I love especially is that Kate is on fire for feminism and Colby is on fire for Kate (duh, who wouldn’t be?), but for reasons beyond the obvious ones. Like Kate, he is all about changing the rules of the old-school game, even though, as an educated, straight white man, he could have won big time by playing for the patriarchy. He has a book, Unclobber, coming out in the fall about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church and society; he writes blog posts about why #BlackLivesMatter and he is just wrapping up a sermon series on Liberation Theology and how it changed everything for him. Kate preached her own liberation sermon Mother’s Day. You can check it out here.
But there is one more thing about Kate and Colby that is pretty special. They have four sons! They get to reverse engineer this whole feminism thing for the next twenty years by lifting up their sons! I want them to write a book about that next! Parents who are wondering how to raise boys in our ever-changing world could probably use it!
So, how do you raise a feminist son?
I think there are a thousand ways and more, but it has to start with wanting to. It has to start with realizing that feminism isn’t just about the empowerment of women and girls to be all they can be. It is about the liberation of men and boys from outdated cultural models that force them to be less than who they fully are. We have to free our children from the belief that masculinity is synonymous with material success and stoicism and that strength and forthrightness are not feminine. We have to honor them for ALL they are and encourage them to “lean in” to that above all else.
But first, we have to wake up ourselves to the fact that this “war” between the sexes is not a zero sum game; we are not actually on different sides. We are winners and losers together. Feminism is the path we need to embrace for now to get on the same team, but true liberation for both genders is about so much more. It is about the fullest expression of who we are as individuals and a collective humanity. It will always be a dance between freedom and responsibility, strength and vulnerability, struggle and victory. It’s about equality for all and we have to be willing to get into the new game ourselves, showing up humbly and authentically, ready to play.
As I was writing this post, news broke that Pope Francis will put together a commission on studying the restoration of the deaconate to women. The liberation begins!
Also, one of my favorite podcasters, Mike McHargue, is a super smart and super spiritual guy, who also proudly claims to be a feminist. Unfortunately in my opinion, he is raising only daughters. Sigh…So is his incredible podcast partner, Michael Gungor. Check them out at The Liturgists sometime. You won’t be disappointed!
Finally, let me be clear as I end this post:
Finn has never claimed the title “feminist” for himself, but when I showed him the definition of feminism above, he looked at me with a “Duh? Who doesn’t believe in that?” kind of look. “I believe in feminism,” he said, “but I wouldn’t call myself one.”
All in good time, my son, all in good time.
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Alison, this is brilliant!
I am not a “young” woman by any means–69 today!–but yours is the best explanation I have ever seen of why I was never attracted to second-wave feminism. I saw the pains and problems of men in that time and place and wondered, “Why on earth would I want that?” Your phrase “calling bullshit on the whole system”–Right on, sister! to use the rhetoric of that time.
After we adopted our first child–we didn’t care about gender, and got a boy–my spouse said that he wanted the second one to be a girl because unless we had at least one of each he could never be sure he was raising them equalist. (You may know that this family of your second cousins wound up boy-girl-boy-girl, now ages 25-33.)
We were determined to see our kids as individuals, with their own strengths and challenges and interests, none of that based on gender. We may have done something right, because it seems to me they all are equalist, all with similar values. None of them has, as far as I can tell, a skewed or faulty viewpoint of the other (or any) gender. It helped, probably, that their parents’ social group always had gay, lesbian, questioning, and transgender people, as well as straight and cisgender folks who didn’t fit at all into society’s gender stereotypes (their parents being a prime example), but I give full credit to their own good hearts and good sense!
Your story of Finn’s comment reminds me of something our Ben said when he was about five. He asked his dad why a “manhole cover” was called that. His dad explained that when the tunnels were built, only men were allowed to do the kind of work that involved going down those holes into the tunnels. Ben’s comment: “That’s unfair and really stupid.”
Every time I read your blog, it reminds me that we HAVE to get together sometime to exchange big ideas. On Mother’s Day, our friend Jeanette Freeman shared a great message about honoring the feminine and masculine in EACH person. I had always heard about “getting in touch with your feminine side,” but her message really made it clear why this is important for everyone.
[…] of Finn for rallying with us that day and being such an active participant. I didn’t set out to raise a feminist son, (and he still doesn’t love the title), but his actions speak louder than […]