My sons are collectively a sexist bunch, and I cannot quite pinpoint why that is. Their doctors--pediatric urologists, developmental pediatricians, pediatric ENTs, two of three pediatricians--have all been women. They are surrounded on all sides by women who hold advanced degrees, some in science or medicine, who have careers, who have demonstrated the possibilities. Yet they will still assume that women can't do certain things that men can. They've said--after all those doctors--that women can't be doctors. We've even argued over whether or not women can pee standing up. Of course, we can. It's just harder for us to hit the tree.
The Viking (my husband) and I can't quite figure out the origins of their seemingly innate sexism. We wonder if it's us, somehow. I've never discouraged my sons from whatever interest attracted them, but they also never showed any interest in the more nurturing side of play, including dolls or related toys. One confounder here is that my two older sons never did much imaginary play of any kind, so dolls weren't even on the radar. My youngest loves a good kitchen, so of course we went crazy and stocked out a full Doug and Melissa kitchen complete with every kitchen set they offer, from pizza to cake.
Today, it all lies in a pile, ignored, while the constant sound of Lego blocks scraping over Lego blocks echoes through our house as our two younger sons spend hours building. Building what? Battleships. Guns...they build their own tiny Lego guns placed into to tiny Lego hands. They make custom mini-figures that are invariably male, whether they're a HazMat worker or a guy sitting around in his living room, drinking coffee. In their Lego land, there are no women. Is that the fault of Lego or society or us...or all three?
We lecture, of course. When one of them asserts that girls aren't as good at X job or activity as boys are, naturally I take issue, provide examples. We've had to explain how the weight of history and physical strength and cultural power have conspired to hold women back, and how, in spite of that, many not-so-"well-behaved" women broke through. How in some parts of the world, this cultural and social and brute inequality still persists. My husband, who has a master's degree in geography, has discussed how availability of clean water can revolutionize women's education, while I chime in with how important women's education is to lifting up all of us.
Is it society? Was it preschool? It would be great to think that their nearest, most personal examples of feminist people--men and women--would be their touchstones for their own attitudes. I homeschool, and we read biographies of successful women and books by and about women. I seek out videos--especially science videos--that feature women. In spite of all that close-to-home investment, has their real formative experience been and will it continue to be what they see from a greater distance? Books they read in school, where Mom cooks and Dad comes home from work? School itself, where most of the teachers are women, but the principal is a man? A country whose Commander in Chief and second-in-line are and always have been men?
Whenever they look away from home, they see examples of social and cultural inequality that they take as an inherent, natural inequality. How can we raise feminist sons when the world around them--from blithely sexist women's magazine covers to people who want to make women's bodies incubators of the state--this world blasts them day in and day out with the noise of thousands of years of ingrained inequality? I had started to think that there was no way we could ever drown out the sound.
A couple of weeks ago, I was working on this badge for a site I've started, Double X Science (tagline: "Science, I am just that into you"). The goal of the site is to attract women to science, to show how cool science is, how much of interest if holds for those who have at least a little woman in us. In creating the badge, I originally had the "O" in "you" in the form of the mirror-and-comb symbol (♀) that indicates "woman."
A couple of people who very kindly critiqued the badge for me suggested that the ♀ symbol might communicate to some younger women, in particular, a certain school of hardened or strident feminism that could put them off. They were right, I think, but it was a disappointing reality. Ultimately, we incorporated the symbol into the blog banner itself, as you can see, looking a little like itself but also like a sweet little "XO" (hugs and kisses) to science.
My two older sons noticed the change and asked me about it. I explained to them why that symbol might be taken to have an almost negative connotation of feminism that might defeat my purpose and also observed that I was disappointed about that reality. It was then that I commented to them yet again that I am a feminist and that their father is a feminist, adding this time that we fully expected that they, too, would be feminists. And here's what my oldest, age 10, said: "I'm a boy. Why would I need to be a feminist?"
Ah, young fellow. Oh, young woman who might find the ♀ symbol a tad too redolent of the strident, passionate women who made it possible for you to choose among focusing on your ass, your mind, or both, here's why: Because being feminist means being humanist.
When you commit to establishing equality for women, you've committed to equality for everyone. Being feminist means a belief in the inherent right of every human being to equal treatment under the law, under society, under culture. If you believe--as my sons do--that homosexuals should have the right to love and marry one another, then you also should be a feminist. If you believe--as my sons do--that people of all ethnicities and backgrounds have the same rights and should have the same opportunities, then you should be a feminist. Being a feminist--taking it to the women, letting the women bring it--is one of the fundamental ways a society lifts itself up and keeps moving toward the light.
When you're a feminist, you bring everyone with you. And that means even my sons, who now understand that feminism is not a casual accident of having ovaries but a willful, purposeful way of being, one that carries no specific gonadal requirements for entry. We're hoping that this way of phrasing the lesson gives it sufficient volume to drown out some of that societal noise.