How do we raise a feminist?

Every person who believes men are superior to women was once a child. 

People who see women as possessions passed on from their fathers to their husbands; as child bearers and kitchen cleaners; as worthless on the sports field or in the boardroom; as leaders who must be asked “how do you juggle it all?” or whose sartorial choices matter as much, if not more, than their policy choices. All these people were once children. 

Pretty early in life, we all learn to observe the dynamics around us and adjust our behaviour accordingly*. So if small children are learning the behaviours that will later be called out as toxic, sexist, or bigoted, how can parents and carers set future generations on a different course?
(*Neuroscientific studies show that plasticity is one of the brain’s most salient characteristics. As such, brains adapt from very early on to their surrounding environment. As Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, told me in an interview: “Our brains are rule gatherers. From the moment of birth or even before, they are trying to work out the algorithms they need to run our lives.”)

As a feminist and a mother, I have thought a lot about this question, and I’m often confronted by my internal biases. Would I treat my son differently if I perceived him as a daughter? What behaviours might I see and excuse because “boys will be boys”? Parents create only a tiny part of the environment that affects a child’s life, but early experiences are hugely important in establishing a person’s behaviour.

To the extent that it’s possible to trace an adolescent’s attitudes back to a familial source, a study found that mothers are the primary source of sexist attitudes held by their children*. And more than at any other point in their lives, mothers (and fathers) are more likely to fall into gendered roles with the arrival of their firstborns – which even happens in same-sex couples.
(*The study was conducted by researchers at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, using a sample of 1,455 adolescents, aged 11 to 17, and their parents. It couldn’t establish a cause-effect relationship between mothers’ attitudes and their children’s behaviour, but it was able to show an intergenerational link.
Here is a link to the study in English and Spanish.)

This is an important challenge to feminists and feminism because you unwittingly pass on your views and values to your child. And once children are around, a new parent is tired, and anxious to know how to dismantle systems between nappy changes. 

Neuroscience is giving us more information on how crucial the first 1,000 days of life are. If we don’t pay attention, we are missing out on the potential of planting the most long-lasting seeds. 

This is a new opportunity for feminism: early childhood can become a new place of action. If we have feminist children who grow into feminist adults, we may have fewer mothers and fathers who fall into gendered roles and prepetuate the status quo.

And just imagine if we get it right: we will raise adults who don’t get boxed into or judge others on an idea of gender, just because they were born of a determinate sex*. That’s the foundation of a feminist society.
(*Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, but sex usually refers to the biological features related to a set of genitalia (female, male, intersex), while gender refers to a social construction.)

This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.

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