When my daughter Josie was 3, she started making pronouncements like, “Girls wear earrings. Boys don’t wear earrings.” “Girls wear skirts. Boys don’t wear skirts.” Her pronouncements were developmentally appropriate; at this age, kids are trying to organize the world in their heads, looking for patterns in their lives and environments and trying to categorize how societal roles work. When I responded, “But Daddy wears earrings! Is Daddy a girl?” she would say, “Daddy is a boy!” Then she’d go back to saying that boys could not wear earrings.
In general, I reacted to these gender-based decrees by saying, “It’s true, mostly girls wear skirts. But boys can wear skirts if they want to.” (She was a bit young for me to explain that for boys and men in many homes and workplaces, wanting to wear a skirt doesn’t necessarily mean you can wear a skirt.) My responses became automatic: Boys can play with dolls if they want to. Boys can wear nail polish if they want to. I knew Josie was hearing me when I overheard her telling baby Maxine, “Girls have a bagina and boys have a penis. But boys can have a bagina if they want to!” (I reminded Josie, now 13, of this conversation last week. She responded, “And they can!”)
I can’t recall ever not considering myself a feminist. When I was 9 and the only girl on a Little League team full of boys, my mom sewed a patch with a closed fist—the symbol of the Equal Rights Amendment (at the time facing Congress for ratification) onto my cap, causing some consternation among the team dads. I want to pass on to my daughters the same confident belief that my mom instilled in me—that women deserve equality and equal protection under the law. I’m no expert in women’s studies or parenting, but here are a few things I’ve learned about raising strong, thoughtful kids who are attuned to injustice and want to make the world a better place for everyone.
Jewish feminism has a rich history. It’s not only that so many of the leaders of the second-wave feminist movement were Jews (Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, Letty Cottin Pogrebin), but also that Jewish women throughout time have led feminist lives. As far back as the 17th century, the diaries of Gluckel of Hamelin depict a woman who ran a factory and expanded her husband’s business incrementally after his death. For generations we’ve been working mothers, supporting families and negotiating the wider non-Jewish world while our husbands studied. And the fabric of the labor movement in America, of course, is bedazzled with Jewish women’s names.
Jewish tradition has always supported both social justice and being argumentative. We are a caring and loud people. The quiet, weak, unassuming thing has never been our schtick. As I wrote in the Forward way back in the day, “Maybe Jewish women, who’ve always been or felt like the Other, have felt they had less to lose by stirring things up. What, we’re gonna risk our chance to go on the hayride with Biff if we don’t act dippy and helpless? Biff was never going to ask us on the hayride anyway!” I’d argue that while the specific Jewish Princess and Jewish Mother stereotypes are the products of a particular time and place in the vast span of history, Jewish women have always, always been pushy.
While Jewish feminism has a proud history, it can’t offer us all the answers to how to raise little feminists in our current, more complex and acculturated world. What kind of lessons should we teach our daughters today? (I don’t have sons, so even though I have opinions—you’re shocked, I’m sure—on that subject, I’ll stick to daughters for now.)
An early step is teaching kids to call out stereotypes and to stand up for others. As I said earlier, research indicates that kids can identify “boy toys” and “girl toys” when they’re only 3, but they’re not totally judgy about who plays with what. (Except in the sense of “I am 3 and all the toys are mine.”) When they get to be 4 and 5, though, kids start to police gender conformity. Only boys can be superheroes. Girls rule, boys drool. Candyland is a girl game. Step away from the Little Mermaid costume, Benjamin. As a parent, you can talk about this phenomenon, even with a 4-year-old; discuss the fact that everyone should get to play with and wear what they want. In a toy store, point out the pinkness and the blueness. If a kid makes a great point about marketing or cultural bias, high-five him.
This said: I remember hearing a famous second-wave feminist tell an audience that even if a little girl has no interest in trucks, make sure she has a lot of trucks, because you want to convey that trucks are for everyone. The millennials in the audience all looked at each other and rolled their eyes. I get it. If a kid has zero interest in something, there’s no point in forcing him or her to engage with it. (The thing is, most kids have a little interest in a lot of toys. So just as your pediatrician tells you to try introducing a new food several times before concluding your kid doesn’t like it, do not assume your kid hates trucks or dolls because he hates this truck or that doll. But ultimately if a kid is resolute in her “nah,” respect the nah.)
The converse of “don’t force trucks” is “don’t diss princesses.” One reason I loved Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is that it tries to understand why girls love Disney crap. Orenstein doesn’t want to make her daughter feel unheard, disrespected, or delegitimized for her tiara-festooned passions. We can have problems with our culture without making kids feel bad for loving what they love. Even we grownups know that our faves can be problematic. (I can simultaneously acknowledge that Joan Rivers was barrier-busting, generous, and resilient and note that she said some awful stuff. I can trumpet the messages in Frozen about sisterhood and not needing a prince to rescue you, while also wincing that Elsa’s eyes are wider than her waist.)
I get why some feminist parents want to tell their daughters “you’re so strong” rather than “you’re so pretty.” Our culture puts way, way too much value on pretty. But I also think even a 5-year-old can get the nuance that it’s fine to be strong and pretty, and that there are lots of ways to be strong and pretty. (You don’t have to be white and skinny. And you can tell a child, “It’s awesome to like what you like, but it’s also a shame that so few princesses we see in movies, in books, and on TV are non-white or non-skinny, because that means you don’t even get the chance to see whether you like them. And all kids deserve to see beautiful characters who have hair and skin and bodies like theirs.”) Hey, I like pretty earrings, pretty nail polish, and pretty shoes, and I never want to make my kids feel bad for liking these things. But they should like more, too.
Books are a great place to start. Read books with nuanced, smart, butt-kicking female and non-white characters to both boys and girls. Feel free to go through my annual Tablet roundups of the best Jewish children’s books, plus the best books for MLK Day and best Passover books. Better yet, look at the Amelia Bloomer Project’s lists of feminist children’s books. Some are fun as well as worthy: Brave Girl (about Clara Lemlich, the short and fiery Yiddish-speaking labor leader); The Princess in Black (ninja princess!); Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? (about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female doctor); Me … Jane (an adorably illustrated bio of Jane Goodall); the Hereville series (a troll-defeating, sword-wielding Orthodox heroine); the Zita the Spacegirl series (the first volume about a good friend and brave explorer magically turned my daughter Maxine into a joyful reader, poof) … if you just do a little digging (or ask your favorite librarian), there are so many good, funny, exciting choices for kids of all predilections. (This year, I resolved to stop classifying books as “boy books” and “girl books.” I recently became educated about why my well-meaning generalizations were dippy. I should have known better.)
As for social action, don’t just talk about it. Do it. Volunteer with your kids at your shul. Talk about why you make the charitable donations to the causes you do. Ask kids their opinions on how to make the world more equitable. Make sure your children understand that they are privileged, because they are. Expose them to art and activities that help you introduce topics about justice, fairness, and economic differences.
And think a lot about how you’re going to counter the messages kids get from the culture at large. One of the best feminism-instilling decisions I made as a parent was not allowing my kids to watch any live-action Disney or Nickelodeon television. I am not anti-TV. I hate people who brag about how their kids don’t watch TV. I freaking love TV. My kids love TV. My husband works for TiVo, a TV company that has TV in its very name. But we skipped the entire stage of iCarly, The Jonas Brothers, Big Time Rush, The Suite Life, Shake It Up. I realize other parents think live-action TV is not the hill to die on, or that these shows are not that bad. But I think they are full of coded messages about how mean joking and disrespect are OK; how everyone is supposed to dress and look (the same); how unusual interests make people nerdy; what we’re all supposed to value (money, clothes, popularity, looks—despite the sometimes cornpone, explicit pre-credits messages saying those things aren’t important even as the majority of the plotlines and imagery tell a different story). Cartoons—and now that my kids are older, some family sitcoms and reality shows and even a few dramas like The Flash and Agent Carter—are flawed, but they’re not heinous. And welcome to the real world, in which choosing wisely and analyzing what you see are important skills.
I asked Josie recently whether she remembered when I first talked to her about feminism. She didn’t. But she said that she remembers many years of my pointing out every time a celebrity was quoted in the media saying she wasn’t a feminist. “You always said that they misunderstood what feminism is,” she said. “Feminism isn’t hating men, or saying women are better than men—feminism is a belief in equality.”
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.