This question is from a woman who was raised in a very traditional environment and who is now trying to learn about feminism before she gets married and becomes a parent. She’s looking for recommendations for reading (websites, books) that can help her define feminism for herself. I’ve been saving it to guest-post over here, because I know that this crowd will be able to send her to some resources.
Hi Captain Awkward,
The “Sailor with a Past” question got me thinking about how I need to define my own feminism. I grew up in an ultra-conservative Christian home where I received very clear messages about a woman’s role in society. I did not conform from early on and was always told I was “rebellious”. I remember being about 14 and being told by my youth pastor that men cannot control themselves like women can and that sexual impulses come from the devil. Well, you can imagine what that did to a hormonal young person just starting to have “feelings” about boys. I know I have internalized a lot of these messages and there is a lot of conflict between what I think is true and what I’ve been taught. Because I don’t embody some of the traditional ideals of womanhood, I’ve spent my adult years not conforming and then feeling guilt and shame because I don’t conform. I’ve spent a lot of time on my personal struggle, but have never taken the time to really think about these issues and define them for myself in a broader sense.
Now I’m 30ish and about to be married. We want to have kids and I don’t want to inadvertently pass on these internalized messages to my own children. I’m looking for suggestions on books, websites, etc. that can challenge me and shape my thinking. Thank you in advance for any guidance.
I too grew up in a pretty strict religious environment (Catholic), and I too was rebellious about it from an early age. Once I got to CCD class before anyone else, and took the small classroom crucifix down from the wall and replaced it with a sign that said “I’ll be back” and the went and hid in the bathroom until after class started so that Sister wouldn’t know it was me. (Sister totally knew it was me). Mostly, I had a lot of questions, like, why can’t women be priests, exactly? And, okay, even if I accept that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, why do you describe her as “ever-virgin” when she was married to Joseph and sex is ok within marriage and the Bible mentions “Jesus’s brothers”?
My most early concrete understanding of feminism also came to me in church. When I was 11 or 12, the priest gave a homily about the value of marriage and sticking together in marriage, and he told a story of a woman who came to him wanting to leave her husband, because he was an alcoholic who abused her. The priest told her to have faith and to show love and mercy to her husband and that God would show love and mercy to her. After years of this (Maybe she did a yearly check-in? “Can I leave him now, Father?” “Howabout now?”), she stayed with him, the priest explained, and eventually because of her faith and love the husband went through rehab and stopped drinking and hitting her, and now they were old together and finally in the fullness of God’s love, because her faith saved her husband’s life. I remember that I started crying during the story because this question was forming inside me and being 11 and generally well-behaved I knew I couldn’t scream in church. That question was, obviously: What about HER life?
How many women were sitting in that church with black eyes and broken bones, being told to stay? How many women had come to priests throughout the years with that same question? Or, “I’ve just had my 8th kid, Father, would it be a sin if I got my tubes tied, Father?” The book Angela’s Ashes is a beautiful memoir. It’s also the best argument for access to family planning services and against theocracy and patriarchy that you could ever read, surpassing even The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s not fiction. It’s not a dystopian future, it’s the dystopian past. It happened. It is happening. It is the agenda of religious conservatives who want us to go back to that time.
Children have an amazing sense of fairness and justice. And then we learn the rules of the world and to live with unfairness. I think activists, in part, are people who never let go of that sense of justice and fairness and who are not afraid to scream out in a quiet church, even when it costs them something. I think your rebelliousness is a GOOD thing. I think it is your sense of fairness and rightness speaking out from inside you. I’m hoping that you can stop feeling ashamed and guilty and recognize that rebelliousness for what it is: It’s your conscience.
I want to say that even with the religious upbringing, and despite some teenage bullshit around diets and keeping me home from all parties because there might be boys…BOYS WITH URGES…my parents still did a great job of raising me to be a feminist. Here are some things they did:
I’m telling you this stuff because I think it is possible to be part of a very patriarchal religious tradition and grow up in the 1950s AND to parent in a way that does not put gender differences first and foremost in your kids’ lives. You can teach them that there are no rules for what boys can do vs. what girls can do. You can teach them about love and acceptance of people who are different than they are. You can make a united front with your husband and reinvent this for yourselves. My dad was the only boy in a very “Women do all the housework and cooking, men earn the money and are treated like gods at home” environment and he still found it possible to change and become the guy who put dinner on the table and cleaned up afterwards 4-5 nights/week because he and my mom decided what kind of marriage they wanted to have and what kind of parents they wanted to be. I think you are really smart to be asking these questions now, before you get married and before you have kids.
I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a panoply of Feminist Parenting websites and books at my fingertips so I’d just be Googling and taking a best guess. But I know the Feministe readership is going to be able to help you out with recommendations and personal stories about how they figured this out for themselves. Right? Yes? Yes. Thank you.
Edited to Add: In addition to links and books, I’m especially interested in hearing about how any of you overrode your own upbringing in raising your kids to be feminists, or about things that your parents did right in raising you to be a feminist (despite messages they inherited in their own upbringing), or about any of you who are raising feminist kids within a traditional religious environment.