How do I define feminism for myself and my future kids? (Reader question #98)

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.

Dear Lori:

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:

  • My brothers and I had the same rules and the same chores. We all mowed the lawn and raked leaves and shoveled snow and cleared and set the table and ironed our own shirts and sewed our own buttons back on. We could all ride our bikes anywhere we wanted to go. We all had pocketknives and Girl/Boy Scout training.
  • I was raised to know that I could do anything I wanted to do, anything boys could do. Often I played sports on boys’ or co-ed teams because it was easier for my parents to not have to drive us all to different practices.
  • I was raised to never think that a man would support me or that my future job would be “wife.” Anything I said I wanted to be when I grew up, my parents said “Ok! Great!” Anything I wanted to study – Science? Math? Computers? Music? Art? – “Ok, Great!”
  • If I wanted to play with dolls and have a pink room – cool. If I wanted boy stuff, cool. Girly stuff was ok and not less than boy stuff. I had dolls, Legos, Star Ward figures, Tonka trucks, etc.
  • My parents equally shared housework and parenting and presented a united front. I know what that equal partnership looks like, where dad puts dinner on the table more often than not and also takes all the kids into the woods to split logs for the wood stove and teaches everyone about power tools.
  • With the full support of my dad, my mom relentlessly pursued her own career and her own education, going back for an MBA when we were in high school/college.
  • We took weekly trips to the library, and I was allowed to check out mostly anything I wanted, within reason. (Flowers in the Attic earned a “Nice try, kid”, so I had to sneak her copy when she was at work.)
  • My mom definitely did not want me having sex before marriage, but she made sure I had the full range of information about sex, contraception, STDs, etc. and could make an informed choice about those things. I won’t say there wasn’t a lot of friction around sex, but she didn’t dumb it down, and I’m grateful.
  • I’ll have to check with my sisters-in-law about this, but I’m pretty sure my parents did a good job of raising feminist men who are respectful of women and who do their share around the house, aren’t patronizing mansplainers, etc. If my brothers had ever, EVER said something like “But you can’t because you are a girl,” my mom would have lit them on fire with her eyes.
  • 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.

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    16 comments for “How do I define feminism for myself and my future kids? (Reader question #98)

    1. August 22, 2011 at 10:49 am

      I’m not a parent, but Raising My Boychick is my FAVORITE feminist parenting website.

    2. xenu01
      August 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

      You know, it’s funny- I grew up in a very pro-feminist household in theory- we had Backlash, etc, on the shelves, but when it came to supporting my personal decisions in regards to birth control and reproductive health, my parents were flabbergasted. Thank goodness we started going to the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sundays, because that sex ed year they have in eighth grade? I owe a lot to that. Also that my high school had a program (super seeeekrit, of course- you had to KNOW) in which young women could have access to planned parenthood services for free and without the knowledge of their parents until one year after high school graduation.

      Anyway, my point is that the best thing you can do as a parent is be openminded and informative but also to know how to turn your child onto other resources when the time comes for them to need to keep secrets from you. And to be ok with secrets.

      But that didn’t answer your question! Websites that helped me out a lot have been:,,,,,

      Good luck!

    3. FashionablyEvil
      August 22, 2011 at 10:51 am

      I would check out Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. There’s a great chapter about how children are taught about gender from their earliest days.

      Where the Girls Are by Susan Douglas really gave me the tools to be a more conscientious consumer of all forms of media, many of which replicate some pretty pernicious stereotypes.

    4. August 22, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      I’m reading Delusions of Gender as we speak (as it were.) It’s very clear in presenting science for non-sciency people like me, but she’s also very funny. I second the recommendation.

    5. August 22, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      Lori, I think you would probably get a lot out of Susan Monk Kidd’s “Dance of the Dissident Daughter”, which chronicles her spiritual evolution from a rather restrictive, ‘separate-spheres’ type of Christianity to…..being a seeker and feeling more at home with the Feminine Divine. It was an interesting read for me, since I had a very dissimilar background. What was most interesting is that this wasn’t just a journey for her, but for her family as well.

      I was explicitly raised to be feminist, but that was back when the more common term was *women’s liberation*. My folks didn’t do everything right; my father was an alcoholic for many years, and we had all the classic issues that come along with that—but of the things they did right:

      Taught me to read at an early age, and allowed me to read whatever I wanted (didn’t censor my reading or set an artificial limit on age. They figured if I had a strong interest in the subject, I was old enough.) I do this too, as a parent.

      Gave me a lot of physical independence, and expected me to have a great deal of responsibility. (My folks were both the oldest kids in larger families, and I grew up in an era where latchkey kids were ubiquitous. I agree with this style of parenting, but was not able to do this myself for various reasons (that can mostly be summed up as “lack of social and economic privilege combined with hyperobservance by authorities”—didn’t want to risk my girl spending time in the foster system. So, she is only now getting the level of independence I had since starting school).

      I was unchurched, but had exposure to and knowledge of a variety of religious faiths and practices. My father was a radical atheist when I was growing up (I think now he’d probably describe himself as agnostic or nondeistic; he has described himself as Buddhist, but never really had a regular practice….I guess I’ll find out how he currently describes his cosmology tonight since we’re both going to the Humanist Group tonight at UU); my mother was a nonpracticing Catholic who returned to the Church round about the time I moved out (it’s probably worth mentioning that Sicilian Catholics are devout and anticlerical, and many are attuned to liberation theology, and even the conservative ones—which my mother was emphatically NOT—keep practices that were Christianized from the original pagan….so, not at all like standard, run-of-the-mill USian Protestant expression….) Anyway, I had the freedom to develop my own thoughts and path. I encourage my daughter to do the same; we attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation because…that fits.

      My folks didn’t police my gender expression (well, my mom kinda did, but only after I was in my teens, and that was totally about her anxiety about my sexuality….not ending up pregnant in high school, among other things). It was ok for me to be interested in things coded “male”, and I wasn’t pestered to be all glammed up. They caught flak for this from the extended family, but ignored it just the same. To be clear, things coded female weren’t denigrated in my family; just that I wasn’t pressured to femme it up, since it was clear to my folks that wasn’t my style. I do this for my daughter too; make it explicit that whatever direction she gravitates to, that’s ok.

      They did encourage a strong work ethic and earning my own money at an early age. This isn’t something I did for my daughter, because she really struggled earlier in school due to residual preemie issues. I was more concerned she focus on schooling *and* learning outside of school pursuing her interests (animals, nature, art). She can always earn money, and I figure a work ethic towards school and personal interests will probably translate to a work ethic in jobs (guess time will tell if I’m right).

      A couple of things I do differently:

      I strongly encourage her to develop her talents, and to explore—discover what she likes and what she doesn’t. Try things out. My folks were very “meh” on that. Academics were stressed to me, but everything else was considered “fluff” that I could pursue as an adult if I wanted. If it didn’t involve hitting the books, it was something I’d have to find my own money and transportation for (and even if it did involve books—library time was included in the “fluff” category). I mention stuff that’s going on in the community and such, and if she shows an interest, we do it. The only thing I pushed on her was swim class—I saw that as a safety issue. Once she learned, she wanted to keep going on her own.

      I tell her she’s beautiful. She is, but like a lot of girls entering middle school, she’s very self-conscious about her looks (meaning, the “raw material” of appearance—she doesn’t pine for a high maintenance look). Mainstream USian culture is hypercritical of female appearance, and I want her to know that she’s beautiful the way she is….that the features of her ancestry are beautiful. My folks, when I was going through that, would always stress that looks didn’t matter. The takeaway message I got was “yes, you’re ugly, but at least you have some brains going for you.” I want my kid to have more backup than that.

    6. August 22, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      We had the Free To Be You And Me record as kids, and it was just so completely awesome. I totally plan on buying the DVD for my son :)

    7. August 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm

      Oh also, I like Harriet Lerner’s book The Mother Dance, which is not so much a parenting book as an exploration of all the feelings (positive and negative) that can go along with being a mother, and how to be conscious of the ways one’s own upbringing can influence her parenting. I think the book is about 10 years old and I found it at my local library.

    8. KC
      August 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      It’s rather unfortunate that “traditional” Protestantism tends to teach that patriarchy is Christian. Saying that men are better than women (or vice versa) is being unloving and unjust to one gender, the complete opposite of verses that tell you to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 34-40) and that there is neither male nor female in Christ, and we are all equal in His salvation (Galatians 3:26-29). Not to mention all the female leaders, disciples, and followers in the Bible. A blog that I like about being Christian and feminist is

      My mom was raised Catholic and told all of her life horrible things because she was a girl by her parents. She shouldn’t learn to drive because she was female and therefore emotional and therefore more prone to getting into wrecks and panicking. She shouldn’t go to college and get a job because she’d just get married, have kids, and be a stay at home mom. She ended up running away from home, becoming an accountant, and being a successful single mother after my parents’ divorce. (I split my time between my parents about equally, but my mother’s always actually been there for me, where it took my dad ten years and health problems to stop being distant and have a relationship with me.)

      My mom is a Christian (Protestant now) after a long period of indifference towards her upbringing. She raised me telling me I could do anything that I wanted to. She read with me and taught me to read at a young age. As soon as I hit puberty, she started talking to me about sex and trusted me to be honest with her about things like masturbation and birth control and whatever I wanted to try or was confused about. She’s always encouraged me.

      My dad and my stepmother have been a good example of an equal relationship. They actually invert the normal stereotype: my stepmom, the breadwinner, works in a high-up position at a local company, and my dad stays at home and does the household chores and cooks. They make decisions together and look to each other for guidance. My dad actually credits my stepmother with leading him back to being a Christian after years of indifference, thanks to her talking to him about religious issues and encouraging him to go to church with her.

      It hasn’t been perfect – my mother still has some issues about little things like me choosing not to wear makeup, and all three of my parents and I have arguments and issues. But they’ve raised me in a Christian environment without ever making me feel inferior to my stepbrother or the boys around me, and I love them so much more for that.

    9. Esther
      August 22, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      “If I wanted to play with dolls and have a pink room – cool. If I wanted boy stuff, cool. Girly stuff was ok and not less than boy stuff. I had dolls, Legos, Star Ward figures, Tonka trucks, etc.”

      My parents provided me with the same freedom, with one important exception: Barbie was strictly off limits. When I was about four, an elderly family friend slipped through the net and gave me a Barbie for my birthday. I was so upset and I cried and cried, but my mom told me that I had to be polite, thank our friend for the nice gift, and that we could exchange it the next day. I don’t remember exactly why I responded the way I did, but somehow my parents had convinced me that Barbie was wrong and horrible and not to be desired. Personally, I appreciate their effort.

    10. Megan
      August 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

      I think what helped me the most is that we discussed things at home. I was raised Catholic, and we went to church every Sunday, and my parents held somewhat traditional gender roles, but my parents still fostered critical discussion at home of things that we learned in CCD or at school, or things that we saw on the news. That was the most important thing, because it helped me develop the “hey, wait just a minute …” mentality that allowed me to get to feminism on my own.

    11. Florence
      August 23, 2011 at 7:36 am

      La Lubu: Mainstream USian culture is hypercritical of female appearance, and I want her to know that she’s beautiful the way she is….that the features of her ancestry are beautiful. My folks, when I was going through that, would always stress that looks didn’t matter. The takeaway message I got was “yes, you’re ugly, but at least you have some brains going for you.” I want my kid to have more backup than that.

      I love this.

    12. August 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      I’m not a parent and I don’t have suggestions of resources for Lori. But I did write a post not that long ago, partly in response to Caperton’s post here on modeling and obedience about the best thing I think my parents did for me, which is teach me to question authority — theirs, religion’s, the government’s, whatever. The reason this teaching of theirs is so crucial (and they did it by example, both by questioning themselves AND by allowing and encouraging me to do so) is because it allowed me to become the feminist I am today even though they were imperfect as feminists.

      So my advice? Teach your kids feminist ideals, talk to them about it when sexism makes you uncomfortable, all that. But also show them that you’re imperfect, and encourage them to follow their own rebellious consciences. Teach them, but also give them the tools to teach themselves.

    13. ahimsa
      August 25, 2011 at 12:17 am

      Since I have not seen anyone mention this book yet then here is my suggestion (late!), Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks. She’s an excellent writer and this little book manages to pack a lot of information into only 123 pages. It’s been a while since I read this book, so I don’t remember details, but there is a section on feminist parenting in there.

    14. Wiley
      September 2, 2011 at 10:57 am

      I’m not a parent, but I do have a very, very strong sense of feminism and my own worth, because my parents did a lot of things right.

      My mother was explicitly feminist–it is because of her that even at an early age I reacted with total incredulity to arguments that abortion was unacceptable. My little kid brain was like “…whut? You want to be able to make decisions about someone else’s body? Totally not fair, man.” However, I think my father provided the framework for the incredible self confidence and grit that has allowed me to become and remain both a feminist and a staunch advocate for myself and for other marginalized people. see, my father made explicitly clear, many times, that he both valued AND *liked* me, just as I was. He still punished me when I did things wrong, and gave his honest opinion when I was doing/thinking something he didn’t agree with, but he enthusiastically supported ANYTHING I liked, and genuinely enjoyed hanging out with me. It made me feel like a person, and that my actions and thoughts were valid.

      Do that for your kids.

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