A Womb of One's Own

A Womb of One’s Own: Raising a Feminist Son

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I would raise a feminist daughter, one who is able to see her own privilege as well as others’, one who knows she deserves to be taken seriously because she’s a human being with autonomy, one who values her brain and her body, one who will never feel the need to denigrate herself because of her sex.  But how do I raise a feminist son?

Many of the principles I want a daughter to learn are applicable to a son.  And at the same time, I know he’s going to enter a world where “sissy” or “fag” are still used as insults, and I want him to enter this world armed with the knowledge that a) that language isn’t okay to use in any context, and b) why it’s not okay to use it.  I know that I can play language police in my home almost 24-7, but how am I going to be able to set him up with values and knowledge that will help him filter out what is “okay” language in the big world, and what is “not okay” language?  I know that there’s a difference between what you hear a stranger say and what you hear from a family member, how am I going to be able to explain that, despite what you heard from a family member, that’s not language that’s allowed?  And how can you change the language used by family members?

I hope that I can teach him some pretty basic, non-controversial values: everyone is worthy of respect regardless of their gender/color/religion/sexual orientation, being polite goes a long way, treat others as you would like to be treated, insults are never appropriate.  While none of us can claim to live these principles at all times, most of us try to hew as close to them as possible.  But what about the world around him, which doesn’t always encourage this behavior?  Oh, the world is really good at paying lip service to equality and human decency, but just turn on the news and tell me how close we are to this golden ideal.

Tell me, Persephone readers: how have you worked to raise a feminist son?

By Jessica Werner

Free-range librarian in Seattle. A sucker for happy endings, teen angst, and books that make me want to sell my possessions and travel the world. Incurable homebody and type A. Send love letters and readers advisory requests to

12 replies on “A Womb of One’s Own: Raising a Feminist Son”

Something I always think about when I think about my potential for motherhood is how parents handle the desire for a particular gender for their child.
Were I ever to have children, I think I’d like to have a daughter. And maybe it’s not true, but sometimes I feel like it would be easier to raise to a feminist daughter than son, to raise a compassionate daughter than son. Compassion and kindness are encouraged in female-gendered children and those are characteristics I place heavy emphasis on in my own life.
But then I fret about the princess drama, the ruthless cruelty of young girls, the standard of beauty, and wonder if it might actually be easier to raise sons. But THEN I fret about the rampant homophobia and other sundry issues young men face, and don’t know how I feel about either. And gender-variant children, holy moley, how could I raise them to feel good about themselves, to be confident and happy, in such a hateful society?
Is it wrong that I might wish for daughters? Why would I prefer them?
How do you all do it? It totally blows my mind.

There’s nothing wrong with wishing for a girl (or a boy) I think everyone does it to some degree.

Before you have kids it seems really intimidating, because you try to figure everything out all at once. Once you do have a kid you realize that things happen gradually. You get to deal with things a little bit at a time in bite-sized chunks.

Hello Kitty has wonderful child raising advice, as always. And her philosophy is pretty much the same as mine — you have to walk the walk in order for your kids to see it as normal. Our household is fairly non-traditional in many ways — we got married well after our daughter was born, I work and my husband is the primary caretaker as he finishes his doctorate, I played an aggressive sport and he writes papers for conferences. He likes to cook and gets a lot of satisfaction out of making meals for us. I’d prefer take out. So my daughter is already confronted with a different concept of gender roles than what she gets in mainstream messages.

I think the real challenge of raising boys as opposed to raising girls is the idea of inclusion. With Minibelle, a lot of raising her feminist is positioning her in contest to restrictive roles. For instance, she loves baseball and loathes softball as a girl’s ghetto. So she played as the only girl on the boys baseball team for a long time, and we had to have a lot of conversations about these seemingly arbitrary gender lines. A lot of ‘anything you can do, I can do too’ conversations. But for boys, as the ‘default’ model of normality, the challenge is getting them to expand their idea of inclusiveness. They’re the ones who need to be convinced that girls are just as meaningful and important as they are, they’re the ones we need break out of ‘othering’ attitudes. And it’s not because little boys grow up instinctively othering those not like them, but because they grow up in a (western) culture that seeps them in the message that they are Normal and everyone else isn’t.

I don’t think there’s any magic trick that breaks this spell. It’s hard work. Really hard work. But it’s worth it in the end.

I second what Sara B has said.

As you know, Ipomea, I have two sons, an 18 year old and a 14 year old. Those who read my tumblr know my trials and tribulations with them and my family who have, uh, “old world values”.

The best thing to do is live the example. I was not as successful with firstborn son, but second born son is definitely a feminist boy. But the credit goes to the person that he is. I have an easier model with him, so to speak. Even though I disagree with firstborn’s opinions, I still respect his right to think the way he does. I hope that in time he will amend his philosophy. If I lecture too much he puts me on “Mom mute” and the battle is lost.

You need to be a good mom first, establish good rapport. Children respond best to parents whom they respect, are comfortable with, and secretly think are cool–they won’t tell you to your face of course.

The other half of the formula is your spouse. Mr. Ipomea should be a partner in your education of feminist-boy-in-the-making. That is key.

With family members–ugh, very tricky. I have to opt for Sara B’s #2 option. I have private chats with the kids on my own time, so as not to insult my family.

I am not now nor do I ever plan to become a parent (please god; washes down a fistful of yaz with vodka), but the man at my house grew up to be remarkably feministy for someone from a very conservative family in a very conservative place. I think most of it comes from growing up very close to (and just 20 mos younger than) an extremely strong, intelligent sister. Nobody had to tell him that girls are as capable as boys, he knew because she existed and was (and is) an absolute force of nature. I think of how many of the men MY age first met contemporaries playing t-ball or football, and it strikes me that there are few ways for youngyoung boys & girls to interact in a similar way that would facilitate teamwork and respect…

That’s an interesting point — are there places where youngyoung kids do interact? Could we screen/interview nursery schools, preschools, etc., to find one that shares our political beliefs the same way that some parents screen for disciplinary methods, etc.?

I think so. I’m not a parent, yet, but I plan to be someday, and I want to raise any sons, like Ipo said, knowing that “everyone is worthy of respect regardless of their gender/color/religion/sexual orientation, being polite goes a long way, treat others as you would like to be treated, insults are never appropriate”. Maybe one way to help encourage that would be screening potential nursery schools/daycares/etc.

The most effective thing you can do is lead by example from day one, which it sounds like you are planning to do. If you give too many lectures about any subject, they start to lose potency.
With family members, the only approach I have found to work is to speak to them in private and say something like “I know you’re not racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever) but the way you talk makes you sound like you are. I don’t want the kids to think it’s alright to say this, so would you please stop while they are around?” Don’t be surprised if the person you are talking to gets defensive. Remember that the important thing is what your kids hear, not making your family member a better person. It’s not your business how they talk when you aren’t around, but you do have a right to ask that they be polite in front of the kids.
If that doesn’t work, plan B is to have a talk with the kids when the offender is gone. Find a way to explain that even though so-and-so uses words like that, it isn’t ok in your family.

My uncle is very Catholic and can be rather outspoken on his views. We didn’t often visit my family when I was a little kid – we lived about 1200 km north of them and didn’t travel much – but I vaguely remember having a plan B talk with my parents about appropriate language after being around my uncle. I’m not a parent by any means (I am way too young to be thinking about kids) but if you continue to emphasize what language is appropriate for your family, chances are your children will pick up on it.

Yeah, asking someone to tone down their language only works if they understand why you wouldn’t want your kids to talk like that.
For people we see every once in a while we use Plan B. If it is someone the kids will see regularly, as in once a week or more, I think it’s worth it to put your foot down.

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