Seven Ways I’m Teaching My Young Sons to be Feminists

Photo: Toy kitchen from Little Tikes with a stove, cutting board, microwave and knife block. Text: "7 Ways I'm Teaching My Young Sons to be Feminists / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

When I was pregnant, I imagined what life might be like if I had a little girl. I envisioned teaching her to stand up for herself, buying her dresses with science symbols, letting her get dirty, and being an example of a strong woman for her. I wasn’t going to stereotype her or allow anyone else to, thank you very much. In short, I considered how to teach her to be a feminist.

But I turned out to have two sons.

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Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters

Photo: Covers of the books Lola Loves Stories (girl and her dad reading a book), Ada Twist, Scientist (a girl with lab goggles and boy below her), One Hot Summer Day (a girl looking up at a city apartment) and The Paper Bag Princess (a girl in a paper bag facing a dragon). Text: "Nine Awesome Picture Books with Girls as Main Characters / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The girls are missing.

Children’s literature is remarkably devoid of female main characters. As a recent video illustrates so drastically, in a study of more than 500 children’s books, 25% had zero female characters. Even though there are loads of animals that could easily be female, they’re almost always identified as male.

Even when there are female characters, they’re often relegated to a stereotypical role, like the stick-in-the-mud, the mom, or “the vain one.” In children’s media, just under 20% of female characters had jobs or specific aspirations.

Just like in the broader popular culture, boys in picture books get to go on adventures, solve problems, and save the day. These stories teach our children that either girls don’t get to do fun things or have to stay in society’s prescribed roles.

In contrast, both little girls and boys need female characters in books! While little girls need to see themselves represented, boys need need to know that the story isn’t always about them – and that it’s a good thing.

Bringing down the patriarchy can start at your child’s bookshelf. Here are some of my family’s favorite books featuring girls as main characters. In addition, a number of these books feature girls of color, which are even harder to find.

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Marching for the Future: The Women’s March on Washington

marching-for-the-future_-the-womens-march-on-washington

“Tell us what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like!” chanted by countless voices rang through the National Mall. I and two of my friends were in the middle of the Women’s March on Washington yesterday, along with about a million other people. From creative signs to the chants, the crowd was seriously pissed off. At the same time, there was a serious sense of solidarity and dare I say – hope.

As Dave Engledow, the photographer of the World’s Best Father set of photos, says, it felt like the scene in The Grinch Stole Christmas when all of the Whos in Whoville sing together despite the Grinch trying to ruin everything.

Maybe democracy doesn’t come from a store – perhaps democracy means just a little bit more!

A few of my highlights from the day:

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Why I’m Thankful for Labor Day as a Mom

Why I'm Thankful for Labor Day as a Mom2

I’m thankful for Labor Day and the people who made it possible – both as a worker and a mom. But we still have so much more to do.

I’m thankful I have weekends off so I can spend them with my husband and kids. I already feel like this time is so stretched; I can’t imagine having even less. But before 1937 and the work of labor unions, there was no standard 40 hour workweek. Even now, there are moms who have to work two jobs just to get by, meaning they don’t get those precious hours.

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Songs to Grow Up With: Kids’ Music for Little Radicals

songs-to-grow-up-with_-kids-music-for-little-radicals

Listening to music can be a radical act. And I don’t mean in the 2112 or Footloose “music is evil” type of way. But more that the type of music we listen to is not only a reflection of our tastes and perspectives but an influence on them.

Nowhere is this more true than for kids, who either end up listening to music developed for their specific age group or are subjected to their parents’ musical tastes. While some kids music is absolutely inane, it doesn’t have to be. Without needing to go full-on Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals (from Portlandia), here are a few songs that may help inspire your kids to be activists or at least anti-authoritarian. Not all of these were originally for kids – many of them are straight-up folk songs – but I think they all have a kid appeal.

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Book Club: The Little Engine that Could, A Feminist Reading

My Book Club – quirky critical and social justice takes on children’s literature. Otherwise known as what happens when someone interested pop culture and political analysis has read the same bedtime story for the 100th time.

The Little Engine that Could is best known for its signature line, “I think I can.” But while many adults remember nothing outside of that – I know I didn’t until my son went on an Little Engine kick – the core of the story is actually a groundbreaking feminist fable.

From the very start, The Little Engine that Could is notable for featuring female protagonists in a book first published in 1930. For those who don’t quite remember, the namesake Little Engine must go over the mountain because an engine pulling a train full of “toys and good things to eat for the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain” has broken down. Both the broken-down engine and the Little Engine who takes over her load are explicitly gendered as female. While they are referred to specifically as “she,” the rest of the trains are referred to as “he.” Compare this to Dr. Seuss, who of his 47 main characters had only three female protagonists. Even today, television and movie executives still say that boys won’t go to a movie or buy a toy starring a girl.

The book also illustrates how the patriarchy underserves and denigrates the needs of children and women. After the original engine breaks down, a little toy clown jumps off the train to flag down help. Three different trains pass by, each refusing to pull the toys and food. The first train states that he is too important to bother, explaining that he has a dining car with waiters. It connects the social power of the rich to not caring about the needy. The second similarly refuses, explaining that he is too powerful to bother, as he just came from carrying heavy equipment to print newspapers for adults. Simply, both are saying that feeding children and bringing them toys aren’t worth their time or effort. To add insult to injury, the first two trains aren’t even busy with different jobs! They’re headed back to the maintenance yard and just don’t feel like helping. The third train that rejects the clown does so for slightly different reasons – he is too old and tired – but is also notably male.

When the Little Engine comes on the scene, she shows how the glass ceiling affects even competent, hard-working women. Although she wants to help, she says she isn’t sure that she can – she’s never been over the mountain before. But her lack of experience isn’t for lack of effort. Instead, it’s lack of opportunity – she is only used for switching in the yard. It’s only when another female train needs help and no one else is willing to that she receives her chance.

And of course, everyone knows the ending – through grit, passion, and a good mantra, she gets over the mountain. She not only proves herself, but also brings the girls and boys in the city on the other side of the mountain good food to eat and toys to play with. In the end, it’s a story of one strong woman finding empowerment by helping out another woman and serving her greater community. A lesson far more complex than the easy “I think I can,” and even more worth cheering for.