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

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“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

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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.

Women’s History Month Role Models: Historical and Modern Advocates for Justice

Photo: Historical head-shot black-and-white photograph of Ida B. Wells, an African American woman with hair gathered in a high bun; Text: "Women's History Month Role Models: Advocates for Justice"

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and historical and modern women in advocacy. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

Today, I’m focusing on real-life women in history or the larger culture who are advocates for social justice. In particular, I’m focusing both on women who inspired me personally and who may not be quite as well-known. This list tends to be focused on my areas of interest – poverty, environmental issues, food systems – and this is just but the shortest of lists, so there are a lot of issues missed. Nonetheless, I hope to raise awareness about some of these women who aren’t always (although sometimes) mentioned in the history books.

Vandana Shiva: Shiva is one of the most compelling and unique advocates in the sustainable food movement. While much of the sustainable food movement is white, upper to middle-class Americans concerned about their personal exposure to bioengineering, Shiva is Indian and focuses her work on how corporate control of the food system affects farmers in non-Western countries. She’s spoken out against corporations and governments patenting plant species that farmers have been cultivating for centuries. She’s also done a lot of work in seed saving, helping farmers access to alternatives to “terminator seeds” that only produce sterile seeds. Her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks throughout India and is working with the government of Bhutan to convert 100% of their agriculture to organic. Plus, her PhD thesis was on “Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory,” which is inherently hardcore.

Sister Dorothy Stang: If Sister Lucy is the most badass nun I’ve ever met, Sister Dorothy Stang is probably the most badass one I haven’t. (At least in modern times – some of those saints had some very interesting backstories.) As a young woman, she traveled to Brazil to educate farmers in the Amazon jungle about land tenure and avoiding deforestation. However, her work quickly became political as she learned more about the farmers’ situation. As loggers, ranchers, and real estate speculators moved into the rainforest, they threatened the livelihoods and lives of the people she was trying to serve. She collaborated with the local people to fight against the profiteers trying to kick them off their land. She lobbied the local government and sat in vigil to blockade logging trucks trying to get into the forest. Because of her advocacy, she was put on a “death list” and later murdered by the local crime group. As they approached her, she pulled a Bible from her bag and began to read from the Beatitudes. In college, I read about her story in Outside Magazine and hung their obituary on my door. Both her story and my experience with H.O.M.E. strongly influenced my passion for social justice, especially in tandem with environmental justice.

Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells: When I aspired to be a high-flying journalist (ha) in high school, Nellie Bly was my gal. Perhaps most famous for faking severe mental illness to get admitted to an insane asylum, I admire how she put herself in serious danger to expose corrupt systems and inhumane treatment. She was in the asylum for 10 days, where the nurses fed them poorly, tied the “dangerous” patients up with ropes, didn’t clean up waste, forced the women to beat on hard wooden benches all day, and yelled at and beat the patients. The articles she published exposed the subhuman conditions that were common in the very broken mental health system, leading to reform. For bonus awesomeness, she also beat the world record for circumnavigating the globe. Similarly, besides both being named Ida, Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells also leveraged the power of the pen to sway people’s attitudes and actions. Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles in McClure’s about the monopoly of Standard Oil and how it manipulated the economy. She pored over piles of public documents and interviewed people across the country. Her articles and the book that followed were the first examples of both investigative journalism and the corporate expose. Ida B. Wells was an early civil rights advocate. When forced to give up her seat in the first class cabin of a train because of her race, she refused, more than 70 years earlier than Rosa Parks did on a bus. She sued the railroad and at least initially, won her case. She was co-owner and editor of a black newspaper, where she wrote articles exposing the lies that white supremacists used to justify lynching, identifying as far more of a form of social control over the black community than anything related to punishment of individuals. All of these women show how fundamental communication is to social change and managed to do in a profession that has never been welcoming to females.

Ella Jo Baker: Baker was a key figure in the 1950s civil rights movement, but isn’t that well-known today. I actually hadn’t heard of her until recently. But she probably would have preferred it that way. Baker worked in the background of the movement, organizing people, mentoring new leaders, forging connections and building the foundation for the mass movement. She opposed the idea of charismatic leadership in advocacy and specifically rejected how the church was set up, with mostly male leadership over a female congregation. Instead, she embraced participatory democracy with a collective style of action rather than a hierarchical one. As someone who has only acted in an official leadership positions a few times, but dedicated many hours in the background, I highly appreciate this viewpoint. In addition, much of my learning curve of becoming a better ally and advocate has been about understanding how to listen, appreciate other people’s true needs and provide them the support they need. For me, leadership is much more about being a servant than having charisma. She’s such a great example of this philosophy.

There are so many more women around the world in the past and present who are making their communities stronger and the world a more just place. Oxfam America and ONE have been doing a number of profiles of women in non-Western countries that are both powerful and inspiring.

Who are your favorite female advocates for justice now or in the past?

Women’s History Month Role Models – Pop Culture

Picture: Pictures of Clara Oswald from Doctor Who, Agent Peggy Carter and Anna from Frozen; Text: "Female Role Models in Pop Culture / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories – women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and historical or cultural women in advocacy. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

Today I’m focusing on female role models in pop culture, particularly action adventure and SF. In addition to being my favorite genres, they also have a historic under-representation of women, especially when compared to movies, TV shows, or books with a romantic or historical focus. Unfortunately, most women in these genres are either “The Girl” in a group made up of all men or Strong Female Characters who are physically capable but over-sexualized and emotionally flat. While the characters I describe are far from unproblematic – both if they were real people and in how their works choose to portray them – I find them to have a number of traits worth emulating.

Princess Elizabeth, The Paperbag Princess: One of the first children’s stories to subvert the traditional “Prince rescues Princess” plots, Princess Elizabeth was probably my first fictional feminist hero. After a dragon burns her clothes and kidnaps her betrothed, Princess Elizabeth sets off to rescue him. After she beats the dragon, she finds out her “practically perfect” fiancé tells her to come back when “she looks more like a princess.” Declaring him a bum, she leaves him in the dragon’s cave alone and skips off to pursue her own destiny. I love how even though she anticipated being a “normal” princess, she does what needs to be done when people are in danger. She also uses her wits to defend the dragon and of course, won’t stand for the Prince’s shallow crap. Too bad Sansa from Song of Fire and Ice didn’t read this book before moving to the castle. (Despite my previous hesitancy, I’m totally on a Game of Thrones kick now.)

Anna in Frozen: In many ways, Frozen is an update of the Paper Bag Princess, with Elsa both acting as the dragon putting others in danger and the prince to be rescued. While it’s an obvious one for the list, it’s important to highlight how Disney has finally given us a female protagonist who is brave, compassionate, smart, self-motivated and deeply flawed. The movie wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful if it didn’t show both Anna and Elsa making bad decisions in their process of recovering from a life-long traumatic situation. While Elsa is such an important symbol for so many people – especially through Let It Go – Anna is a better role model once she’s gotten past the “next day wedding” idea. She’s far more willing to ask for and appreciate help when needed, be emotionally open, and tackle problems rather than hide from them. Although I think these two are the best, other good Disney heroines include Belle (her smarts and compassion), Lilo (her adventurousness and willingness to love outsiders), Rapunzel (her ability to break off an abusive relationship) and Tiana (her independence and passion for her work).

Agent Peggy Carter in Agent Carter and Captain America: I love Peggy Carter and totally want to be her super-spy friend. Unfortunately for me, she’s a fictional character who had her heyday in the post-WW II era. Nonetheless, I definitely appreciate how Marvel took a character who have easily been written off as “the girlfriend” in a superhero movie and showed how she is a badass in her own right. She stands up for herself against historically accurate sexism, outsmarts her co-workers and the bad guys, and is willing to support other women. While she first pushes people away from her to protect them, she comes around and realizes that while she wants to save people, she needs relationships too. From a visual perspective, I like how she has a very straight-forward fighting style, similar to the men surrounding her. While she’s more flexible and a little quicker than them, she doesn’t have the gravity-defying acrobatic style that many women in action-adventure movies do. It shows that you can be as physically tough as a man without being superhuman.

Clara Oswald in Doctor Who: Clara has come under a lot of criticism from Doctor Who fans for being a bit flat and boring during her first season. While the show’s portrayal of her definitely had its problems, her character actually had a lot of subtlety from the beginning. Since then, she’s only gotten much deeper. She’s a control freak overachiever who just wants to help people – the grown-up version of the fairy-tale heroine who always saves the day. And on the show, she frequently does, often through the dual powers of cleverness and compassion. In fact, she even saved it once through a story and a leaf alone. Needless to say, Clara is a woman after my own heart. What I relate to the most is that saving the world isn’t even her day job – she’s constantly trying to balance her travels with being a full-time teacher in an inner-city school. She wants to do good so badly that it exhausts her. Besides depicting this struggle for balance, the show has also used her to poke at the question, “What does it mean to be a good person and a hero?” Her desire to have things be “right” sometimes drives her to despair and other times has lead to drastic abuses of power. So often, shows and books tell us that the people who fight the bad guys are obviously both heroes and automatically good people. I love that Clara tries so hard to be good and is so morally complex in her quest to be so. (Lots more analysis on Clara is available in this TARDIS Eruditorum post and the author’s Tumblr.)

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I know that the female characters in Avatar the Last Airbender are supposed to be excellent, but I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.

In addition to these laudable characters, a number of shows and movies have complex but far more morally ambiguous characters including Kima Greggs on the Wire; Catelyn Tully Stark, Arya Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen in A Song of Fire and Ice / Game of Thrones; President Laura Roslin, Starbuck, and Anastasia Dualla (Dee) in Battlestar Galactica; Black Widow in the Avengers and Captain America; Evey in V for Vendetta; and Micah Wilkins in Liar. As women come in all shapes, sizes and moralities, I appreciate this diversity.

Who are your favorite female role models in film, literature, and TV, especially in action-adventure and SF?

Women’s History Month Role Models – My Friends and Family

Photo: A woman in a pink shirt in front of a bike. Text:

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and women who have been major leaders in advocacy movements. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

What do you say when someone asks who inspires you? For me, it’s often the people I have a personal relationship with. Our greatest role models can be right in front of us.

My mom: My number one female role model in my life has always been my mom. As bonkers as we make each other – in that special way only mothers and daughters can – we love each other deeply. As a teacher in an inner-city school district, my mom instilled in me a dual love of learning and service. She was unrelenting in her dedication to her students, buying thousands of dollars in classroom supplies and more than once seriously considering fostering or adopting a student. She taught me what the word “privileged” meant before I ever heard the term, emphasizing that I was lucky to be both physically and emotionally taken care of. Reminding me that many children had neither of those – often, children she worked with every day – she taught me be grateful for what I have and help those who don’t. In her retirement, she’s volunteering at the local nature center and food bank. She’s also the one who inspired my love of cycling. While my family had always gone on short bike trips, her decision to bike 500 miles across New York State during my junior year of college motivated me to sign up for the AIDS Ride for Life. It was the first time I had ever done a major ride and made me a convert to cycling advocacy. In my family, my dad’s mom was the another major influence, whom I’ve written about before.

 

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My friend Nancy, at the first Carl Henn Memorial Ride. 

Nancy Breen: On the bike front, Nancy Breen, the chair of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, is another real inspiration to me. I know she’ll probably raise an eyebrow at her name being on the list, but she totally deserves it. She’s been the chair of our all-volunteer committee for several years now and it’s a pretty thankless job. Besides motivating us to get into gear, she’s spent endless hours with our city’s Mayor and City Council, whose meetings regularly run to midnight. She’s spoke in front of local policymakers on topics varying from police training to bike lanes. And she does all this in the very male-dominated field of bicycle advocacy. In fact, I think Nancy is a big part of why women are well-represented on RBAC and our concerns are heard. I’m also putting a major shout-out to my friend Sophie Chan-Wood, who does a lot of our group’s marketing and is the Rockville Roll Model for the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association’s Women and Bikes program.

Sister Lucy Poulin: Lucy is the toughest nun I have ever met. Admittedly, I haven’t met that many nuns, but she is a total badass. She founded Homeworkers Organized for More Employment in the 1970s in very rural Maine and still runs it. (She had co-run it with fellow awesome nun Sister Marie Ahern until two years ago, when Marie passed away.) What started as a simple co-op for crafters expanded to a substantial network of services including multiple homeless shelters, a food bank, a soup kitchen, a land-trust program that helps people build their own houses, an alternative high school, and much more. In addition to the main campus, she’s the matriarch of a rambling farm property. Chris and I volunteered at HOME for about a month and stayed in a plumbing-free house next to a lake at the farm. We ran the summer day camp, which at that time was down to 3 girls. Two of the girls were sisters and came from an incredibly tough background – they lived in one of the homeless shelters and their mom was a user and seller of illegal prescription drugs. Living and working there was super-hard and rewarding. But we had the luxury of it being temporary. Lucy deals with some radically difficult people, both those seeking services and volunteers, day in and day out. I saw her frustrated and even angry, but never impatient or mean. Most importantly, she created an atmosphere of fundamental equality. If you were more than a short-time volunteer, no one made the distinction between you and someone who needed paid work. It was never said but widely acknowledged that we all needed to be there, even if it was for different reasons.

Sylvia Robinson: Sylvia is another local activist that is the heart, soul, and backbone of an essential community organization. Leaving her steady job, she sunk her entire life savings into pursuing her dream of establishing a community center for her neighborhood. Housed in a impressive and historical but crumbly brick building in the DC neighborhood of Pleasant Plains, the Emergence Community Arts Collective hosts dance classes, children’s summer programs, poetry open mics, swap meets, and support groups. Through the organization, Sylvia has also led several projects delving into the history of the neighborhood, with a particular focus of highlighting the contributions of black women. I had the pleasure of knowing Sylvia when I volunteered for Ecolocity, a Transition Towns group that focused on sustainable food. She gave us free space for meetings and events as well as use of the building’s yard for a community garden and mini-food forest. Despite the fact that running your own non-profit is relentless, she was always willing to give our group time and energy as well. I’ll also offer a shout-out to my friend and fellow Ecolocity volunteer Gerri Williams, who now lives in Duluth, MN and co-hosts a radio show.

All of these women are dedicated to their greater community without losing sight of the individual relationships that truly make up that community.

Who are the female role models in your life who have inspired you the most?