Girl Talk: How My Parents Made Me A Feminist
A few weeks ago, on a first date, a guy told me about how watching his mother — a strong, intelligent woman who held the family together — made him into a feminist. Then he asked me what it was that made me start caring about women’s equality. I’m sure he expected that I was going to tell him a traditional “how I became a feminist” story: Dad hauled me to my first pro-choice march kicking and screaming, or my parents were radical separatist lesbians, or Mom was a famous liberal journalist and progressive ideals were in their blood.
Not. At. All.
My blood is the thick, viscous fluid of dirty martinis. My parents contributed to me becoming a feminist, sure. But it was only because as I was a young sprout blossoming into a beautiful flower, they were … kind of sexist. I should make clear that I don’t think my parents really were conscious of their sexism. They aren’t “700 Club” troglodytes who brainwashed me into believing a woman’s role is pumping out babies and bleaching skid marks out of her husband’s Hanes. They’re both from Connecticut, a fairly liberal state. They both came very close to finishing college. They both read voraciously and filled my childhood with books, classical music, museums, operas and Broadway shows. I grew up seeing and hearing both of them treat smart, accomplished women with deference and respect, especially an older woman with whom my father worked on a political campaign.
But my parents raised four daughters and one son and they raised one gender differently from the other. Growing up — and my sisters have confirmed this — there was always this sense that my brother was special because he was a boy. I’ve tried to figure out it was purely because of his gender or if it was because he was the one boy in an otherwise very girly family, i.e. a novelty.
Instead, though, I think my parents were of the generation where it was taken as a given that “boys will be boys” and girls are supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Boys were expected to behave in one way (“bad”), while girls were expected to behave in another (“good”). To them, this isn’t “sexism” — it’s just the way things are. Mom and Dad were both born during World War II and were full-grown adults with jobs by the time the cultural changes of the ’60s rolled around. As a result, I don’t think they examined their own sexist beliefs in any real way.
None of this was clear to me when I was a kid. In fact, they let me be a super-tomboy, until I naturally grew out of it by late middle school. (Mom wasn’t happy about it, though — she always complained that I never wanted to play dress-up or paint my nails.) I played in the mud, rode my bike all over the neighborhood on adventures, roughhoused with my brother, and played sports with boys in the neighborhood and at school. But things changed when my brother, who is four years older, and I both became teenagers. That’s when the sexual double standard became glaringly apparent.
One of the things my mom, especially, had always been strict about was not being in my bedroom with a boy behind a closed door. Boys and I would find ways to discreetly make out anyway (and once I got older I would sneak boys at night in through my bedroom window!), but yeah, the door stayed ajar. She would say similar things to my brother, but it wasn’t all the time like it was with me. While she was vigilant about there being no hanky-panky in my bedroom, she was a lot more lax with my brother and his paramours. As a horny teenaged girl coming into her own sexuality, that drove me bonkers.
The sexual double standard also appeared when it came to late nights out. As far as I could tell, my brother never had a curfew. I didn’t either, exactly, but my parents would randomly tell me to be home by 11 or midnight. That was extremely frustrating, to know that my brother was waltzing in at any time he pleased when I had to be home by midnight or my dad would be pissed. They also refused to let me go to sleepovers or house parties if my friends’ parents would not be around. Sometimes my brother would act all macho and suggest he should go along and “keep an eye on me”; at least one memorable time, my dad seemed thisclose to sending him as my chaperone. My brother was heavily into drugs at the time and yet my parents still seemed to think I was the one who needed looking after.
I found it particularly upsetting when my dad didn’t stand up for me when my brother, his friends or even my uncle made sexist jokes or commentary about me. I remember once when I was in college, one of my brother’s creepy friends made a comment about my body right in front of my father. My dad is very passive and non-confrontational. In that moment, though, all I wanted him to do was deck this guy. But he didn’t say anything. It felt like a huge letdown, like he was tacitly approving of that treatment of me.
I can’t remember if I ever called my parents out on this stuff when I was teenager. Knowing me and my mouth, I probably did. But the truly substantive conversations about the way they treat boys and girls differently didn’t really start until my older sisters began having children. I have one nephew and three nieces (we are a very estrogen-filled family) and I see the same old patterns repeating themselves. My nephew, for example, is extremely badly behaved and will run around my parents’ house screaming and yelling. My nieces are occasionally prone to whining, but are totally less hyper and not at all destructive. But who does my mom scold and chastise?
I’ve pointed this out to her, that she’s harder on the girls than the boy. I’ve told her it isn’t fair that she’s letting my nephew behave like a monkey that escaped from the zoo but telling the girls to be “good girls.” She has scowled at me a few times, but I keep pointing it out every time I see it. It really bothers me that my nieces may grow up and realize, like I did, that boys and girls get treated differently in this world, including in their family’s homes.
I don’t mean to sound excessively critical of my parents or how they raised me. I mean, I’ve arguably turned out OK! I really love my father and there’s a lot of good things about him that have influenced me as an individual: my interest in politics, my work ethic, and my love of music. I have wished at times that I grew up with more liberal, progressive, conscious parents that were aware of and concerned about issues like sexism and classism. Numerous times I’ve felt jealous when another young feminist activist whose mother was a famous feminist activist, or another young feminist writer whose parents raised her on feminism at the teat, get accolades. I feel like I’ve actually had to come farther to overcome aspects of my upbringing, like all the “good girl” BS. Ultimately, though, I’m proud that I was raised that way and I’ve learned the values I believe on my own. It’s made me much more conscious as a person, as well as an aunt. And I know it will make me more conscious some day when I am a parent, too.