We feel incredibly lucky to have this guest post from our friend Oona Miller Hanson about the importance of discussing sexism and misogyny with our daughters, especially given this current election season.
Oona has been in education for twenty years. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton and holds two Master’s Degrees, in English and Educational Psychology. She has consulted with families and schools to evaluate and update homework practices and policies across the country, and she is a founder of Beacon School for Boys.
When Michelle Obama shared her poignant personal response to Trump’s crude and violent language, this line struck me:
“If all of this is painful to us as grown women, consider what this is doing to our children.”
Her words got me questioning how I should educate my teenage daughter about gender discrimination and the misogyny that usually lies subtly beneath but is now front page news. How do I share this information with my daughter in ways that empower rather than burden her?
Of course I’m also talking about sexism with my son (and if you want helpful ways to talk to boys about the 2005 Trump tape, here is a great resource). But sexism affects girls and women in a specific, personal way.
Many parents of girls prefer to shelter their daughters from this reality for as long as possible. I understand this impulse. No one wants to tell a toddler there could be invisible barriers standing between her and her dreams.
Does discussing longstanding systemic prejudice against women help or hurt our girls?
This ambivalence was summed up by Michele Naumann Carlstron, when she wrote about her daughter on Facebook:
“I want to make sure she is aware so she can protect herself; knowledge is power. But I also want to shield her; does she need to know at 9 years old the disdain so many (mostly older, white) men have for her?”
The answer to this question depends a lot on your daughter’s maturity and environment. Every family will have their own timeline for starting these conversations. But my guess is that our daughters need to hear from us much earlier than we are willing to admit.
Because unless you are living in a media-free utopian commune, your daughter is probably experiencing misogyny every day.
Our daughters observe the way women in the public eye are (mis)treated, they stare at the “sexy fill-in-the-blank” costumes in the Halloween catalog, they notice that certain low-status jobs are almost always done by women, they hear people add the modifier “female” but never “male” when describing professionals (“female scientist,” “female lawyer,” “female senator,” etc.), and they know that all of our presidents have been men.
Some argue that discussing misogyny and sexism is defeatist or setting up girls to see the world (and men in particular) in a negative way. But the risk of not talking about it harms our girls more.
It’s our job to arm girls with the information they need to understand the challenges they will face. As my friend Zanthe Taylor points out, it’s important for girls to know that sexism happens to every woman; it is part of our shared experience. If we pretend it isn’t there, we risk sending the message that our daughters’ concerns aren’t legitimate or that there is some secret shame about being female.
And as Jessica Valenti wrote in The Nation, “as depressing as misogyny is, acknowledging and naming it helps. It means that our daughters will realize the everyday slights—or huge injustices—are a failure of the system, not of themselves.”
Sharing our own stories about misogyny can be one way to start the conversation. If we aren’t comfortable discussing our personal experience, there is no shortage of examples in each day’s news.
I’ve decided it’s important to share not only my stories but also the history of gender discrimination. I was fortunate enough to attend a single-sex school where I studied the women’s movement. Learning about the struggle for equality made my classmates and me feel more confident, more determined, more eager be a badass. I am grateful that my own daughter attends a girls’ school where the students can quickly recite the best definition of feminism I know: the radical notion that women are people.
Knowing the history of the fight for equal rights is essential. Even if we were to mandate equal representation in government, business, and academia, that apparent equality wouldn’t eradicate discrimination. The biases, often unconscious and implicit—and frequently internalized by women themselves—are very real, even if they aren’t always visible.
When I share some history lessons with my own daughter, I know I risk sounding like one of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon (wha, whon, whon, Seneca Falls, wha whon whon, Gloria Steinem…). But passing on these touchstones of progress is worth an eye-roll any day. And as Lisa Damour, Ph.D., writes in Untangled:
“girls can still hear when they’re rolling their eyes.”
The harder conversations are about preparing our daughters for the everyday sexism they are likely already experiencing: the microaggressions (e.g., “so how did you get interested in science/robotics/baseball, etc.?”), the inevitable catcalling on the street, the ogling (or worse) on public transportation.
I wish I could come up with a handy bullet-pointed list of strategies and one-liners to arm each girl with responses that would allow her to stand up for herself, call out injustice, and maybe even correct people’s behavior—all without escalating the situation or putting herself in danger.
If only it were that easy.
Responding to sexism is incredibly complex and context-specific. Is she alone? Is she safe? What is her relationship with the people around her?
Without a handy list of sexism-busters to post on the refrigerator, perhaps the next best thing is to offer some kind of mantra or basic framework for weathering an act of sexism with her dignity intact. One that I like was shared by another mother on Facebook; Lisa Healy Lacey argued,
“Teach your daughters that it’s not their job to make people feel comfortable when they’ve been made to feel more than uncomfortable.”
With this premise, we can then share a specific example or hypothetical scenario and ask our daughters how they might respond. Because one of the best ways to make these conversations empowering rather than diminishing is to give our daughters a chance to flex their problem-solving muscles and to discover their own inner resources.
So as difficult as these topics may be, we can’t stay silent. Perhaps we can even be grateful for this election season, as Lisa Belkin has noted, for forcing us to face some painful truths.
And with all of us doing our part—with both our daughters and our sons—someday that feminist notion won’t seem so radical after all.