I've been a feminist ever since I found out was feminism was back in high school. Equality for women? Yes. Or more accurately in my case, Duh.
But so often feminism is mistaken for misandry, a hatred of men. I don't hate men. I love men, including but not limited to specific men such as my dad, my husband, and my son. Even our dog is male. That love doesn’t change the fact that I think women in our society are trounced on in a thousand tiny and huge ways, and that we'd all be better off if we righted that ship.
And that's why, when someone asked me the other day if it's hard to raise a boy as a feminist woman, I was a bit taken aback. What she meant, with context and tone, was, 'Is it hard not to hate your male child since you're a feminist?' Let's get that one out of the way. Nope. Not hard. Not even a little.
But let’s pretend what she really asked was the more useful, ‘Is it hard to raise your child in a society that sees everything in gender binary categories and limits opportunity and choices based on those categories?’ Yup. It is. That goes for cisgendered folks, transgender, intersex, and everything else on the gender continuum.
Gloria Steinem once said, “We've begun to raise daughters more like sons…but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” What that means to me is that this stuff cuts both ways. We have to raise all our children in a such a way that they become part of a more tolerant, aware society.
I’ve tried to do this in various ways. I bought my son a baby doll that he doesn't particularly care for. He is obsessed with trucks and traditional 'boy' things, even though we never specifically encouraged it. On the other hand, he loves pink, and knows that color is for everyone. Does that mean I'm doing this right?
I want to be sure I don't equate him taking on traditional 'girl' signifiers as some kind of indication of gender insight. Pink nail polish chips off over time. What can I give him that's a lasting means of appreciating diversity?
Stories. That's all I come up with. I can give him the gift of stories. Stories about people that are unlike anything he’s known, that challenge him and expand his mind.
The problem is, there don't seem to be enough of them.
JK Rowling was famously asked, as a female author, to appear on book covers as “JK” rather than Joanne since boys supposedly wouldn't read books written by a female. It's also been batted around the blogosphere that Harry Potter was written as a male because “girls don't buy books and boys won't buy books that aren't about them.” I've yet to find an actual citation for that quote to verify it, but the fact that it seems so plausible that it's nearly become canon speaks volumes.
And what does all this mean for my son? My white, (so far seemingly) cisgendered son? It means he misses out on the magical transportation of stories. He doesn't get important chances to see the world through someone else's eyes. He doesn’t get as many practice sessions with empathy, that very necessary human skill.
Girls read stories about boys because there are a lot of those stories and many of them are good. Girls practice being Captain Underpants or considering life from the point of view of a little boy who runs off in the night with wild beasts to play in their rumpus.
How often does my son get asked, for love of a good story, to imagine life as a sword-wielding princess, or a little girl having a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day?
I have to work to find my son books about people who aren't like him, books that allow him listen to the voices of others and try on new perspectives. We're building that muscle as much as we can, and I hope that if he has kids of his own one day, he won't have to use google and Pinterest to seek these titles out. Because our kids need strong empathy muscles if they're going to change our world for the better.
So publishers, take note. Even though I am no longer a girl, I am female. I have a child, and I absolutely do buy books. His books. And this woman and her son want to hear more stories from and about people nothing like him.