Would you classify yourself as a feminist? With the levels of contention surrounding definitions of feminism, it may be difficult to identify whether or not that label fits with your beliefs, attitudes, or philosophies. However, when taken at its most basic principles, feminism is the recognition of the fundamental equality of women and men; it is about the historic and institutional systems that disadvantage women, and the daily, almost imperceptible, discriminations women may face.
Today, I feel with confidence that I am a feminist. I find that almost every issue can be viewed as a feminist issue, almost every topic can find a source in misogynistic tradition, and pretty much every English essay prompt I am given is an opportunity for me to go on a feminist rant.
But that is just me, and it has been a recent development. I remember being in kindergarten and one day after a karate class a little boy said something to me that, for some reason, has been seared into my brain. He looked at me and he said: “You’ll never be as strong as me. You’re just a girl.”
I remember at that moment, desperately wishing I was a boy. For the rest of elementary school, I always had that secret wish I carried on my back. I wanted to play football during recess with the boys. I wanted to dress in basketball shorts like the boys. I wanted to be considered strong like a boy.
In response, I rejected much of what was expected of me as a girl at that age. I refused to wear any clothing that touched my skin (jeans were way off the table) and I was incredibly competitive, especially when it came to sports. I dove head-first into the ‘tomboy’ stereotype and adopted a headstrong persona that would get me as close as possible to ‘strong like a boy.’
Eventually, my wish to be a boy eventually evolved into a certain level of anger. Who says I can’t be strong because I’m a girl? The very reason I am strong is because I’m a girl.
The headstrong persona I had adopted changed from one of trying to emulate a boy in my childhood years, to one of validating my self-worth and strength through the very identifiers that I had once felt made me weak. I became emphatically self-assured when it came to the support and encouragement of every person that identified as female, myself included.
Despite my later confidence, I have to wonder how misogyny was imparted on me so heavily that at the age of 5 I was already aware of its impact.
I think of the universal shortcomings that are found in raising young children in regards to gender expectations and stereotypes. While I hesitate to divulge on the topic of gender identity, as it is a much more nuanced topic than a slight mention in this article allows, it’s important to consider the ways in which our genders are imposed on us from a young age.
Princesses (always girls and always in peril) need to be saved by princes (always boys and always powerful). Boys are scolded when they cry at a certain age, while girls’ tears are expected and excusable. Boys are put in football while girls are put in ballet. As children, we are funnelled into the roles which society expects of us, whether it is our parents’ intention to do so or not.
Girls, in particular, are expected to be subdued, compliant, fragile, and accommodating. My headstrong nature went directly against this, and I was oftentimes scolded for my behaviour.
For instance, in the third grade, my teacher told me that a boy in my class had called me bossy. At the time, I internalised this comment and, still to this day, I worry excessively about coming off as bossy or abrasive in any way. Looking back on it now, though, I wonder: Was I being bossy, or was I just asserting myself? This small incident at 9 taught me to be more submissive and to keep more of my opinions to myself.
Other times, the supposed limitations of being female were imparted on us as children by the women in our lives. Subject to the patriarchy themselves, lessons taught to our mothers about the roles they should fulfil and the way they should act are passed down through small comments or differences in the ways girls are raised to their brothers.
Where is feminism in our childhoods? Upon reflection, there’s not much. So, while I grew up to become a feminist, I have to question wether my parents intended this, my feminist beliefs, to be the result. While the combination of my father’s examples of ambition and my mother’s examples of determination certainly added to my conviction, I was never exposed to frank discussions on feminism in the home until very recently.
Speaking with friends, many of them expressed similar experiences in their childhoods and upbringings. While they were maybe not noticeably brought up differently from their brothers, maybe felt their parents never overtly put them down due to their gender, or maybe didn’t experience gender-related doubt, there are always the subconscious or subtle societal ‘lessons’ that slipped through.
One friend, for instance, spoke on the influence religion had over her upbringing, and the way Christian teachings within the church and her home treated her and her brother in different ways. From the beginning of time, Eve is the tempress whose sexuality, foolishness, and credulousness lead to the downfall of man.
Can these lessons and expectations based on gender, which are so heavily ingrained in the societies of nearly every culture, be changed? A 2019 article by UN Women lists ‘Seven tips for raising feminist children,’ including sharing the housework among girls and boys, stopping body shaming, and talking about feminism directly from a young age.
I’m not sure, despite my beliefs, if these steps will be effective, or are even the right way to go. Though they are, of course, a step in the right direction. It’s difficult to find a balance between teaching children at an early age about treating everyone equally and exposing them to the nuances of societal pressure and expectation before they are able to understand the consequences.
One thing, at least, is for certain: as children, we are not born treating people unequally but we are taught to do so. Mistreatment is a learned behaviour and misogyny is demonstrated to us as children, whether the adults in our lives intend to or not.
It seems like the key to ending this cycle is to confront our own biases and re-learn the lessons we were taught as children. I wish I had corrected every little boy that tried to tear me down when I was just a girl, or that I had questioned the teacher who felt the need to tell me that a boy had said I was bossy. I wish I hadn’t felt the need to overcompensate in order to subdue those blows.
Though it’ll be many years until I have children of my own, I hope I’m able to raise children who value each other, and who don’t continue to pass on the misogynistic systems which define the expected roles of both men and women. As many parents have successfully done, including mine, I hope to raise feminists.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew