Equality begins at home: bringing feminism and parenting together

by Rachel Bell on December 21, 2010

Published in The Times on 21 December 2010
View the published article here (subscription site)

With the Pink Stinks campaign calling for positive role models for girls and Mumsnet’s Let Girls Be Girls campaign demanding an end to products that sexualize children, awareness of damaging and limiting stereotypes is reaching parents way beyond feminist circles. Group Blogs such as mothersforwomenslib.com are bringing feminism and parenting together while this year’s Feminism in London conference saw a Feminist Parenting workshop, How To Break The Stereotypes at Home for the first time, as well as a workshop for teenagers, Dealing with Pressure, inviting 12-18 year olds to voice their feelings around media imagery. So why the need now? And what do these parents want to do differently?

‘Society is increasingly gendered,’ says Janice Williams, the parenting consultant who led the conference workshop. ‘Even before a child is born there are questions about what colour to paint the room. Increased media platforms magnify the gendered world back to us, ten times as much as it did 20 years ago. Mainstream products and ideas are marketed to us by appealing to old-fashioned ideas that we find comforting and familiar.’ Attending Williams’ workshop on Breaking Stereotypes, I was invited, along with the other parents, to think about the qualities we encourage in each gender. One of Williams’ findings is that boys’ gentleness and kindness go unpraised as they do not fit the ‘real boy’ image. ‘Over time boys unconsciously realise these behaviours are not valued – and slowly drop them,’ says Williams. ‘It’s things like the 2009 NCPCC report that showed 25% of girls were being hit by their boyfriends that gets parents becoming more pro-active.’

Williams believes that most parenting courses are ‘gender-blind’ and with schools largely failing to address gender in terms of respectful relationships, media stereotypes and pornography – a recent Psychologies magazine survey found that almost one third of 14 to 16 year olds first looked at sexual images online when they were aged 10 or younger – parents are tackling it themselves. I met three families who have equality, in all its forms, at the forefront of their minds. These are parents who want their children to be free of narrow gender constraints, and know the full range of humanity.

Lisa-Marie Taylor, 40, has a full time job in Human Genetic Therapies.  Her partner Howard Lewis, 43, is a business consultant. They live in Surrey with Lisa-Marie’s son Sammy, 11, while Howard’s sons, aged 7 and 14, mainly reside with their mothers.

Lisa-Marie says, ‘I’ve brought Sammy up without sexual stereotypes as much as possible.  He has been free to play with whatever he chooses. He’s had dolls, a pram, fairy dresses and enjoyed them as much as his cars, planes and trains. Sammy did become aware that some people disagreed with his toys and would hide them when certain visitors came. Close friends were never a problem as they are all completely accepting of Sammy, however if someone came around who we didn’t know so well, he would hide his ‘girls’ toys under my bed.

Sammy has been home-tutored for the last three years – an option I discovered when we moved house. I didn’t even know home-tutoring was an option, then I came across it and it felt right. Our tutor is very equality-minded, In fact she’s a staunch feminist, she just made a snow-woman with Sammy! She has a library of feminist books, and makes sure Sammy’s activities aren’t just typical boys activities, but things like yoga too. She is teaching him to crochet  – he’s really rather good at this! I think Sammy has benefited immensely from home schooling.  He can focus in on the things that really interest him. There’s no separation of subjects. He can learn about respectful relationships and media imagery. Recently he and his tutor discussed a display that I put together on international feminist subvertising – stickering of sexist posters – for the Feminism in London conference. They talked about a recent poster campaign against Westfield shopping centre for allowing sexist imagery in one of the shops and explored how group action can lead to change. He’s explored equality of pay, how group action changed the law so that lap dancing clubs are no longer licensed like coffee shops. He has helped to make banners for Reclaim the Night marches. He’s learned how the most disenfranchised women can make their voices heard. He’s had discussions on trafficking and prostitution, and examined the selling of women in magazines and the imagery in lad mags and top shelf mags. There is certainly balance: discussions have included the inequality men face when they divorce and lose access to their children. He brings a child’s eye to the discussions and cannot understand why women would be displayed, exploited and sold in this way.

We have been really careful to introduce Sammy to the children of like-minded people. We hang out with the home educating groups, feminist friends both male and female, and we have friends of different sexual orientations, races and abilities. They tend to be free-thinking and non-conformist – all qualities which are great for Sammy to learn. Sammy’s friends are boys and girls of all ages, unlike in school where children were separated very much in terms of age and sex. His male friends, among other things sew, knit, cook, dance, try make-up on, wear sparkly clothes sometimes, some have long hair, some dress up and all are accepting of each other. I also make sure Sammy is responsible for house jobs, the same as everyone else. It’s unbelievable to me that I still come across people who see it as a girl’s role to tidy and clean yet allow boys not to bother!

You can’t stop children from encountering stereotyping outside the home, but we combat this by talking. Whenever we see an advert that conforms to stereotypes, I can’t help but challenge it. Sammy will challenge people if they say ‘he’ rather than ‘he or she’; when we watched the film, Shark Tale, he remarked, ‘Even the female fish have to have lots of make up on!’ He is aware of feminist issues such as the pay gap, and the pressures to look a certain way because issues of equality fall naturally into our conversations at home.

Despite the ‘100% support’ from the majority of friends and family, including Sammy’s dad, some have had issue with Sammy’s upbringing. Only yesterday I was told that, ‘really his hair needs cutting.’  At times I’ve felt that my parenting has been completely trashed simply because I let Sammy have his hair the way he wants it. Yet Sammy has a fabulous and happy life filled with friends, freedom and love. He is imaginative, empathic, fun, intelligent and courageous. My hopes are that he will grow up to be himself, I want him to tap into the wealth of real feelings that come with being a free individual.’

Kellie-Jay Keen, 36, is a full-time mother about to launch a clothing brand. Her husband Ryan Minshull, 36, is a global conference director. They live in Bristol with their daughter Mabel, 4 and their three sons, Roman, 7, Carter 8, and Artemus, 2

 ‘We’re from very different backgrounds,’ says Kellie-Jay. ‘My father did lots of housework, Ryan’s dad was a ‘proper’ builder with traditional values at home. Ryan had a pair of breasts on his cake when he was 21! I grew up believing feminism was a battle that had been won. I bought into the whole Spice Girls empowerment. Then I read a thread on Mumsnet about rape that made me question my thinking. I heard about a parenting workshop  at October’s Feminism in London conference.  I’ve come to the debate quite late, so while we’ve not restricted our boys in their choices, we’re now filling my daughter Mabel’s room – where there are lots of pink dresses and dolls – with different books where the female character doesn’t needs rescuing! I am also using Letterbox Library to find more diverse stories featuring children with disabilities, gay and ethnic minority characters.

I do not subscribe to the notion that boys are more violent and so my children were taught that hitting is not acceptable. We never say, ‘Boys will be boys’.  I hope we’ve equipped our children with the right words to resolve a dispute. We don’t expose our children to violence, including computer games, cartoons like Ben 10, which they’ve copied, and wrestling.

Ryan adds, ‘Kellie opened my eyes to sexism.  I wouldn’t have The Sun in the house now. She is very open-minded; the boys have dolls in pushchairs. We never say That’s for girls, or that’s for boys.  I would cry in front of the kids if I was upset. We let them know it’s OK to cry. The trick for me is giving the boys confidence to talk about feelings and allowing them to feel anger and resolve it without throwing a punch.’

Kellie Jay says, ‘I hate those T-shirts that say Little Monster for boys and Little Angel for girls. I think of Artemus, our two year old, as high-energy and fun, not as a Little Tearaway. I recently took Mabel out of her ballet class because it was all, Let’s put Mummy’s lipstick on, let’s get Mummy’s heels , aren’t we the prettiest. What if she turns 18 thinking prettiness is all there is to her? And when Mabel announced that she wanted to marry a rich man to buy her a pink house, I took her out and showed her all the women doing jobs. Mabel wants to be a doctor this week, she told us. My husband and I hi-fived each other when she said that.’

Melodie, 41, and Daniel Holliday, 47, are lecturers at the London College of Communication. They’re both artists and live in north London with their two daughters, Delilah, 14 and Ursula, 13.

‘I thought that being a forceful woman who likes the freedom to express herself was enough. Then, about three years ago, I was on the message boards of London Feminist Network. Feminism got me thinking more about teen issues: how relationships form. Delilah and Ursula alert me to things that go on – girls trying to get the attention of boys by drinking, smoking, this need to show you’re so sexual. I’m disappointed that girls in 2010 think that’s the most important thing. More talking with my daughters just became necessary.

Secondary school is crunch time for both genders to make decisions about themselves and we started to have a lot more discussions – about politics, relationships, body image, everything. I did a fashion degree and I’m in a band so I’ve long been concerned about young women portrayed in the music and fashion industries, and we talk about why those representations are narrow and harmful. One particular episode rang alarm bells when the pop star Rhianna was beaten by her then boyfriend Chris Brown. Ursula said a lot of girls thought Rhianna was to blame. I was horrified. These kind of things come up all the time.

Delilah writes songs, plays guitar and piano while Ursula plays the drums – I encourage their creativity. When Delilah didn’t know what to write about, I said, express your own lives. They named their band Skinny Girl Diet, a statement now but it makes me sad to remember where they got the name from. Delilah explained to me recently that she was going through a phase where she wanted to be thinner and that was an actual diet she found on the internet. She says she’s not into dieting now. I was really disappointed when I found out that Delilah was considering wanting to be a model and all that entails.

Recently, I attended the parenting workshop, How To Break The Stereotypes at Home, at the Feminism in London conference, while my daughters took part in the workshop for teenagers, Dealing with Pressure. Delilah said she really liked the workshop because it was nice to be in a room full of people that had the same views as her. She said they talked about things in society that made them unhappy. They looked at magazines like Heat and cut out words that affected them,

looked at the way women were viewed and men were viewed. They talked about the way prostitution is viewed because there was a Wayne Rooney story in the magazine. Ursula said that before the workshop, she thought that feminism was for women only but there was a boy in her drama group who agreed with feminism and she said she found that truly inspiring. She said the workshop showed how feminism is not an organisation which encourages people to hate boys and men. It opened her eyes to how many other young people have the same feelings around feminism and that it’s important to young people.

Dan says, ‘I don’t like to put any labels on myself but I am sympathetic to the feminist cause, as I am to any form of equality.  Since our daughters started secondary school, I have noticed there are lots of girls who dress to impress. They’re bombarded with images of women as sex objects, women as decoration. But Delilah and Ursula have very strong identities, they are strong individuals. I don’t think they’re suddenly going to turn into a Barbie Doll. I think they reflect their mother more than Paris Hilton.’

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