Why My Son Bobby Needs Feminism Too

Why My Son Bobby Needs Feminism Too January 2, 2013

I’ve noticed something as the mother of two children, one daughter and one son. I can dress my preschool daughter in girls’ clothes or in boys’ clothes, but if I dressed my baby in purple or put him in a dress, well, I’d get some serious stares.

We often say that “patriarchy hurts men too.” It’s true. For example, I grew up in a community where boys were expected to grow up to be providers and girls were expected to grow up to be homemakers. Girls didn’t have any options, but boys’ options were curtailed too – they were pushed toward careers that would make enough money to support a wife and multiple children, and away from careers in the arts that were seen as less financially sure. Patriarchy makes women’s only option homemaking while allowing men to choose from a variety of career paths, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also limit men’s options.

And patriarchy limits other things too. If I took time off of my career to focus on my children, that wouldn’t be seen as odd. If my husband did the same, he would face questions. Women are encouraged to express their emotions, but men are expected to be strong. It is seen as natural for a woman to cry in a stressful situation, but men who cry are seen as weak. Of course, there is the flip side of each of these: men benefit from being seen as strong, and while a woman taking time off from her career is more accepted the result on a wider scale is that the “mommy track” contributes to the pay gap between men and women.

Men are expected to follow the one option that is generally valued most highly in our society – to have a full time career, to keep their family name, to be tough and strong. But that doesn’t change the fact that if they choose other, less valued options – staying home with their children, changing their name upon marriage, or being sensitive and emotive – they face questions and possible ridicule. Sally is allowed to do girl things or boy things, but Bobby is expected to just do boy things. Sally is allowed to be either sensitive or tough, or even both at once, but Bobby is expected to simply be tough.

While we still have conversations about how hard it is for women to “do it all,” I don’t think we can achieve true equality unless we expect men to “do it all” too. In other words, reaching equality means more than just girls adding trucks to their repertoire of toys. It also means boys adding dolls to their repertoire as well. Reaching equality doesn’t just mean finding ways for women to both parent and have careers but also asking men to both have careers and parent as well. Reaching equality doesn’t simply mean giving women the option to work rather than stay home with their children but rather offering men the same option as well, and with the same expectations and acceptance.

We talk a lot about the pay gap. Well, it strikes me that if a manager has the choice between promoting a man or a woman, and he knows that there is a decent chance that sometime in the next few years the woman may have children and at the very least have to take maternity leave, but that the man’s performance and presence will not be affected if he has children, then the rational choice is for him to promote the man. Because of this, I don’t think we can get rid of the pay gap until we expect fathers to invest the same amount of time and energy into parenting that we expect mothers to invest in parenting. If that same manager looks at the man and the woman knowing that if either has a child their performance and presence will be impacted the same way – parental leave after the birth, and perhaps a need for more flexible hours afterwards – he will no longer have any reason to prefer the man to the woman when it comes to a promotion.

I am not trying to minimize the negative impact patriarchy has had on women. In the past, women have ceased to exist legally at marriage, and in many societies children have functioned as their father’s property. Patriarchy has always meant that women have had less power and men have had more, but patriarchy has also always been about roles. Women have specific roles and men have specific roles. We’ve made good progress breaking down women’s role and giving women a greater array of choices, but the truth is that we also need to break down men’s role.

Fortunately, we are already seeing progress on this front. The number of stay at home dads is growing, and fathers are increasingly expected to be just as involved in parenting as mothers are, or at the very least, more involved than in the past. There is more acceptance for boys breaking through gender norms by wearing female clothing or playing with female toys. But we still have a long, long way to go.

In discussing both feminism and the reaction against feminism, Melissa of Permission to Live wrote the following:

Somehow society has become convinced that there is a right way and a wrong way to be the sex you are. Boys are told to toughen up and quit crying, girls are showered with messages about how their value is tied to their beauty (as defined by the surrounding culture). These are just a few examples of the stereotypes that have been around for some time in the western world. While men are still largely stuck in the role created for them, recently there has been some effort to fight back on behalf of women. But instead of seeing this as a good thing, and doing the rest of the work to debunk these stereotypes, many people see this as a major step back.

As Melissa says, we need to go the rest of the way and debunk all of the stereotypes. Girls need to be encouraged to be tough as well as sensitive, yes, but boys also need to be encouraged to be sensitive as well as tough. We’ve taught girls that it’s okay to be like boys. Now we need to teach boys that it’s okay to be like girls. Liberating women from the restriction of female gender roles without liberating men from the restriction of male gender roles is a one-sided revolution that can never be completed.

As I see it, feminism is about breaking down patriarchy, and that means smashing the box patriarchy puts men in every bit as much as it means smashing the box patriarchy puts women in. It doesn’t matter whether one box was roomier or more comfortable to begin with. Both restrict and both need to be done away with.

I look at Sally and I look at Bobby and I know that the world still has different expectations of the two of them simply because of their gender, and completely irrespective of their talents, passions, and abilities. The world I want is a world where both of them have the same choices, receive the same reaction, and face the same expectations. I want a world where people are seen as people first, rather than immediately typed by their gender. I want a world without boxes, a world where we are all just individuals.

We’ve (mostly) liberated women from the restrictive gender roles of the past. It’s time men were liberated too. Feminism isn’t just for Sally. It’s for Bobby too.

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