How to Talk about Feminism with Little Girls

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I always dreamed of having daughters, but didn’t think about the hard parts. I was thrilled when I found out I was expecting my first daughter, and then again two years later to learn her baby sibling would be a sister. Growing up I always yearned for a sister, and I spent a good chunk of my second pregnancy fantasizing about their one-day bond. But in the current cultural climate raising my girls to understand they can and should do anything their male counterparts can.

I’m the first one to stand up against harmful gender norms, so we make sure not to force societal stereotypes on the girls. But both of them lean very traditionally feminine in their tastes so far, and I’ll admit the sparkly shoes and play makeup are pretty stinkin’ cute. Being a “girl-mom” is exactly (and nothing) like what I expected. Just over a year into life with two girls, I can say that it looks and feels a lot like how I thought it would: hair bows everywhere, an ever-growing collection of dolls, secrets being shared from big to little, and lots of cuddles.

Because as much as I love having daughters, the simple fact that these are the sex organs they were born with means I have to worry a little extra. And that’s scary. And sad. Even though my mom’s generation and the ones that came before did everything from burning bras to having actual laws changed in favour of women, this is still not a great time to be a girl.

There is still a culture that glorifies male intellect and strength while declaring girls hysterical or emotional. On top of all of those challenges, we aren’t paid what we should. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy, last year’s gender pay gap had white women earning 79% that of their male counterparts. Women of Black, Asian, and Hispanic heritage earned even less respectively. Despite the inception of an Equal Pay Day (in April), to symbolize and track the narrowing of the pay gap, we still aren’t earning as much as men doing the same jobs.

But it’s not just about compensation; it’s about the jobs themselves. In an ever-evolving global landscape where tech giants are doling out some of the biggest salaries and stock benefits, girls aren’t entering that industry’s workforce in as high numbers as they should or could. Girls in Tech, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to aid women in securing tech jobs, says that even Google (a company lauded for their diversity of employment) isn’t near a 50% female workforce.

The problem isn’t just who’s hiring, it’s who’s (not) looking to be hired. Girls fearing mistreatment at work are shying away from roles in which they could excel, and this worries me. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of thing I need to be thinking about now, while my own girls are still toddlers.

Also not okay? Rape culture is still prevalent despite the work of the #MEtoo movement. I’ll avoid the headlines (because you’ve already seen them) and speak to some of my own experiences:

as a young teenager I was sexually violated by someone I trusted. The violation was in turn blamed on me, I was dubbed a “slut,” and the social ramifications remained in place throughout my high school career.

In college, there were more situations than I can count in which a boy violated or at least scared me into thinking he would violate me. This was on a small liberal arts campus with top-notch campus security measures in place. One of these incidents was with a boy I was dating.

I didn’t to tell my parents about any of these incidents until years later because so many of friends had been in similar situations, so I thought it was just par for the course.

Discussing feminism with little girls. What does all of this mean for my daughters?

We as parents of young girls need to lay the foundation of awareness without scaring them or making them feel like born victims. Empowering them is important, but how do you do that without giving them information they definitely aren’t ready for?

I focus on the positive. Giving my daughters a strong female role model in myself is a start. I show my strength through words and actions  — like when a mechanic quotes me higher than what they told my husband, I call him out.

We also read and watch a lot of stories about powerful women. Some of our favourite bedtime books are Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and the entire Little People, Big Dreams series. We talk about the fact that no one has a right to touch our bodies without our consent. (To that end, I refuse to force my children to hug or kiss a relative or friend if they don’t want to).

Pretend play focusing on empowerment is also important. We play astronaut and doctor. My husband, who works in the finance sector of the startup world, shows my eldest spreadsheets and other things he’s doing on his home computer. They might not even remember these specifics, but they’re subtle ways to tell the girls, “You can be anything.”

We do a lot of activities that are feminist in nature, too. At the holidays and other points throughout the year, we select items and put together care packages for women who are victims of domestic violence. We donate clothes to women who are re-entering the workforce. I talk about what we’re doing and why all along.

Phrasing things so toddlers can understand makes it less worrying for them: “Some people in the world don’t understand how powerful women and girls are. We are going to remind these ladies how special they are by giving them some new things for their fresh start in life!”

But above all the best way to talk to feminism with little girls is to listen. Opening up with, “Isn’t it cool to be a girl?” once led my three-year-old to detail an interaction on the playground where a boy made her feel less than. It’s a dialogue she might not have started on her own. I was glad we had the chance to discuss it and create an action plan for what to do if that happens again.

Encourage her to stand up for herself. Keep it light and positive, but keep your ears open. Don’t just tell your daughters you’re there; be there. Even at three, they have things to say. Shockingly, they already feel the weight of being a girl. Lift that weight. Affirm them. Believe them. Make them know what’s wrong. And never, ever, stop listening.