Raising a daughter in a sexist world


I’d never heard about Harvey Weinstein until this week. And, honestly, I probably won’t remember it a few years from now. I will remember that there are men out there who will do terrible things to appease their sexual needs. And somehow, I have to prepare my now one-and-a-half-year-old daughter for a world filled with sexists, racists, and misogynists.

The elephant in the room

I’m a man, and I’m about to write about sexism and sexual harassment. That’s actually very high on my ‘this will bite me in the ass’ list. Worse, as a man, talking about your daughter in regard to sexual harassment is a no go as well. I’m going to go ahead anyway.

The next thing would be to say that I would never be a sexist myself. Another one on my ‘bite me in the ass’ list. I could say it, and I’d mean it too. Still, I can’t be sure that it’s 100% true. On the extreme end of the spectrum, where there’s rape and physical abuse, yeah, I am 100% certain I have never done that. But have I never made a sexist remark? Or an inappropriate comment? Have I never written anything that offended women? I did all of those things at one point or another, if unintentionally.

So I’m not going to say I would never in a million years be a sexist. I’m going to say I try every day not to discriminate against anybody because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual preference. But I fail sometimes.

Subconscious bias

In most of the western world, debates about gender-fluidity have heated up recently. The heterosexual alpha-male and his nurturing Jane are becoming a dying breed. Well, they aren’t really, of course. But as a society we’re starting to learn that there is a lot more shades of grey than we used to think. This happened with left-handedness, being black, being gay, and now with gender.

We haven’t reached equality on any of these subjects yet, but we’re slowly getting there. So, in some ways this might be the best time to raise a child who is not prejudiced.

Let me explain. Last year, I saw a documentary exploring racial bias (Wit is ook een kleur, in Dutch). At one point in this documentary, they show a science experiment where young children are given two identical dolls, one white and one black, then the children are asked which doll it better. Nearly all the children say the white doll is superior. Many of the parents react by saying they’ve tried to raise their child ‘color-blind’ to prevent racism. In fact, the only girl to say the dolls were equal, was the one raised to be aware of racism.

Bringing that back around to raising a child, the message seems clear. Ignoring racism and sexism doesn’t work. If anything, the Harvey Weinstein debacle shows us that ignoring a problem definitely won’t make it go away.

Raising an aware child

To go to a more practical example, I know fellow parents who try to keep the color pink away from their daughter, or the color blue away from their son. They seem to feel a child should be raised as unaware as possible of their gender so as to prevent indoctrination with subconscious sexism.

I do agree that our society has a lot of ingrained sexism (like the pink and blue girl and boy sections of the toy store), but as I explained, I think being aware of it is the better road to travel. So, our daughter gets to have both pink and blue clothes. She gets to wear dresses and pants, and gets both dolls and toy cars to play with.

As she gets older I hope to be able to explain why many of her children’s books feature boys, and how Rey from the later Star Wars movies drew widespread ire.

But… predators

Raising my daughter that way is all well and good, but she might run into the Harvey Weinstein of her generation. I doubt my daughter will live in a time when all gender differences will have vanished. So, yeah, she might run into people who will simultaneously praise men for getting into her pants while they denounce her as a slut. Her future boss might be a handsy prick. Or worse.

Honestly, I don’t want to think about this. Only yesterday, Dutch authorities found the body of a twenty-five-year-old woman, who was apparently dragged off her bike while sheltering from the rain and killed last week.

Again, I think being aware trumps going in blind. At some age, you’ll have to tell your child there are bad people out there. And later, how bad those people can really be. A friend of mine who works for the police told me that some children are afraid to go to police officers for help because their parents have taught them to distrust the police. So, when telling them that, you should also explain that the police will help (if, in fact, they do that in your country).

Perhaps the best thing is to try and not make them be ashamed. This may seem a trivial thing, but all that subconscious bias against women (and others) translates into shame. Our society forces girls to be ashamed of their sexuality. Sexual harassment victims are often shamed for their clothing, or behavior, or some other form of ‘asking for it’. Shame and bias is what allows sexual predators to cow their victims. Making my daughter unashamed of herself and her needs and wants is very high on my to do list.

In short

My daughter is one-and-a-half years old. I’m probably jumping the gun on trying to teach her anything about sexism. Still, society instills gender roles and subconscious bias at a very young age. Better to do it right early, instead of finding out you messed up later.

My take on it, make sure your child understands it. the whole messy truth of how our world works. We’ll see how well that approach turns out.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands