As a child, I always envisioned myself having a daughter just like me. But I grew up to have a houseful of sons who are…well, not daughters. Not girls whose experiences I can relate to, but boys, whose lives are going to be vastly different than mine — whose world, seen through the filter of maleness — will look different than mine.
Though being a woman parenting male children sometimes poses a challenge, I’m thrilled I’ve been given the chance to raise the next generation of men; their mother is a card-carrying feminist, and I have every intention of passing that down to my boys. I attended an all women’s college, where feminism was a flag flown proudly. It colored every aspect of my higher education — from the dorm to the dining hall — and those ideals have shaped who I am. I have a unique opportunity to instill my sons, from birth, the vital importance of gender equality. I have the power to help mold them into the kind of men who make a difference in the way women are paid and promoted and regarded. I have the power to send into the world four champions for women’s rights, instead of four cat-calling douchebags.
However, as my boys get older, it has begun to dawn on me that they’ll want to start dating in a few years — a process that they will continue throughout adulthood. And here’s where I run into a bit of confusion.
How can I preach to my sons that women are equals in every way, yet still tell them that they’re most likely the ones who are expected to pay on a date…and open doors…and adopt a general attitude of “ladies first” when interacting with the opposite sex? Is chivalry at odds with feminism? Sometimes it feels that way — and that’s not a dis to the movement.
This is something that never crossed my mind before I had my boys, and it makes me question whether my feminism is really feminism at all. Do I believe that women can do — and should do — everything a man can, and be compensated the same and receive the same accolades? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. I despise the objectification of women and bristle at even the inkling of a suggestion that we are somehow inferior because of our gender. But then I have to admit there’s just something wonderful about gentlemen: men who pull out chairs, pick up the tab, hold the door, assist us in putting on our coats. I like that I can count on my husband to do the literal heavy lifting, and if you ask me if I’d like to be “treated like a lady,” my answer would always be, “Well, of course.” If I were dating, I’d far rather date a man who makes me feel special with those little gestures than one who treats our quality time the same way he would an outing with his best bud.
But…what about feminism and equality?
It leaves me scratching my head, so I don’t know what, exactly, to tell my sons. Be a gentleman, but not too much. Treat her like an equal, but open her car door. I so desperately want to do the right thing, the feminist thing, the thing that makes my sons view women as contemporaries in every way. But does that come at the cost of cutting out chivalry? If I teach them to put women on a pedestal, will it be at odds with teaching them that women are to be treated equally? It seems like such a thin line, and I don’t want to contradict myself, or confuse them. I don’t envy their position of having to navigate the gray area.
I suppose all I can do is teach them to be good men, period. To treat people of any gender kindly, just because they should. Hold the door — not just for women, but for anyone who is entering or exiting at the same time. Pay for a meal when they’re the ones who issued the invitation. Offer help if someone — anyone, man or woman or child — appears to need assistance with their groceries or their coats or their car. I can be an example of how to interact with other human beings, of how to do things for people. Not because those people can’t do those things on their own, but because it’s nice to be nice.
I absolutely, without a doubt, want my sons to help shatter the glass ceilings for their female counterparts. I just don’t want them to be hurt by the shards.