Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Born Feminists

My daughters are born feminists.

I tell people that and they always smile and say that I obviously had something to do with it. I'd like to think that I did. That I've served as a good example to them: a strong woman with her own mind who can support herself. Who believes passionately in equal opportunities for women and men. Who can open her own bottles of olives and pound a nail into the wall without ruining the plaster -- or the nail. But the fact is, although I am independent, and mildly fiery under duress, although I can kill my own cockroaches and catch my own mice,I also tend to be mealy-mouthed and self- deprecating. I am physically a wimp, too, incompetent at all sports and, truth to be told, still nervous in the dark. I am neither ashamed nor proud of these personal characteristics and failings, but I've learned to live with them over the years.

They say that you pass on this sort of thing to your children -- that willy-nilly, they take on your values, habits and mannerisms whether you want them to or not. You'd have to meet my kids to see just how untrue this is. If I've unwittingly managed to inculcate my obsequious, self-effacing ways into them, they're doing a great job of suppressing it.

In line with their innate feminism, my kids are outspoken. I listen to them debating with their friends and my head swims. My eldest could debate the back legs off a donkey. You cannot win an argument with her; she is eloquent, confident, and determined -- and very shrewd at finding her adversary's weaknesses. The youngest is not as well-spoken, but she is every bit as clever. She is a watcher and -- when she is not day-dreaming -- a listener. She will sit there apparently not taking anything in, then in the midst of a dispute, when you are least expecting it, interject some astute little observation, completely refuting your argument.

Even if I don't take personal responsibility for their feminism, I am proud of it. The eldest has learned how to use a rifle. She can climb mountains, swim a mile, and work out physics problems. She knows what she wants to be, too: British ambassador to Japan. I find this mind-boggling: when I was her age I could barely make up my mind about what I wanted for dinner. The youngest was telling me the other day about a girl she cannot get along with. "She makes fun of overweight people behind their backs," she said contemptuously, "and girls who get good grades." I don't think she was trying to impress me, but even if she manages to fail all her exams, I'll still be enormously proud of her for that one observation.

Once, when the eldest was four, she scornfully told me that several of the boys in her nursery class seemed to think that girls were inferior to boys.

I asked her if she thought that girls were superior and she looked at me as though I were insane. "Of course!" When I asked her why, she had a long list of reasons, but my favorite was: "We get to sit down when we pee!"

On her first day at school, when I went to collect her she was bursting with pride. "Guess what I can do?" she demanded.

I wondered if she had finally discovered that 99% of the other kids weren't bilingual, or that she was the only one who knew all the lyrics to Puff the Magic Dragon, but no, it was nothing like that. "I can pick up all of the boys in my class!" she proudly proclaimed. "And only one of them can pick me up, but he can't lift me off the ground!"

Later I met the only boy who could pick her up. Naoki, his name was, and he was already well on his way to becoming a sumo wrestler. "I'll be able to lift you off the ground too someday!" he told her happily, without a shred of meanness.

When my youngest was three, she and the eldest were engaged in a very nasty dispute over the use of a particular toy one day, and I happened to be in the next room, all ears.

"You stupid pee-pee!" the youngest screamed in Japanese.

"Dumbo pee-pee poo-face!" the eldest shot back.

I could hear the three-year-old spluttering. "You -- you..." she began. I tensed, wondering if I should intervene. I knew something big was coming -- some huge, awful insult, perhaps even one of the Forbidden Words. I peeked into the room.

A triumphant top-this look came over my youngest's face. "You -- you BOY!" she screamed.

The eldest recoiled, overcome by shock and indignation.



Carole said...

Great great stuff. Wonderful post. Your girls sound great.

Brian said...

My mother , small and feisty, a feminist long before the time of feminism per se existed , was very proud of her grandson , and encouraged him in his predetermined ambition to become a doctor.

I think however that she may well have been even prouder of my first daughter , who with that sort of preset sibling rivalry was determined to outdo her brother in the medical field -- and as far as I am willing to judge , did so.

Both daughers have inherited their grandmother's feminist tendencies . Daughter two , less driven by sibling rivalry , is more laid back , but is nevertheless strong in her beliefs and very capable of expressing them.

I just keep my mouth shut.


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Thank you for your kind words and for saying that my girls sound great. In truth, sometimes they are not so great, and if you saw the state of their rooms, you would probably be as disgusted as I am right now. But fortunately, only I am privy to this awful secret of theirs. Oops! I've said too much!

Brian -- You sound as though you have quite a lot of spirited, independent females around you, and a healthy attitude towards them. I salute you and the women in your life!

My mother was also small, feisty and feminist, in a very libertarian way. Maybe some of her thinking rubbed off on me, though I often like to think of myself as a self-made feminist who rejects all the knee-jerk stuff.

Eryl Shields said...

I can be mildly firery under duress too, I'm sure it's not a bad thing. I wouldn't want most of the male traits I observe.

The gernerations of women below ours do seem to be getting stronger and stronger and I'm sure their mothers have a lot to do with it without realising.

Even though I don't have a daughter when I hear of young women like your girls it makes my heart sing. I have several neices and their confidence is such a joy to see. I was never like that and, infact, am still not.

I hope that just by believing women are equal to men I have instilled that into my son.

kathie said...

Hey Mary, what an awesome post. I'm so glad I found your site. You can kill roaches and mice on your own????? I think I'm a feminist but shit, I can't kill a freaking thing. My daughter is like yours and sometimes when I hear her confident tone, see her self assured stance it shocks me. Where does she get that? Doesn't she know she has shortcomings? WEll, not yet and hopefully when she realizes it she'll squash them out and move onto the next with fervor. I wonder if we're all born feminists? Or just born confident (we label it feminist if it's--gasp--a girl who's displaying strength). Then it all is either nurtured or stamped out...great post. I love your site.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I was nowhere near as confident as either of my daughters, and it always amazes me that they managed to get this way even with me as a role model. My mother was much more assertive and sure of herself, so perhaps it skipped a generation. So if I have ever get granddaughters, maybe they will be pansies like me.

Kathie -- Thank you for your kind words and welcome to my blog! I like your site too, and laughed at the by-line 'seeking signs of intelligent life in the suburbs.'

While I can kill cockroaches, I hate to do this. And I can catch mice (and frequently do, as my killer cat brings them into the house), but I do not kill them; I send them flying over our balcony into the hedge with the warning to stay away from my cat.

Kim Ayres said...

Can a man be a feminist? I seem to remember getting into long debates with a couple of students at university studying feminist philosophers.

As always, it's all in the definition.

I was brought up with the idea that we are all equal, but different. I don't ever remember my mother describing herself as a feminist, but she wasn't hesitant about her anarchist tendencies.

No one is above or below anyone else; we just all have different skills, experiences and outlooks.

Consequently it never occured to me that women should be inferior, in the same way that no one is inferior.

Or superior.

Equal rights are therefore a given in my mind. Does that make me a feminist?

Mary Witzl said...

Men can definitely be feminists. I would describe my husband as a feminist.

My mother never would have described herself as a feminist either, but she was strong and capable and didn't take any nonsense from anyone. So like your mother, she would fall under my classification of feminist. There ought to be a better term for it, really: equalist, perhaps...

You may be amused to know that in Japan, a 'feminisuto' is a man who opens doors for ladies and is generally chivalrous to them. Good Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries are careful to point out this difference in meaning as it can certainly cause confusion.

I once had a Japanese boyfriend who described himself as a feminist, to my surprise, as he seemed anything but. It turned out that he was thinking of the Japanese definition of feminism.

Katie Alender said...

Your daughters sound so fantastic. I love strong women who also like and respect other women and the concept of womanhood... I'm so tired of women who put down their own gender.

I tagged you for a meme, by the way! :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Katie -- There are sadly a lot of women who openly state that they don't have time for other women, that they get along better with men. While I think it is great to get along well with men, I believe that we owe our fellow women our love and support, too -- perhaps even more.

I blush to admit this, but I had to actually ask someone what tagging for a meme meant. I'm thrilled to have been tagged, as I so seldom ever was as a kid, considering how clueless I was in all sports. Now I'll nip over to your blog and find out what I've been tagged to do. Hope I don't disgrace myself.