Most cultures throughout the world today are patriarchal, which means that households have traditionally been run by a patriarch — a man at the head of the family. But many cultures also have family traditions are are surprisingly feminist. This doesn't take away from the misogyny that exists within these cultures, but it does mean that even when women have been disempowered, they've still managed to exert a powerful influence over their culture's customs.
As the mom in the movieMy Big Fat Greek Weddingfamously said, even when the man is the head of the family, the woman is often the neck, working behind the scenes to influence what the "head" does. While this claim sometimes plays into the problematic trope of the woman who manipulates men through sex, I prefer to think of it a different way: Even when women have been given a narrow sphere of control — which, in many cultures, has been the family — they have used that sphere to gain control in other areas.
Here are some examples of family traditions that give women power — or unintentionally give women opportunities to exert power even under disempowering circumstances.
1. Women Running The Household
The tradition for women to run their households means that women have been pressured to deprioritize their careers, which is not feminist. But it also means that they're in charge of instilling values in their kids, which is feminist. When people talk about what they were raised to believe, they're usually referring to what their moms taught them, reflected in the expression "did your mom teach you any manners?" Songs like "You Can't Hurry Love" by The Supremes and "Days Like This" by Van Morrison impart lessons the artists learned from their mothers, not their fathers. Women have used their ability to influence their children's values by teaching them to respect women, which is also pretty feminist.
2. Mother's Day
Mother's Day was first established to honor a woman whose accomplishments extended far beyond motherhood. Ann Jarvis was a nurse during the Civil War and helped negotiate peace between Union and Confederate mothers. Her daughter Anna Jarvis created Mother's Day in 1908 to honor her mother after she died. The holiday also had roots in the 1870 "Mother’s Day Proclamation” issued by activist Julia Ward Howe to unite women of different nationalities. Once it had become a national holiday, Jarvis actually protested its commercialization, passing around a petition to rescind it (obviously unsuccessfully). Another woman, Sonora Smart Dodd, founded Father's Day in 1910 despite criticisms that it was "unmanly."
3. Take Your Daughter To Work Day
Many Millennials grew up with "Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day," but it was originally just for daughters. The Ms. Foundation for Women created Take Your Daughter to Work Day, which takes place during the fourth Thursday of every April, in 1993 to encourage girls' career ambitions. The more gender-neutral "Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day" didn't come until later, when boys felt left out of the tradition.
4. Teaching Boys To Be Sensitive
Though boys are expected to act tougher than girls and express fewer emotions from a young age, the complete disavowal of male sensitivity doesn't begin until later. During their earliest years, boys are still bought stuffed animals, given hugs, and taught how to care for family pets. In the Dar Williams song "When I Was a Boy," a male character says, "my mom and I, we always talked, and I picked flowers everywhere that I walked. And I could always cry. ... I was a girl too." Though the influences of society eventually widen gender differences, our early family lives serve as a reminder that we're really all the same inside.