Earlier this year, my daughter turned five, officially becoming old enough to leave the nest and spread her wings at kindergarten. To say it has been a learning experience for all of us would be an understatement, especially in light of how much her being in kindergarten has made me realize little kids need feminism, too. Not that we don't already subscribe to feminism in our house — my husband and I are both proud feminists. But in our daughter's short life thus far, we've sheltered her from some of the "hard" conversations. Now I realize we've been doing her a disservice.
The epiphany started to sink in earlier this fall. My daughter, Marlow, had been in school by that point for about two months and had established a solid group of friends. One day after I picked her up, we began our car ride ritual of me asking how her day went and her talking non-stop the entire three miles home. On this particular day, she said she and her friends had been chatting on the playground about their favorite thing to play. She then flitted on to several other subjects before we pulled into the driveway.
I didn't think much more of the conversation until that evening, when Marlow circled back around to it. "Lucas says his favorite thing is baseball, and he wants to be a baseball player when he grows up," she told her dad. "Is that right? You could be a baseball player too, you know," he told her. "Or a softball player. Your mommy was a champion softball player when she was younger." For a moment, Marlow said nothing. And then, "Why would she do that? Lucas says girls can't play sports. He says they have to be cheerleaders."
As soon as I managed to move past the jaw-agape reaction I initially had, I explained to Marlow that girls could absolutely play sports — including cheerleading (which, by the way, is on track to be an Olympic sport now. It's about dang time). My husband and I took the opportunity to introduce our daughter to a few famous athletes who are women, like Lisa Leslie, Danica Patrick, Mia Hamm, Jennie Finch, Michelle Wei, and Venus and Serena Williams. She perked up at the notion and declared that the next day she was going to tell Lucas girls can play sports, too.
But I couldn't shake the feeling that we had somehow failed our daughter. Not only was she not aware that athletes of all genders exist, but she was easily swayed into believing women are quite literally on a different playing field than men. My husband and I had a long talk with each other that night about the importance of imparting feminist values in Marlow at an early age and then went to bed.
Fast forward a few weeks. On the way home from school one afternoon, Marlow revealed that her class began learning about the election that day. Her teacher (who is phenomenal) approached the conversation from a purely historical/educational angle, just to explain to the children how the election process works. When Marlow asked who I was voting for, she cut me off before I could answer — "Mama, you can't vote for Hillary Clinton." Naturally, I asked why she would think that. "Because a boy in my class says that girls can't be president. They cry too much."
They cry too much, he said. A 5-year-old had just mansplained diplomacy to my daughter. "And he also said Hillary is going to jail." As calmly as I could, I spoke to Marlow about the election, the different candidates, and the significance of having two women, Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein, in the running — particularly Hillary, who was a major ticket nominee and the first woman to be so. This was news Marlow could sink her teeth into. "So one day I might be able to be president?" she asked earnestly, with a look of disbelief flashing across her face. "Yes, baby. That's exactly what it means." The following day, Marlow came home and, with a huge smile across her face, said that she voted for Hillary in their class' mock election. "Because women can be president," she said.
In light of these telling moments, I know I need to do better. Because although we have tried to shelter our daughter from the more complicated cultural conversations and let her be little as long as possible, the reality is we can't steer other people's actions. We aren't always going to be with her when someone marginalizes her or tells her girls can't do something. Even in kindergarten, at 5 years old, Marlow is experiencing sexism. The kids guilty of said behavior don't yet understand the implications of their actions and words — it is learned behavior.
But if we entrench in Marlow's brain the truth that all genders can and should have equal political, social, and economic rights, the next time someone tells her girls can't do something, she won't hesitate. She will respond in kind, and she will believe what she is saying. And perhaps she might be a light unto those people — children and adults — who are only used to hearing one perspective at home.
Images: Julie Sprankles/Bustle (3)