Feminist Parenting: Dress Like a Girl

It was lonely up there. That perch, way up on the moral high ground. That seat from which I was convinced I was being a good feminist parent. No daughter of mine will ever wear pink, I said. And sparkles? No way! She’ll wear her brother’s hand-me-downs, and she’ll love it. Here was my chance to make my feminist-parents statement for the whole world to see. No pink. No sparkles. Nothing shiny, flashy, or girly.

My daughter, on the other hand, had her own ideas. She is a strong, brainy, self-determined little person. She is also obsessed with sparkles, insists on wearing pink (literally every day) and shows strangers how “twirley” her dresses are. I did my best to steer her away from all things sparkle, pink and twirl for years. Because, obviously, the key to raising a daughter who would be tough and determined and a natural leader was to steer her away from the pink and the sparkle. Oh, that moral high ground. So, so lonely. The more I tried to push my agenda, the more I was reminded of what a strong, brainy, self-determined daughter I really have.

Quite simply, any attempt to program my child with the message that sparkle, pink and twirl are wrong is a decidedly anti-feminist message. She has an innate gravitation to those things, and telling her that those things are less desirable was telling her that something deep down inside her is wrong. So now I roll with it. And I encourage it. Because if pink and sparkles are who she is, then pink and sparkles is what our family will support.

For the most part.

We all gravitate toward specific tastes and desires. These things are not wrong, but it is also a parent’s job to open children’s eyes to a multifaceted world, one where pink and sparkles are wonderful and lovely, but perhaps not the only choice. One where a child who excels in mathematics is encouraged to take a pottery course. One where a child who is a star athlete is encouraged to try out for the school play. If we throw up our hands as parents and only follow our children’s innate desires, we risk excluding them from the infinite possibilities that this amazing life has to offer.

Of course, our culture makes this lesson much easier to teach when we’re trying to open our girls’ eyes to the world of clothing and activities that are traditionally for little boys. It’s much more challenging to give our boys this gift. My son loves to dress up in sparkly tu-tus and sing and dance in the manner of his favorite Disney princesses. This is discouraged much more aggressively than when my daughter shows an interest in her brother’s toys and activities.

In the end, I fear that we are less concerned that our children conform to their given gender identity and far more concerned that they conform to the female gender. Because we see all things feminine as inherently weak. The message is clear: Encourage your little girl to excel in math and sports and to play with trucks and wear primary colors. But keep that boy away from the arts, dolls and pink sparkles. Until we get to the root of this deeper problem—to the misconception that our children are somehow weak or less important when they choose to emulate their mothers and grandmothers—it won’t make a bit of difference what color they wear.

Regardless of whether your child conforms to his or her given gender in whole or in part—and regardless of how you define that—I hope you will encourage the feminine. Encourage the strength of carrying and bearing children. Encourage the strength that comes with emotional intelligence and a deep sense of empathy. Encourage the strength that comes from always being thought to be inferior, but always persisting regardless.

Rachel is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She is a recovering political writer and most recently taught high school English in Baltimore. She is thrilled to now be a full-time mama and writer,...

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