The Maine of my childhood was a very homogenous state in terms of race, and really also of class, at least in my small town. For the most part, everyone I knew looked like me. Their families looked like mine. We usually practiced the same religion and even when we didn’t, we knew the language.
Even so, I was different. I was the weird kid, quirky, and the other kids bullied me for it. Later, as I branched out into the world outside Maine, I met others like me. And it was a life-confirming experience.
Eventually, I’d learn there were people whose experiences differed from mine and everyone else I’d known in Maine. Realizing this broadened my sense of the need for inclusion.
Seeking and Finding Feminism
When I first began to formally study feminism, the sense of not seeing myself marred my initial excitement. As I rifled through the pages of The Feminine Mystique, I thought, where were the poor and working-class women I grew up with?
My experiences didn’t lend themselves to the velvet prison described by Friedan. The women I knew didn’t stay at home cooking dinner for their husbands or raising their children. They worked. And they often did the cooking and child-raising after work. They were not suffering from boredom, but exhaustion.
While I understood that the stories in the book were valid, I looked for other kinds of women. Women I’d met in the kink scene. Women who were transgender. Women of color. They weren’t there in those early pages I read.
I remember the relief I found when my excellent poetry professor introduced us to Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Marilyn Fry, and Gloria Anzaldúa. I devoured the writings of Susie Bright and Nancy Friday. These women sometimes reflected back my own experience as a woman, but they also challenged me to get out of my skin.
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Intersectional feminism absolutely helped me to find my own voice, but it also taught me to listen. It taught me that my sisters were not just the ones who experienced my world. My sisters were all women.
I’m a feminist raising five children. If ever I needed a reminder that we all experience the world in radically differing ways, having kids does the job. My children as unique beings remind me daily of the ways we as humans are both interconnected and separate. They are from my own being, yet their views of the world do not always reflect mine. Their world is different from mine, from the way they see sexuality to the way they understand gender. It’s a more fluid world than my own, and yet it often presents them with the same oppressive patriarchal practices I encountered as a younger woman.
My four daughters and my son all need feminism because of how the world shapes ideas about gender. But they also need that feminism to be intersectional because they live in community that has become ever more global.
Finding Feminism That Speaks to My Family
In many ways, my tiny family is a microcosm of the broader world. They are not just one thing. They are many.
My children are not white. They’re Latina/Latino. Their father is an immigrant and they have dual citizenship with Mexico. The feminist battles in Mexico are important fights that implicate the lives of my children, who live between two countries.
Two of my daughters are neurodiverse, as is my son. Thus, they need a feminism that recognizes the diversity of the mind and the body.
My middle child had depression and anxiety. She will battle the stigma surrounding women and mental illness likely her whole life.
One child is genderfluid in appearance and is often called a boy. But she’s also heterosexual.
My five year-old loves princesses and shiny dresses and thinks girls are much prettier than boys. My son is gay, so his experience with women will not necessarily be sexual, but I believe firmly he must still learn the importance of respecting a woman’s sexual being.
For my children, recognizing the ways that Latino and gay men experience oppression is as valuable as understanding the ways women are oppressed. Their identities slide through their life like water, tricky to grasp but shaping them nonetheless. They need to understand how feminism reflects and influences all the other “isms” in their life.
With all this in mind, here are five ways I teach my children (son included!) about intersectional feminism.
1. We study feminist history, not just in the United States, but around the world.
Feminism didn’t begin and end in the US. The stories of women who have fought for empowerment over time and space is important knowledge.
2. We teach our kids to be critical of the feminist history they read.
My son took a course in equality movements throughout US history. When he finished the section on women’s suffrage, I asked him for his perspective. His first comment was that he didn’t see any women of color in those stories. We question all the stories we’re told and we look for whose story is missing. Then we go and find those stories.
3. We talk about current events and make them a part of our everyday conversations.
We’ve had conversations about Gamergate that lead to conversations about discrimination in the tech field. We’ve talked about laws in Saudi Arabia that forbid women from driving. We’ve discussed girls who risk their lives for an education. And I always bring my kids’ attention to the women in those countries who are fighting back.
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It’s just as important for my children to understand that Americans don’t have to be the great saviors of the world. We can be there simply listening, in solidarity.
4. We start young and value all resources.
I am about to teach my three year-old her ABCs with this amazing book about radical feminists. We read biography picture books about Frida Kahlo. We listen to riot grrl bands as well as Kurdish pop stars. Feminism is found not just in the intellectual, but in the everyday things in life.
5. We model what intersectional feminism looks like.
I think the most important aspect of raising children who care about the struggles of others is watching their parents care about those struggles. I admit when I’m wrong. I admit when I’ve been caught up in sexist thinking or ableist thinking or racist thinking. I don’t shy away from those moments even though they are painful. My kids have watched me struggle, and they’ve seen me come out wiser (and sometimes quieter so I can listen).
My children have learned just from the process of being family that we live in a diverse community. And part of being in a community means recognizing all the varied ways we live. My children don’t use the R-word, for example, because even while it might not apply to them, it oppresses their sister with Down syndrome. They don’t tolerate homophobic slurs or racial slurs for the same reason. They’ve already learned in the context of their family the importance of holding each other up.
What doesn’t apply to you matters as much as what does apply to you, because we live interconnected to one another. I never wanted to raise my children to think they were the center of the universe.
We’re all points of light in this big world, and rather than shining more brightly than others, I want my kids to understand that loving their own light means loving others’ light — even if it’s a different shape or a different color.
There is no justice for one of us when there is no justice for all of us.
[Feature Image: Black and white photo of a young Asian child being held up by their arms by two adults, one on each side, as the child smiles and appears to be laughing. The adults’ faces are cropped out of the photo so that the focus is on the child. Behind the family is a road. Source: Flickr.com/Jin.Dongjun]