I feel like a broken record, always mentioning the fact that I have three sons and five grandsons. But I don’t think there is anything that defines me more. As someone whose academic interest in gender issues began when I only had two sons and no grandsons, the fact that I am not only daughter-less, granddaughter-less, and even niece-less, but am part of an all-male bloodline going back well over 100 years, cannot help but sensitize me every moment of every day to how I see males treated in our society (and the whole developed world).
And how they are treated these days is not especially good.
I would absolutely have loved having a daughter or granddaughter, not only for the ineffable joy of loving a little girl—something I have simply not had the opportunity to do—but because it would at least somewhat free me from my incessant concern about how boys and men, especially young men, are doing, in a liberal world (that is also my world) that so casually dismisses them.
But now, at the age of 74, and with my youngest son and daughter-in-law, whose new baby is just two weeks old, having announced that they are done, I realize that barring something unplanned or my living long enough to become a great-grandfather of a great-granddaughter, it’s over. I will never have a little girl to love. I will never enjoy in that way that only parents and grandparents, and uncles and aunts can, the ascent of a girl into what has been (and many say still is) a man’s world. Am I envious of those who have this experience? Yes. But feeling deprived because all my descendants are male feels like self-hate, so I instead I keep myself focused on the future of those I love beyond words and what I can do to make that a good one for them and their peers.
I do not worry so much for my own sons, who range in age from 36 to 52, or even for my grandsons, who are being raised beautifully, and are doing just fine. But I worry for my gender. Everywhere I look, there are examples of how boys are seen as in need of re-shaping, and these inevitably upset me. Here’s an example of what can (and did) set me off: It’s a recent article by New York Times writer Clair Cain Miller, titled How to Raise a Feminist Son. I have to admit that the title itself angered me. I have seen the word “feminist” become the new world order. To not be a feminist seems often to be equated with not being a decent human being. But suppose I have noticed, as I have, that while in so many ways girls and young women are doing better than boys and young men, men who fight for what they see as right for themselves and their sons are often labeled—by feminists—as misogynist. Then what do I do?
I did agree with some of what Miller had to say. For example, she writes, “Boys are particularly responsive to spending time with role models, even more than girls, research shows. There is growing evidence that boys raised in households without a father figure fare worse in behavior, academics, and earnings.” The evidence on this is substantial. But yet it has been an uphill battle to fight for laws mandating shared parenting in case of divorce, even when the father is quite eager for that. I know people who have devoted their lives to this struggle, but I don’t think many feminists tend to be among them. You can’t take the “fem” out of feminism, and fem means female. To advocate for men and boys is something few feminists will go out of their way to do.
But a 2015 quote from Gloria Steinem early in the piece already had me on the defensive. Steinem wrote, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters." What she should have written is “I’m glad we’ve begun raising our daughters the way we used to raise our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons the way we used to raise our daughters.” Girls today are being encouraged to shoot for the stars to go as far as they can in every field, and so many of them are doing just that, beating out boys at every level of education, helping each other get ahead, whether in business or in elections (EMILY’s List will only support female candidates), entering prestigious fields once almost exclusively the domain of men.
Boys? “Let him cry,” says Miller. “Let him be himself.” (Although for many feminists this ends with boys being traditionally boyish.) “Teach him to care for others.”
Actually, I pretty much agree with all of this, and they are behaviors I encouraged in my sons. But what about strongly encouraging boys and young men to study hard the way girls and young women are, and also to shoot for the stars? This article, and so many others, talk a lot about how important it is for boys to be in touch with their emotions. But they don’t nearly as often talk about how they should be also in touch with their school books.
Feminist sons? How about simply loving, caring, and high achieving sons?