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Memo to Our Sons and Grandsons: The Future Is Female

Our boys struggle, but the nation’s attention remains focused on girls.

Key points

  • Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that "the future is female" may send a negative message to boys.
  • The slogan "the future is female" stemmed from second-wave feminism.
  • Boys are at greater risk than girls today, but this is not well-known to the general public.

I must say that when I read of Hillary Clinton’s recent video proclamation to MAKERS (an AOL-sponsored group where trailblazing women tell their stories) that “the future is female,” my mind immediately raced to my four grandsons, ages 3, 7, 10, and 11. What would the two older ones think if and when they heard or read of this statement, which emanated from someone who came very close to being our president (and for whom I had voted)? In fact, what does this say to Clinton’s own grandson, Aidan, who is now 8 months old? The message to her granddaughter, 2-year-old Charlotte is clear and encouraging. But what about Aidan? And all his baby boy peers?

Voices of concern

I suspected I was not alone with these feelings, and when I read this, I knew it:

"Imagine, if you will, an audience of little boys—let’s pretend they’re second- and third-graders—forced to sit in an auditorium and listen to Hillary Clinton’s short speech. They swing their legs. They fidget a bit. ‘The future is female,’ Clinton declares, beamed in on a giant screen. What are they supposed to think, other than that girls matter more than they do?"

Can you guess where that quote is from? As usual, when something is sympathetic to boys, you can be pretty sure it’s from a conservative source. In this case, it’s Heather Wilhelm writing in The National Review.

But it’s not just conservatives who voice their concern about boys. Writing in the Denver Post in November 2014, shortly after the birth of Clinton’s first grandchild—a girl—columnist Dottie Lamm, who is a leading feminist in Colorado, penned a piece titled, “Our Boys Are Now at Greater Risk Than Girls." Lamm quoted Hillary Clinton as saying, “My granddaughter has just as much God-given potential as a boy born in that hospital today.”

But then Lamm writes, “Let’s focus on that little boy ‘born in the hospital’ that day. Let’s say he is an average little boy from a working- or middle-class family. What are his chances of living out his God-given potential? Not as good as Charlotte’s, even if she had been born in his humble circumstances. For in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, our boys are now at greater risk than our girls.”

This is a simple statement of fact, of which anyone who studies this field or works with boys and girls, or young women and young men, is well aware. Unfortunately, because girls and only girls have long been the focus of feminist interest and concern, these facts are not well-known to the general public. And as long as the needs of young males are not also front and center in our national dialogue, there is no reason to doubt that the future will be female, whereas it might be better if the sentence could be “The future is our children of all genders and races.”

Roots of the slogan

“The future is female” is actually a holdover from the extreme side of second-wave feminism. According to a recent Washington Post headline, it “began as a 1970s lesbian separatist slogan.” The article states, “In 1975, photographer Liza Cowan captured an image of her then-girlfriend, singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin, wearing a white T-shirt that bore the slogan over a powder-blue turtleneck.”

The slogan didn’t continue to be a big part of feminism until a couple of years ago when it was revived in T-shirts and buttons by a company called Otherwild. According to the Post story, “In some ways, the message ‘The Future Is Female’ is, if not lost, then certainly understood differently than it was in the '70s," Cowan told i-D. "Feminism has changed, the world has changed. It is difficult for many younger women to imagine the power, the excitement, and the urgent need for women to come together to change the world.’”

Positive changes for women and girls

Yes, due to the incredible energy and persistence of second-wave feminism, the world—read, the developed world—has changed positively for women, and especially for girls and young women.

Just one example: Education. In 1975, men slightly outnumbered women on college campuses, and vastly outnumbered them in graduate school, medical school, and law school. Today, women substantially outnumber men on college campuses and are essentially 50 percent of postgraduate programs. In fact, in the last several years there have been more doctorates awarded to women than to men.

By comparison, boys and young men have, at best, languished. Some educators and parents of sons look at the current situation for boys as alarming, and the revival of a feminist call to arms by one of the most powerful female voices in the country is certainly discomforting. (In her message to MAKERS, Clinton said, “So please, set an example for every woman and girl out there who’s worried about what the future holds.") But others see the slogan in a different light—that it can be an enlightening message for their sons.

For example, there is a blog post by Rebecca Woolf titled “The Future Is Female and Our Sons Are Watching.” Seeing this, I thought, "Aha, here comes someone concerned with the exclusionary message this is sending to our sons." But I was wrong.

Woolf’s point is that the message that the future is female should be embraced by boys. She writes, “The truth is, a more female future should in no way feel threatening to a real man in the same way a "future is female" T-shirt doesn't threaten a boy who understands his privilege. GIRL power doesn't mean BOY UN-POWER.”

In fact, Woolf’s 11-year-old son has a “T.F.i.F.” T-shirt, as do his two sisters and his dad.

I have particular trouble when Woolf says that the T-shirt “doesn’t threaten a boy who understands his privilege.” A boy’s privilege? When so many cartoons feature female hero figures; when teachers are predominately female; when everyone is aware that girls haven’t done as well as boys in math, and so many have worked hard to change that, but so few are aware of the larger gap in language skills favoring girls and so little is done to change that; when far more young men are incarcerated than young women—is all that his privilege?

The past is not the present and it is even less the future. To tell children who are members of the group lagging behind that they should applaud the continued successes of the group that is, by the time they get to college (to quote a New York Times headline from more than 10 years ago), leaving them “in the dust” is asking a lot.

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