Wait…I’m a Feminist?

like-a-girl-2

I had this interesting thought when I was in the shower this morning. It occurred to me that I might just be a feminist. I’d never really thought of myself like that before, but, as I was contemplating my roles as husband and father, it dawned on me that I’m a feminist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. According to the World English Dictionary a feminist is “a person who advocates equal rights for women”. I’ve tried to live my life in a way that treats all people with the same kindness and compassion, regardless of their gender. But, it’s more than just kindness and compassion toward women. It’s also about changing the way that women are treated and perceived by society. I would guess that most of us would say that women should be given the same social, political, legal and economic rights as men. While much progress has been made, there is still more work to be done to truly level the playing field. One area that has recently been getting a lot of attention on social media platforms is the use of the phrase “like a girl”. There’s an ad by Always which beautifully illustrates how many of us, often unknowingly, contribute to the negative connotation of doing something like a girl. (Click here to view the ad.

As a dad of five daughters I don’t ever use that phrase. I want my daughters to believe that they can do anything they choose however they want to do it. And I will support them 100%. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t always have such an enlightened view. Growing up as a teenager in the 80s it was common for boys to throw around the phrase like a girl as an insult when someone did something “weak”. For example, “Billy, you throw like a girl” or “Phil, you run like a girl“. It was mean-spirited teasing that implied that doing something, anything,  like a girl was inherently inferior to the way that a boy would do it. I even complained to my mom one time that my little sister, who was probably 6 or 7 at the time, was throwing the football like a girl. Instead of lecturing me, my mom stated the obvious that she IS a girl, and that if it bothered me that much I could teach her how to throw the ball better. So I did. My sister still throws (and catches) like a girl BOSS! She throws a better ball, with a tighter spiral and greater accuracy, than most guys I know. 

I’ll admit that first gender-equity lesson from my mom didn’t penetrate my thick teenage skull very deeply. A few years later, at age 22, I was excited to become a father for the first time, as my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. Only, we didn’t know her gender until she was born. So, in the months leading up to her due date many people asked me if I thought we were having a boy or a girl. Without hesitation I always answered that I was hoping for a boy, since I was under the impression that boys were better. That I would be more fulfilled as a father if I had a son. I couldn’t have been more misguided. Thankfully, my wife, the oldest of four girls, kindly pointed out that girls could play sports and do pretty much anything that boys could do…and that I was being a sexist jerk for thinking like that. Which was totally true. Thankfully, pregnancies are nine months long, so I was able to realize before our daughter was born that praying and hoping for a healthy baby of either gender was the correct way of thinking. 

Still, I hadn’t fully let go of the phrase “like a girl“, even though I had a daughter of my own. That moment arrived a couple of years after the birth of my daughter, when I was teaching 7th grade and coaching the 7th grade girls basketball team. During one of the practices the girls did something (I don’t recall specifically what it was since this happened in 1997) that frustrated me and I blew my whistle to get their attention and started to tell them that they needed to throw better passes, to stop throwing it like a ________ . And I caught myself before I said it. That last word on the tip of my tongue. All 15 of the girls looking at me, waiting for me to finish. And then it dawned on me just how much of a male chauvinist pig I was going to be if I said that last word as girl. So I said baby. And right then, and there, I promised myself that I would never, ever, use the phrase like a girl to put someone down. I also started getting on people who used that phrase as a pejorative. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’ve been blessed with five daughters…to show them and others that it’s great to live like a girl.

When my second daughter was born in 1999 we found out her gender before she was born. I was excited to have another daughter. There was not a shred of disappointment in my being. Sadly, though, many people assumed that I would want a boy and even had the audacity to suggest that I would be disappointed to have another daughter. The sexist comments were even worse when we found out we were expecting a third daughter in 2001. I was completely satisfied with being a DODO (Dad Of Daughters Only). I felt that God had truly blessed me with three daughters and I was excited to be their dad. In 2004, when our fourth child was born we didn’t reveal his gender to anyone else until he was born, although we knew. Once he was born, pretty much every friend and family member commented that I must be so relieved to finally have a boy. And, “are you done having kids now that you got your boy?”. Again, why would I be more or less fulfilled as a parent or man if I had only daughters or only sons? I was appalled by the overarching sexism that was so predominant in people’s well-meaning comments. And most people never even realized how awful the message was that they were conveying even if it wasn’t intended. I made a mental note to never make such a sexist comment to any parent. Ever. 

While I’ve never attended any political rallies for women’s rights or done anything like that, I have tried to instill in each of my kids (including my son) that all people deserve equal rights and equal treatment not only under that law, but also socially. And that starts with my own attitudes and those of my children. I even had to reprimand my own daughter (I won’t name which one) for using the phrase like a girl to try to insult her brother. I pointed out that she was actually insulting both him and herself (and her gender) at the same time. And that there was no room for that kind of attitude in our family. It’s a tough battle sometimes, but I believe it’s worth it. And as a Stay At Home Dad, I get the opportunity to reinforce the gender comments while correcting any negative ones that might slip out of my kids’ mouths. It’s a role that I embrace. Literally and figuratively. So, does that make me a feminist? You make the call.

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Short Shorts and School

Recently in Montreal, Canada, an 11th grade girl named Lindsey Stocker was suspended after her teacher enforced the school rule about her shorts being too short and she refused to comply with it. After she was suspended she posted flyers around the school that read:

Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing short. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.

A photo of Lindsey Stocker in the offending shorts.

This story is very interesting to me because people have taken it in a variety of directions. There are people who support her and feel that she was brave for standing up for herself. There are people who think she’s a spoiled brat teenager who needs to follow the rules. There are people who agree with her but also understand the idea of saving the short shorts for places where it’s more appropriate. There are people who feel that this type of school policy feeds into the rape culture of today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As a SAHD dad of six children and a former 7th grade teacher I can understand and appreciate many sides of this complex issue. I have five daughters. The older three, now 19, 14 and 12, all have their own sense of style and fashion that I, a 41 year old dad, don’t always understand. I have encouraged each of them to dress how they want as long as it’s appropriate for the situation. That gives them a lot of power and control over their wardrobe choices but also places some responsibility on them as well. Just because they could wear something doesn’t mean that they should. I was able to relate to them many instances from my short five year career as a 7th grade teacher when the wardrobe choices of students, both girls and boys, interfered with their education. If a girl is constantly tugging on her skirt or shorts to pull them down then she’s being distracted from concentrating on her studies just like if a boy is pulling up his pants so they don’t show his boxers. I want them to dress comfortably so that they can focus on their education and not their clothing.

Fair or not, another reality of school, and life in general, is that people will judge you by what you wear. Sure, there’s a wonderful saying to not judge a book by its cover and it’s true. Yet, at the same time, people all have their own preconceived notions and life experiences and they use those things to interpret what they see every day. It’s not always fair or accurate but it happens. I tried to dress professionally when I was teaching. Sure, I could wear jeans and a t-shirt every day, but I chose to wear khakis and a collared shirt and often a tie. Did that make me a better teacher than those that didn’t dress up? Certainly not. But it worked for me. I guess my former students would have to weigh in if they felt the appearance of their teachers made any difference in the quality of the education they received. Back in the 80s and early 90s I don’t recall any of my teachers wearing jeans or t-shirts. But by the late 90s and early 2000s that was more the norm at my school in Wisconsin. What’s it like now? My limited experiences in my kids’ schools shows a variety of attire among the staff, some that I would consider professional and some that are borderline unprofessional, if not downright sloppy.

While I appreciate that this young lady is trying to fight for her right to wear whatever she wants I think that she’s misguided in her efforts. A lot in life is about timing. It seems like she chose the wrong time and place to express her displeasure with the school’s dress code. Instead of disrespecting the teacher and administrator by refusing to comply with the established code she could have voiced her displeasure before it got warm and she wanted to wear the short shorts. It seems as though she was prepared to go into battle over this issue because she printed and posted the signs quickly after the initial confrontation. Instead of going into this with a mindset of I’ll show them she could’ve asked for an appointment with the administrator at her school and had a legitimate discussion. It wouldn’t have made for such a sensational story or gotten her the 15 minutes of fame with the media, but maybe it would’ve helped foster some actual policy change. Or at least saved her the humiliation of being on the wrong side of the dress code.

And speaking of the school’s dress code, I was reminded of a very heated staff meeting we had at my school when the principal dared to bring up the topic of the student dress code. People that I respected and considered friends were on opposite sides of the spectrum. Some felt that kids should be able to wear whatever they wanted while others felt that there was need for some modesty and consideration for others. After about 10 minutes it was obvious that there was little common ground and the issue was basically left unresolved. What that experience taught me was that even though there was a dress code in the student handbook, there were plenty of teachers who would refuse to enforce it and simply look the other way. Why did that matter? Imagine if a student came to my class in 4th period and I noticed that the shirt had something inappropriate on it that violated the dress code. If I bust that kid for not complying and he tells me that the teachers in his first three classes didn’t care…what kind of a message does that send the students? It’s confusing at best and downright impossible to follow at worst. As a teacher and as a parent, I’ve learned that my kids will thrive when I’m consistent with discipline and clearly communicate my expectations. When I fail to do those two things then I’m inviting trouble.

Finally, while I can appreciate that this young lady wants to make this suspension about rape culture in school and how this needs to be turned into a discussion about how to educate boys to not sexualize girls, I think she’s wrong. I agree that those are huge problems in our society that need to be dealt with immediately. But that’s unrelated to her suspension. She was suspended for not complying with the school’s established rules and disrespectfully disobeying when given the chance to make it right. It’s unfortunate, because those issues are important and must be dealt with sooner than later. The recent killing spree that left seven people dead in California should serve as a wake up call about how important it is to deal with misogyny in our society. Women are too often devalued and looked at only as sexual objects, a message that is promoted through television, movies, magazines, video games, the porn industry and many online groups. That thinking must change. But I don’t see how a high schooler defiantly wearing short shorts to school promotes that change.