Tag Archives: gender

What having two mums taught me about feminism

When I moved primary school aged seven, my family met with the new headmistress for a preliminary interview. She cut a formidable figure, with her stiff black dress and long grey hair pinned tightly back into a bun. Everything about her seemed evocative of the schoolmistresses of past – she was entirely traditional in appearance and presentation. This older woman though, was unfazed by my unusual family circumstances. Instead, we played a game. “Who does the cooking?” she asked, as my brother and I squealed “both!”. “Well then, who washes the car?”

As an adult, I look back on that game and its significance grows. Most children of heterosexual parents would not have been subject to such a playful experiment, because parental roles would have been taken for granted according to the sex and gender of the adults. Our society typically pegs mothers with domestic duties whilst fathers are viewed as breadwinners. And supposed personality traits accompany these roles – women expected to be nurturing and emotional; men viewed as level-headed and practical. No assumptions were made about my family: we were given the freedom to choose.

Of course, some people did try to force my mothers into typical gender roles, assuming that in the absence of a man to do so, one of the pair would play the fatherly role. And it’s only natural that there were some divisions of labour in our family; my mothers had different preferences and these were reflected in the activities they spent the most time on. The important thing was that their gender didn’t automatically ascribe their role within the family – their own inclinations did. And very often, they both partook of the same activities: they both cooked and cleaned, they both mowed the lawn and assembled IKEA furniture, they both took us swimming at the weekend, and they both pursued their own careers.

My brother and I grew up with no belief that our biological sex or gender set us apart in any meaningful way, or that any roles or behaviours were inherently gendered. We saw our mothers cooking (alas, there was in fact a general lack of baking in the house), and we saw them operating drills (well, admittedly, just one of them was handy with the DIY…). Similarly, Reuven and I were brought-up in a fairly gender-neutral way. My mums play-wrestled with myToys brother, but his biggest delight was gymnastics, not football. And whilst I spent great swathes of time playing with my soft toys and dolls, I could just as easily be absorbed in lego and playmobile.

The two of us were encouraged to be open in our ambitions, to be who and what we wanted to be. If I wanted to, I could grow up, marry a woman, and live in a commune. Or I could marry a Prince and live in a sparkling neo-classical palace, Disney-style. I didn’t really want to get married at all, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I knew that all of those choices were open to me: I was certain that my parents would support me whatever I did, and that any choice I made would be seen as a legitimate one. My biological sex and gender didn’t pre-determine anything about my life: I was encouraged to consider every possibility, and to believe every option equal.

At this point I want to add a quick disclaimer that there are lots of heterosexual families out there who have similarly questioned traditional gender roles; doing so isn’t unique to LGBT+ families. What matters is talking about gender from an early age – having conversations about what sex and gender mean, whilst rejecting the idea that someone’s biological sex should limit them in any way. Feminist principles need to be explicitly discussed, as well as being modelled day to day.

My own feminist understanding definitely matured as I aged. There are so many different societal issues that are core to feminism today. From the sex industry to the food we put in our bodies, education to domestic violence, the portrayal of women in the media to our reproductive rights. The list is endless; indeed I don’t think there are any issues untouched by feminist concerns.

For me, feminism at its most basic will always be connected to my early years though – it is simply about the right of all children to enjoy the childhood I was privileged enough to experience. For girls to be able to wear their hair long or short, without commentary or judgement. For boys to benefit from the men in their lives, but recognise that their mothers can provide for all of their varied needs. For teenage girls to choose to study the sciences in the same numbers that they opt for the arts, and vice-versa for their male peers. For all children to know that they can be exactly who and what they want to be when they grow up (and that they should respect the choices of other people too). That’s obviously quite an over-simplification of feminism, but a good place to start, and a good thing to aim for. Feminism has always seemed natural to me, and I’ve always been proud to identify as a feminist thanks to my childhood. Feminism is about equality between the sexes, and equality between our boys and girls is a great place to start.

(Not) in search of gender role models

People often ask me if my parents made sure that my brother and I had men in our lives. After all, we had two strong women raising us, but no fatherly figure to teach us what men should be and do.Image

To be honest, that last sentence is my problem with the notion that children need a core male and female role model in their life. What does it mean, to show a child how to be a man or woman? I love Caitlin Moran, but I’m certainly not taking all of my womanly advice from her and her alone.

You see, there is no single uniform correct way of being a man or a woman. If I had a father, there is no guarantee that he would be a good male role model. What if he was overly aggressive, or overly passive? Far too loud, or far too quiet? All behaviours exist within a spectrum, and so we cannot say that there’s an ideal combination to role model, nor that any single individual should provide the sole basis for a child to construct their identity.

Instead children end up piecing together their own gender identity from the multiple experiences and examples in their life. That’s why it’s good for children to have lots of positive adults around them, and why it’s not absolutely necessary for them to have both a female and male parent permanently present.

My brother and I may not have had access to a father figure. However, we grew up in a society full of men we could watch, listen to and communicate with (and this allowed us to assess for ourselves those positive attributes we thought healthy men should enact; a glorious pick ‘n’ mix gender toolbox).

When I was about eight and Reuven five, we ended up getting a male childminder, Michael. Michael would collect us from school and look after us until our parents got home from work. In the intervening hours he’d entertain us with visits to the park or swimming pool, the cinema or the library.

Michael was great. My absolute favourite game was when he pretended to be a lion and we all got to rough & tumble in a happy heap.

I recently asked my mum, Leah, if my parents had chosen Michael because he was a man – so that Reuven and I could spend more time with a male figure (and bearing in mind that we managed to get through several childminders throughout our childhood, the rest of whom were all women – clearly we must have been too much trouble!).

Leah’s answer surprised me, as I’d always assumed that had indeed been the reason. She told me that they’d placed an advert and that Michael had happened to respond. At first they’d been unsure, but he had glowing references, having previously worked looking after two little boys of two gay men in America for three years. His gender didn’t really come into it: he was the best of the bunch, so got the job.

Reuven and I ended up with Michael in our lives for a year or so. Was it good that he was there? Sure. Was it necessary? No. Many children have fathers that they live with, but barely ever see, because they’re always at work and home after the kids are asleep. What was so interesting about Michael, was that the role he performed was a caring one, one that has traditionally been seen as belonging in the female sphere. Reuven and I got to spend time with a gentle, nurturing man, who showed us that a man’s relationship to a child need be no different from a woman’s.

Michael was probably the man whose influence in our lives was strongest for the shortest period, because we spent so much time with him during that year. If he hadn’t applied for the job though, my parents wouldn’t have gone looking, specifically seeking, a similar male role model. Why? Because in a society like ours you’re surrounded by male and female figures anyway, some positive, some negative. It’s not the gender that matters, but the individual. For positive male role models, we had our grandpa and uncles, male teachers and sports leaders, fathers of friends. More importantly though, we had parents who showed us that everything a man could do (with the exception of a few biological functions!), a woman could too. Feel free to ponder this notion whilst listening to some music from Aretha Franklin & the Eurythmics: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Reuven has grown up into a wonderful young man, secure in his masculinity. Among his many achievements are the following: piloting planes; winning gymnastics prizes; marching annually across Holland; being a blackbelt in taekwondo; salsa dancing; a masterful knowledge of Chemistry; cooking a really great curry. Why should any of those be because of, or in spite of, his gender? He is the fabulous person he is because he has watched, listened to, and taken inspiration from all of the good people in his life, whether male or female, and decided who he wants to be using his own skills of discernment.

Reuven didn’t need a father to take him to football, because his mothers were happy to do so. And he wasn’t pushed into football either, but given a choice of activities, and chose gymnastics, later replaced by the Air Cadets, later yet replaced by martial arts and dance. We are all too hung up on the idea that some activities and some behaviours are intrinsically male or intrinsically female. I don’t feel like I missed out by not having a father. Rather, I feel like no opportunity was denied to me on gender grounds, no conversation labelled off limits, no way of being insisted upon. Our mothers didn’t try to make up for the lack of men in our life by finding others; they instead brought us up with an emphasis on people being defined as individuals, and not by their sex and gender.

Reuven and me at a civil partnership party, 2010

Reuven and me at a civil partnership party, 2010