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 my 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.