This recurring feature, curated by Pilgrim Soul, directs Harpy readers to important feminist thoughts and concepts as spoken by some of her favourite feminists on and off the web. The appraisal of the value of these snippets is, of course, entirely Pilgrim Soul’s, and does not necessarily reflect the views of other Harpies. Feel free to discuss in the comments here.
In our anniversary thread, a reader asked for Harpy thoughts on raising feminist sons. I think I speak for us all when I say that it would feel rather odd to opine on that myself, since the experience of raising sons in this culture is not one any of us have had. We might have brothers, we might have thought about it. But this is the kind of thing it’s very hard to talk about as an abstract experience.
Never fear, however. There is always, somewhere, some feminist who has set out their thoughts on any issue you might be curious about. And in this case, that feminist is Audre Lorde. In her essay, “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” available in the excellent Sister Outsider collection, which addresses her experiences raising her son, Jonathan, she offers the following anecdote about her reaction to his being bullied at school:
My fury at my own long-ago impotence, and my present pain at his suffering, made me start to forget all that I knew about violence and fear, and blaming the victim, I started to hiss at the weeping child. “The next time you come in here crying…,” and I suddenly caught myself in horror.
This is the way we allow the destruction of our sons to begin — in the name of protection and to ease our own pain. My son got beaten up? I was about to demand that he buy that first lesson in the corruption of power, that might makes right. I could hear myself beginning to perpetuate the age-old distortions about what strength and bravery really are.
And no, Jonathan didn’t have to fight if he didn’t want to, but somewhere he did have to feel better about not fighting. An old horror rolled over me of being the fat kid who ran away, terrified of getting her glasses broken.
About that time a very wise woman said to me, “Have you ever told Jonathan that once you used to be afraid, too?”
The idea seemed far-out to me at the time, but the next time he came in crying and sweaty from having run away again, I could see that he felt shamed at having failed me, or some image he and I had created in his head of mother/woman. This image of woman being able to handle it all was bolstered by the fact that he lived in a household with three strong women, his lesbian parents and his forthright older sister. At home, for Jonathan, power was clearly female.
And because our society teaches us to think in an either/or mode — kill or be killed, dominate or be dominated — this meant that he must either surpass or be lacking. [...]
I sat down on the hallway steps and took Jonathan on my lap and wiped his tears. “Did I ever tell you about how I used to be afraid when I was your age?” [...]
It is as hard for our children to believe that we are not omnipotent as it is for us to know it, as parents. But that knowledge is necessary as the first step in the reassessment of power as something other than might, age, privilege, or the lack of fear. It is an important step for a boy, whose societal destruction begins when he is forced to believe that he can only be strong if he doesn’t feel, or if he wins.
I do see a lot of parents I know encouraging children to fight bullies – even as they raise them to be progressives – and the kill-or-be-killed ethos does seem to be wrapped up in a lot of parental mores and so-called “helicopter parenting.” But is it possible to raise children differently? Feel free to discuss in the comments.