Growing up feminist, and associated rambling

“I’m sorry if I ruined your childhood by being too feminist” my mother greeted me contritely when I phoned her for the weekly call.

“Huh? I’m glad you brought me up as a feminist,” I assured her. My mother does sometimes have random bursts of remorse about this and that, so it took me a moment to make the connection; while I hadn’t yet read it, I’d seen that my sister had just put up another post, and I now realised it must be one of the ones in which Ruth wrote about childhood experiences.

(Shameless plug: My sister is the author Ruth Whippman and her substack is I Blame Society. Do check her out; in my of course entirely unbiased view, she’s an excellent and thought-provoking writer.)

Boyhood: The Shark Experience turned out to be about the dilemma of parenting while ideologically committed; to what extent do you get to make your children your political project? Sure enough, part of it was Ruth’s description of growing up as the daughter of a second-wave feminist who banned anything that was too conventionally ‘girly’. And so, again, I settled down to read about my childhood as seen through the eyes of the other person who shared it.

The childhood bans on conventional femininity had never bothered me in the slightest, since I had no interest in make-up or Barbie accessories and never noticed what I was wearing enough to care whether it was pink or not. (The ban on learning to touch type could have been more of a practical problem – that one didn’t age well – but, as it happened, I thought touch-typing looked like such a cool skill that when I found a library book promising to teach me how to do it within five days I went ahead with learning, and my mother accepted that on the grounds that I kept it to myself. “If they know you can touch-type,” she told me darkly, not specifying the ‘they’, “they’ll try to push you into being a secretary.” I successfully avoided this fate and instead entered general practice at just the time it was moving to full computerisation and thus saved oceans of time over the next few decades by my ability to type up my consultation notes quickly and accurately, not to mention the later ease of blogging, so this is the point on which I’m most glad to have ignored my mother’s advice.)

However, Ruth was interested in all those things, and suffered from their lack to an extent I had not fully appreciated. As she put it, ‘I spent most of the early eighties in a unisex playsuit with a bizarrely unflattering short haircut, craving objectification.’ (If it’s any consolation, I think all the other children on our street looked fairly similar. But perhaps that’s just the effect of the orange-tinted old photos.) Since then, she’s grown up to be a feminist who loves buying clothes/high heels to an extent which she attributes to childhood lack:

The ladies who sniggered and called feminists “women’s libbers” were gleeful when they saw me craving pink or sparkles.  “You see!” they gloated, “it’s natural for girls to want this! If you deprive them, they’ll only want it more!”  […] In one sense, the sneerers were right. The childhood lack did make me crave these things in adulthood.

Did it? I’m honestly curious about what is, to a large extent, an unanswerable question; would Ruth have grown up less interested in ‘feminine’ clothes if she’d had more of them at an early age, or are our interests more innate than that? After all, what Ruth didn’t mention here is the years in which she got boxloads of pretty clothes courtesy of a friend of our grandmother who had a granddaughter slightly older than Ruth was with a mother who, apparently, loved buying stylish and attractive clothes for her daughter. (To this day, the girl’s name – Mary Hall – resonates with me as if it were the name of a famous designer, just because the phrase ‘the Mary Hall clothes’ was so often uttered in tones of awe and delight in our house.) This seems like it should have mitigated earlier childhood femininity-deprivation, so I suspect that Ruth’s adult love of clothes and shoes doesn’t really trace back to the previous lack of them, however neat a story that might make for the ‘You SEE? You did it WRONG’ school of anti-feminists/parenting critics.

Meanwhile, what effect did this particular variety of feminist childhood have on me?

I did retain an automatic long-term avoidance of pink, which might actually be kind of a shame since objectively speaking it looks good on me. I still don’t use make-up, which has saved me quite a bit of time over the years. But the main long-term impact wasn’t from anything I was or wasn’t allowed to have as a child. It was from the fact that my parents – in the 70s, no less! – managed to have a genuinely egalitarian marriage and to make this look as natural as breathing.

The actual task breakdown wasn’t 50:50; my father was perfectly capable of getting meals on the table and did so, but my mother was a culinary artist and in any case, feminism or not, did have a deep-rooted desire to nurture her family that manifested in doing significantly more of the cooking. Meanwhile, she had no idea how to manage any sort of DIY or electricity-related jobs, so those fell to my father. That had an effect on me as well; I have a clear memory of noticing, age 17, that a fuse in a plug had gone and automatically thinking that I must get Dad to do it… and then catching myself and realising that I was half way through a physics A-level course and entirely capable of changing my own plugs. But the fact that I could realise that still stemmed from a solid background of growing up with jobs that were for both genders. I grew up in a household in which it was taken for granted that both parents would have careers and that both of them would share the work of keeping the meals coming and the house in order.

Because our parents took this for granted, or at least behaved as if they did I grew up doing the same thing. I accepted without question their assumptions that I would use my science-leaning academic abilities to get into a good career, and that I would someday find a partner who would, as a decent person, accept the need to share in household tasks. And, while it’s hardly unusual to have a life littered with the ghosts of childhood assumptions that didn’t survive adult life, in my case I did indeed end up in a career I love and in a marriage that, while it has significant other problems, does on the whole involve us each doing a fair share of cooking and household tasks. That’s my parents’ legacy to me, and also to my sister, and I think I can speak for us both when I say how deeply I appreciate it.