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.


  1. Katydid says

    In contrast, I had a mother who insisted I take typing because “you’ll always be able to find work as a secretary!” The skill–as you noted–came in handy when I had to type in code on the mainframe and later, coding in general. And yes, in the early 1980s, I had to constantly fight against doing all the typing because typing came “naturally” to women.

    As to whether a lack of something makes you crave it more…maybe yes, maybe no? My mother was the conventional girl-clothes and girl-activities, and I (a tomboy) was always fighting her to wear clothes I could climb trees, ride bikes, or skateboard in. The one feminine thing she ever fought about was earrings. I was desperate to get my ears pierced because all my friends had the most beautiful and amazing earrings…and I had to wait until I was 13 and had saved up enough money to take the bus to the mall and get my ears pierced in a piercing stall. I wore my hair over my ears until they healed up and my mother never noticed, but once she did, she was furious about it. To this day, I like to wear earrings. Is it because I wasn’t allowed to? Good question: I don’t know.


    I grew up knowing that my maternal grandmother became a farm wife because secretary/teacher/nurse didn’t appeal to her. She finished high school, All of her children went to college. My mother was a perfect Midwest church-going traditional wife – except both my parents were fed up with the restrictive church they grew up in. We were encouraged to get educated. My mother taught us girls good housekeeping skills, while my brother was out in the garage with my father. We weren’t discouraged from anything, instead encouraged in our shortterm interests, but not directed towards any developed future. We straddled the early boomer demographic – my two older sisters belong to the pre-Vietnam era, while I am a product of the late 1960’s. I never had much interest in frilly stuff, deeply resented being made to wear a skirt to school, have been to a hairdresser maybe four times in my life, don’t wear makeup. I resolved as a teenager to try to have it all in an ordinary life – like if I was a guy! I succeeded. Retired lawyer, raised a good kid, married 50 years, now a grandparent. Oh yeah, mom also gave us big boobs, which are a definite asset.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Does your sister really exist, or did you imagine her and concoct a separate blog and other writings to sustain the illusion?

    Or vice-versa? 😉

  4. Dr Sarah says

    @Katydid: ah, yes, the ear-piercing wars! For that one, I think it was actually our father who objected and not our mother, as he didn’t like the idea of body piercing. My sister waged a concerted campaign over the years (including at one point telling our parents she was going to become a nun and thus needed to enjoy life while she could) and was eventually rewarded by being granted permission as a 15th birthday present; my father drew up an official-looking certificate to that effect, phrased in legalistic-type language for comic effect.

    Meanwhile, I sat that whole debate out due to not caring either way, decided when I was 25 that I actually did like the idea, and got both ears and my navel done, informing my parents after the deed was done. (About the ears, that is; I don’t think I ever told them about the navel piercing, so if my mother reads this she’ll get a shock.) That difference in approaches does kind of sum up the differences between my sister’s personality and mine.

  5. Dr Sarah says

    @Rebecca Wiess: brilliant! I’m always impressed when I hear about people managing to confound the expectations/assumptions they grew up with, and it sounds like you did that.

  6. Dr Sarah says

    @Pierce R. Butler: I’m tremendously flattered that you think I’m a good enough author to have produced my sister’s body of work, so thank you! She definitely exists. There’s probably a photo on the back of her book, as well, if you want to check that out.

    I’m fairly sure I also exist. I suppose I might be just a figment of her imagination, but in that case I think she’d have imagined a sister who spent a lot more time playing with her as a child.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dr Sarah @ # 7 – It seems well established here that having a documented sibling proves existence.

  8. KG says

    Hi Dr. Sarah, good to see you posting again! My son, from an early age, was desperate to have a toy gun. Ms. KG and I held out for a number of years, with the result that anything of vaguely the right shape got pressed into service as a gun. He was also very keen on toy soldiers, which we didn’t oppose. But I asked him once if he wanted to join the army when he grew up. “No, that would be dangerous!” was his reply. So the line between play and reality was pretty clear to him from early on. He now enjoys designing and building robots to fight other robots, while his wife likes making her own clothes and painting her nails – but to all appearances, they have a completely equal marriage, complete with an app that ensures they take equal shares in housework.

    Going back two generations, I’m convinced my parents would have been happier if they had swapped the traditional roles, with my mother having a career while my father looked after us (four) children. But back then (the 1950s-70s), that was hardly an option: they were both working for the Civil Service when they met, and I believe it was still the case then that women had to resign when they got married. My mother had already seen her younger brother go to university while she, at least his equal intellectually, was steered into the “commercial sixth” at her school, to learn typing and shorthand (very useful skills of course, which I wish I had learned, but clearly aimed at pushing her in a gender-stereotyped direction). She eventually did an Open University history degree in her 60s – I still have some of her assignments.

  9. Constance Whippman says

    As the third person in the room when all this was happening I can vouch that both the journalist / social commentator daughter and the doctor daughter definitely exist. I am the ultra proud 3rd party Mum/Mom depending on which continent we were living at the time …….Ruth interviewed in The Times this morning and her book comes out 4th June so lots of family fun. I love Dr. Sarah’s blog. How I produced two daughters who can each write like quicksilver and who each has something to say that is really worth thinking about continues to elude me but I am so grateful for these bonus nsights into the life I was also living. What is so difficult to convey is how often these two and their dear father made me laugh out loud. Dr. Sarah, my only complaint is that you do not write more often.
    Constance Whippman. (Mother of the More Famous)

  10. Dr Sarah says

    @Pierce R. Butler, #7: Cue the arrival of many Dr Sarah-mythicists arguing that I’m Ruth’s sister only in some sort of metaphorical sense and/or the bits claiming I am have been interpolated anyway…

    @KG, #8: Good point about children being able to tell the difference between imagination and reality. Maybe we worry too much about toy guns?

    @Constance Whippman, #9: Hi, Mom! Good to see you and thanks! xx

  11. REBECCA WIESS says

    Toy guns: kid was three, saw a toy rifle in a store and was smitten. I carried him out of the store over my shoulder, beating on my back, exclaiming “Bad Mom, Bad Mom. A short time later we had a conversation about giving up his last pacifier. He offered to surrender it for a toy rifle, I conditioned it that No Complaints Afterwards. The deal was made, and he slept with his rifle (sticker on side “Made in America by Americans) for the next week.

  12. Ridana says

    3) @Pierce R. Butler: was that an allusion to “The Lost Child” review with Caz and Poppy? 😀

  13. Dr Sarah says

    @Rebecca Wiess, #11: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he did not, in fact, grow up to shoot random people for real?

    @Ridana, #12: I think it’s actually an allusion to the Jesus-mythicism debates on here. 😀

  14. KG says

    Dr. Sarah@10,

    That (some) quite young kids can distinguish play and reality was part of my point – and it must be admitted that others can’t. Mainly, I was suggesting that many features of stereotyped gender expression (liking pink, dolls, pretty clothes, or toy guns, football, making a lot of noise) aren’t worth parents getting stressed over. As long as they model gender equality in their own behaviour and relationships, that will probably get passed on.

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