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Bringing Up Boys Not to be “Men”

Posted on 20 November 2018 by Barbara Beckwith (0)

Bringing up Boys Not to Be “Men”

I’m sharing my still relevant 1980s article in Sojourner: The Women’s Journal, although I’m now aware that I interviewed only white women, leaving out important voices.

“Ha ha, I’m a boy,” Molly Lovelock is sure her son Timothy cried out on the day of his birth.

It can feel ironic for your child to be a boy, if you are also a feminist. Especially if it took ten years, as it took Lovelock, to decide to have children “because I had to get over the idea that I might have a boy.”

She did decide and he was a boy.

What is it like, being a feminist and the mother of a son? To spend half your energy fighting male dominated institutions and the other half nurturing a man-to be? “Can you be sure he won’t grow up to be a macho male? “The baby is asleep a room away,” wrote Robin Morgan in her poem, Monster.  “White. Male, American. Potentially the most powerful, deadly creature of the species… If I can help it, never will [he] be ‘quite a man’.”

Can you train your son not to be sexist? Can you possibly outweigh the pressures of TV, school, his peers? If you are a lesbian, will your son support you? If he does turn out macho, what then?

I asked these questions of several feminists, and of some of their sons, too. My questions were projections of my own experience: I myself have two sons.

My memories are both good and bad. I remember being hugely proud of bearing a son, even prouder when I bore two. Boys were better – this was ten years before women’s liberation. I felt sorry for my father who had no sons to teach wrestling holds and football tackles, to pass his name on to – only three daughters. It never occurred to me to feel sorry for all the women who lose their names when they get married. It never occurred to me to learn football and wrestling myself.

We tried to bring up our sons non-violently, but the culture was against us. I remember carrying my son on my shoulders on anti-Vietnam War marches. I also remember a junior high school conference with an array of teachers, a psychologist, a principal. Ben had this problem, they said. The jocks in his class push him around and he doesn’t fight back.  He’s got a problem, they said, not the jocks.

Because of, or in spite of this, my sons turned out to be the kind of human beings I hoped they’d be. They treat their friends as people, and only secondarily as male or female. Anthony won’t use the word “girlfriend” because “It makes the person seem different from who they really are.” He thinks my feminism “is good – it’s influenced the way I think about things.”

How is it for other feminists with sons? Naomi Gernes considered her son Todd, now twenty, so non-sexist that “even my most militant friends like him.” Although Todd admits “we argue a lot when she tries to train me.” In other words, it wasn’t his mother’s conscious lecturing that made him who he is.

Gernes feels it was mostly the models he had as he grew up, especially in the three years he lived in a commune with a male daycare worker, a single father, men who baked and cooked, and his own mother and father who argued over who would get the chance to make the curtains. His grandmother had taught him to knit and crochet before he was five, and by the time he was nine he could repair all his clothes and was asking to use the sewing machine to make pillowcases. In high school, he was the only boy to take modern dance and the women’s history course. His teacher says he was more sympathetic to women’s issues than many of the girls in his class.

On the other hand, his mother also sees that being a boy gave him a head start on life that her daughter Jenny doesn’t have. “He has a kind of freedom and is forging ahead. Jenny won’t be going to New Mexico with her dirt bike like he did. I’d be afraid for her.”

Jane Pincus, long-term member of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, was pregnant with her son Ben when women’s liberation was just hitting Boston. Pincus remember nursing him while listening to women from the Cell 16 group say, “Down with the family!” Ben went to a playgroup with kids of political parents – no boy-girl distinctions there – while Pincus gave the earliest “Our Bodies Ourselves” workshops.

But not everything is rosy. “My heart wrenches for him, watching the pressure his peer group is putting on him to act in a way that’s not natural for him. He’d like to be part of their culture but he’s milder, gentler.” She feels his radiant expressiveness comes from his father who is himself “very loving, nurturant, and caring.” His father cooks and now Ben is a gourmet cook while his older sister “doesn’t lift a finger.”

What about women who have no husband around to model non-sexist maleness, or whose husbands are around but model macho values instead? Donna Roux, a daycare center administrator, had a husband who was a marine, and so was away a lot. “Whenever he did come home, he wanted Peter to do the traditional macho thing. Both he and Peter’s peer pressured him to be competitive when his basic personality is not to be.” After his parents’ divorce, Peter lived in an all-women household. At times, he complains that his mother hasn’t provided him with any male models.

But he, too, turned out okay in the eyes of his feminist mother. Although she never taught him to fight, she found that “he learned he could defend himself by negotiating — that discussion had strength.“ She figures now that “Peter is a thinking person so society doesn’t have much of a chance with him.” The touchstone is probably how he treats the girls in his life. “I like the way he interacts with his girlfriend,” says his mother. “And I love the way he treats his sister.”


It’s not that everything is perfect. “If I’m anti-male, he’s worried that I’m anti-Peter,” says Roux. “He’s always reminding me ‘that doesn’t apply to me’ so I can’t foam at the mouth. It’s limiting.”

“Anger shines through me,” Marge Piercy once wrote. “A good anger acted upon his beautiful as lightning, transfiguring.”

“Also, Peter is very tall and I’m short so he gets into being considerate in a paternalistic way. He knows he has power, but he doesn’t abuse it.” Roux also has a daughter, Chris, and has some resentment at the kids of power Peter will always have automatically. ‘He’ll get what he wants. Chris will have to fight like hell for it.

What happens when, despite a nurturant upbringing, patriarchal society wins over your son? I talked with one feminist who feels alienated from her son. Although he grew up with her feminist values (“He heard it all”), he turned out, in her view, to be “a piglet.” Marilyn, who lives in California, considers her son, now twenty-one and living in Connecticut, to be pushy and self-centered. ‘He expects his sisters to wait on him. His goal in life is to be a big business executive with naked secretaries running around the office.” Marilyn has since decided to stop nurturing “a member of the male club. She will send him a birthday card or talk on the phone, but nothing else. ‘I had to put out too much energy to deal with him. I finally decided to withdraw that energy. A lot of women have a hard time with it, but I know I haven’t been cruel. I just wasn’t going to prioritize my daughter out “Marilyn’s older daughter, now in college, is a strong feminist. “I don’t think mothers have an influence over their sons,” says Marilyn. “They have a terrible time keeping them out of the macho male club.

Marilyn is not alone in feeling alienation from the men in her family. Every mother I spoke to had some ambivalence, myself included. It’s hard not to resent that automatic privileges that the men in my family will get from male-dominated institutions. They don’t need to be macho to benefit. They just have to be male.

If you r son turns out to be a male chauvinist, what is the war that you have lost?  The war with socialization or biology? The women I spoke with feel strongly that, as Naomi Gernes put it, “Biology is not destiny.” They object strongly to women’s events excluding boys just because they are boys, and often when they are as young as two. “It’s hard on single mothers  — it’s carrying things too far,” says Gernes. Jane Pincus agrees: The New England Women’s Festival allowed no boys over ten. But the year from ten to fourteen are critical. I want my son to grow up with a vision of women living together. Exclude them at fourteen or fifteen maybe, but not at ten.

What about feminist mothers who are lesbians; do their sons support them? The son of one lesbian mother told me, “I always accepted my mother as a person. I never respected her less for her sexuality. His mother, however, thinks he is “still guarded with other lesbian mothers; he wants to know if they are motherly, if they like kids. It took him a month to tell his girlfriend that I am a lesbian.” But he did tell her.

Feminists, or at least many of them, are going to continue to have children, and fifty percent are guaranteed to turn out to be boys. They will give their sons the most nonsexist environment they can and hope they absorb their feminist values “though their pores.” Abu they will continue to worry.

Molly Lovelock’s son, the one who she imagined crying out, “Ha ha, I’m a boy” at birth, is now two and a half. She loves him for his enthusiasm. ‘But he’s very strong-minded. He has strong opinions – “Mommy, dance” he tells me and then he yells out a song. If he were a girl I’d say wonderful! She’s very sure of herself and can stick up for herself.” But he’s a boy, and she wonders where his strong will is going to lead.

“He likes nothing better than sorting socks, and going to the supermarket,” she reassuresherself. “But this is probably being a two-year-ole rather than being a nonsexist boy. He seems noisier than other two-year olds. He always talks in a loud voice,” she worried anew. But then, “Christopher and I talk all the time, too,” Finally she decides to relax, ‘If I get uptight about all that stuff, I’m never gonna get through his second grade.”

Sooner or later she must decide whether to have another child. “It would be nice to have a daughter. But it would also scare me. The older child is always more powerful : what kind of double message would it give him?”

Meanwhile, Molly continues to work for the feminist community, consulting for non-profit businesses and doing fundraising for Aid to Incarcerated Mothers. “No more meetings!” her son Timothy continues to tell her, but she goes anyway. She worries that his favorite book is about trucks, and wonders if he has yet absorbed any of her feminist values “through his pores,” as he absorbed her loud voice. And how will he use that loud voice when he grows up? For or against women?

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