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Having the Sexism Talk: Lessons for My Daughter | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

Having the Sexism Talk: Lessons for My Daughter


A Cinderella doll. (Courtesy of Flickr)

How young is too young to talk about sexism? Because according to my just-turned-3-year-old, mommies aren’t strong—daddies are. Her certainty of this hit me square in the gut; it didn’t help that immediately after she declared she didn’t want to be a mommy because “they have to go to doctor’s appointments and go shopping.” Oof.

Friends have assured me that this is the age when children see things in a very binary way—they’re attached to boundaries and rules, and gender becomes a part of that. But it’s hard not to see that even at such a young age—and even with a feminist mother—my daughter is picking up on sexism. I knew this moment was inevitable, but never thought it would come so soon.

When people have asked me how I’ll raise my daughter in a misogynist world, I’ve mostly answered with positive ideas—I’ll model feminism in our family relationships and my marriage, I’ll present her with diverse books and toys, tell her that she’s smart instead of cooing that she’s pretty. But the truth is that a sunny “girls can do anything!” attitude just isn’t enough.

At some point, I’ll have to explain to my daughter that the world simply doesn’t think she’s as good as, smart as or valuable as men. I’ll have to tell her that to many she’ll be less than just because of her gender. It’s a devastating reality, but one she needs to know. Glossing over this fact would be a disservice.

Because as depressing as misogyny is, acknowledging and naming it helps. It means that our daughters will realize the everyday slights—or huge injustices—are a failure of the system, not of themselves.

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A few things I wish I would have known as a girl: the guys who catcalled/flashed/grabbed me on the subway to junior high didn’t do it because I dressed “too sexy,” they did it because they were assholes; I was good enough for the baseball team; the reason my fifth grade math teacher didn’t call on girls had nothing to do with how good or bad we were at division; I wasn’t ugly, the magazines I read were; it was perfectly fine for me to speak loudly; there’s nothing wrong with being a little “bossy.”

I know there won’t be one talk I give Layla, but many. Her feminist education will come in waves, as circumstances and her age call for it. But it will have to be proactive, not just reactive. In the meantime, I’ll have to learn to relax a bit and remember it’s not the end of the world that she told me today her name is ‘Cinderella’. It just means we’ll have a lot to talk about.

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