How to Explain Feminism in Terms Simple Enough for a Child
As we mark Women's History Month and celebrate International Women's Day, here are some straightforward, smart ways to talk to kids about what it means to be a feminist.
From learning about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to reading Maya Angelou and patronizing female-owned businesses, there are a variety of ways to celebrate Women's History Month with your child. But it never hurts to lay the groundwork for a bigger conversation by beginning with the basics, and in this case, that might look like defining feminism in terms that are easy enough for an elementary or junior high school-aged child to understand.
Although a majority of American women (61 percent) identify themselves as a feminist, according to a 2020 Pew Research study, which surveyed women across all ages and education levels, confusion remains around what it means to use the identifier. We asked experts to breakdown what feminism is, what it isn't, and what it means to embrace it in their everyday lives so you can start the conversation at home as a family.
How to Explain What a Feminist Is
Feminism can feel like a big, daunting topic to cover, especially for a young child, but here are a few simple, expert-backed ways to explain it.
Focus on equality. Kimberly Hamlin, Ph.D., an associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies, an affiliate of Miami University's Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Program, says she often sums up the concept of feminism by referring to writer and feminist activist Marie Shear's popular quote, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."
Younger kids, however, might not pick up on the sarcasm around "radical notion," so you can also go the straightforward route. "Put another way, feminism means that girls should have all the opportunities open to them that boys have and that girls' lives and destinies are their own to determine," says Dr. Hamlin.
An easy way to illustrate this, according to Kryss Shane, leading LGBT+ expert and author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion, "Kids are often great with understanding what they think is fair, so it can be easy to offer to split a cookie between them and another, and talk about whether a girl should get less of the cookie because she is a girl."
Make a list of the benefits of feminism. Deborah J. Cohan, associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption, advises that parents share how we can thank feminists of the past for most of the rights girls and women enjoy today. Just a few examples:
- Women have the right to vote, though that was not the case before 1920.
- Women can go to college.
- Women have a right to choose if and when they will have children.
- It used to be common for women to write under pseudonyms or to call themselves anonymous. Now, they can use their real names.
- Women can have a credit card with their name on it or buy property under their name.
- Women can be astronauts, architects, pilots, or even the vice president of the United States.
In general, you can cover a lot of ground by talking about women who fought for change, how we still benefit from what prior women fought for, how change came sooner for some women than others, and how by continuing to fight, things will be better for your child as they age and for their daughters someday, says Shane.
How to Explain What Intersectional Feminism Is
As the conversation advances, you might introduce the concept of intersectional feminism, which was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American law professor who explained it as "a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other."
You can explain that feminists will often try to work with other social and political groups that are fighting oppression, advises Melinda Hall, director of Gender Studies and chair of Philosophy at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. "Increasingly, the idea that sexism is linked to other negative social forces, like racism and ableism (oppression based on disability), is taken very seriously," she says. "Feminists tend to think these feed on each other, so they shouldn't be tackled alone."
Also, it's helpful to develop empathy for the oppression others may experience since in another arena of social life you may be faced with a different form of oppression, notes Cohan.
How to Explain What a Feminist Is Not
You can share that feminism is often mistaken to mean "anti-men," but this is inaccurate, says Shane.
"Just as your birthday is not anti everyone else's birthday, we can spotlight the importance of one group of people without it meaning that no one cares about another group," she elaborates. "As a reminder, much of this ties into the ongoing undermining of female existence, including lower pay rates, higher child rearing expectations, and higher emotional labor realities in most nations. This means that feminism is not about saying women are better. It is about recognizing how far women have fought to be seen as equal and how much further there is to go."
Cohan adds that you can talk to your child about the fact that some people look down on feminism and resent, ridicule, or mock it, but that's because they perceive it as a threat to men. But you can talk about how feminism makes everyone's lives better, no matter their gender.
What's more, you might emphasize the fact that feminism isn't about talking negatively about men or any one group of people. "It is about discussing the realities of how society treats girls, gals, and women," says Shane.
How to Explain Traits of a Feminist
You can say that a feminist is simply someone who believes that every woman-including transgender women, women who do not bear children, women who are not related to you, etc.-is a whole and equal person, says Shane.
"A woman does not have to be enjoyable to or loved by you in order to be equal to you," she notes. "It is simply about recognizing that women are valid and valuable no matter their body shape, no matter their skin color, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter their fashion choice."
How to Highlight the Importance of Being a Feminist in Your Child's Life
Examples of feminism pop up in a variety of ways for kids. "Some kids may see women who work," says Shane. "Some may see a woman who is the one paying the bills or making decisions in the household. Some may see an adult woman who does not have kids or is not married and is quite happy. They may be reminded that they love their mom, their aunt, their grandma, and their neighbor who are all women with very different bodies and skin tones and lives and they are all important and valuable."
They'll likely be exposed to sexist beliefs as well. Even in elementary school, kids will notice that there are situations in which girls are treated differently, whether that's being told they're pretty or evaluated based on their size, says Hamlin. That's why she says she tells her kids "that bodies are for running, playing, dancing, enjoying, and jumping, and that it is no one's place to be commenting on how bodies look."
You might also talk to your children about everyday instances in which sexism rears its ugly head. Talk about what to do when boys commandeer the soccer field at recess, how to respond to bullying and stand up for others, what to say when boys tell girls that they can't be in Lego Club or Chess Club, how to help boys feel welcome at ballet, etc., says Hamlin.
Feminist Books and Films to Check Out
To continue the conversation, consider checking out the following, expert-loved titles with your child.
Books: Hall says parents should look into Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love and We Move Together by Kelly Fritsch, Anne McGuire, and Eduardo Trejos. Hamlin likes the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls series, which also has a podcast. And Cohan recommends photo book called Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.