To Sophia on Her Sixth Birthday. With Love, Your Feminist Historian Mom

To Sophia on Her Sixth Birthday. With Love, Your Feminist Historian Mom

Happy Birthday baby girl!  Today you are six.  It really does seem like yesterday that I held you in my arms just minutes after your birth.  I remember thinking at that moment (and throughout my pregnancy) that having a girl was not going to be easy.  As a historian I am painfully aware of hard it was/is to be a female.  Yes, women have achieved quite a bit, but there are many individuals (male and female) who think gender equality will lead to the end of human existence, and who are hellbent on placing women within the box of inequality.

As a mother and historian, I am also faced with the historical expectations behind motherhood.  Motherhood has been defined as moral, sacred, domestic, scientific,  and it has been sexualized, blamed for homosexuality, commercialized, and politicized.  We have been told that our love for our children is the reason we clean, shop, receive medical care, sew, plan, drive, and cook.  Mothers have been held the highest esteem and the lowest regard (depending on your race and economic background).  Being a mother is fraught with this fantasy of perfection, regardless of if you have a daughter or a son.  But as a mother to a daughter, specific challenges arise that reflect a battle with sexism and misogyny.  So for your 6th birthday, I’ve decided to make a few promises to you.  I, as a woman and feminist, will help you negotiate the challenges of being a girl, a teenager, a woman, and a mother (if you choose to be one).  At the same time, as a historian I want to make sure you understand that the images and viewpoints about femininity and sexuality have a complex history (your social studies and high school history teachers are  going to LOVE you).  These promises will be on the record, so when you are a pissed off 16 year old who thinks I just don’t care and I am huge embarrassment as I play trance/house music as we drive in our neighborhood, we can read this together.  You’ll be reminded of how much I do care for you.  (Oh, btw, the real presents are coming later today. Have no fear!)

So here is what I promise you…

I will not dress like you and I will not expect you to dress like me:

Mommy & Daughter’s Dresses. (3cinevoli/Flickr)

For some reason designers came up with the idea that mothers and daughters should wear matching outfits (and hats).  Wearing the same blouse somehow proves the mother-daughter bond, as if wearing the same hat demonstrated the love between a mother and daughter.

Mother & Daughter. (Danny Robinson/Flickr)

Also, dressing alike promised mothers youthfulness and daughters a chance to look all grown up.

Vintage Postcard ~ Mother & Daughter in Similar Dresses. (Cheryl Hicks/Flickr)

Wearing a dress that resembles your mother’s is one thing, but as fashion has become skimpier, smaller, and transcends age, looking like one another blurs the line between girlhood and adulthood and has led to uncomfortable and problematic issues in female fashion (as seen as early as 1959.  Really?? Christmas red??).  Many women try to look like girls and many girls try to look like women.  I for one, do not want to look like you in your cute little Hello Kitty shirt and matching skirt, and you certainly do not want to dress like me in whichever black outfit I am wearing.  If anything, I want you to learn is that fashion is not real.  It is what we use to convey who we are or think we are to everyone else.  You can either own fashion or be a slave to it.  You, my dear, will own it and will reject the love/hate relationship that fashion has had with the body since, well, it seems like forever.  Together we will reject the notion that we can look younger/older in a fur coat and a pair of skinny jeans.

Fur Coat and Jeans. (Flickr)

I will instill a healthy body image:   This one is hard because to be honest with you, I’ve struggled with my weight throughout most of my life and when I had you, I silently hoped that you would have your daddy’s genes.  I know, it’s horrible to claim I am a feminist, and then worry about whether my clothes are going to fit.  Being a woman AND a feminist AND a historian can be really difficult because the feelings I have about my body are wrapped up in decades of history of female imagery, dieting, advertising, and fashion.  However, since I had you, I’ve come to realize that I need to be more concerned with a healthy body image that is based in reality than in fantasy.  You mimic my words and ideas all the time. The last thing I want to hear out of your mouth is “I’m fat,” because you heard it from me.


But, this leads me to the next promise…

I will be bluntly honest about your health and your body:  Having a healthy body image means having knowledge about health and your body.  Dieting among young girls has increased since the 1950s, but at the same time obesity among children and teens in 2012 is anywhere between 16 and 33 percent.  A healthy body does not need to be skinny, but a healthy body has a strong heart, muscles, and lungs.  It won’t bother me if you are not a size six (which I have never, EVER been in my life), but a powerful female body embraces the imperfections of the physical self, but also enjoys the activity the body can generate.  Concurrently, what you eat matters.  I am sure by the time you can comprehend this blog post, you’ll fondly remember candy night and fruit night.  Your daddy and I wanted to make sure that you and your brother understood moderation and what constituted a good diet.  What I hope that you will learn that a healthy female body rejects starvation and deprivation, and appreciates good food, while also enjoys a candy bar (or a mini choco cherry Blizzard from Dairy Queen.  Yeah baby!).

Mother and Daughter Artwork. (Andrea Gutierrez/Flickr)

I will talk to you about “feminine issues,” oh and sex and sexuality too:  Yeah, your daddy and I made a deal with each other.  I talk to you and your brother about how your bodies will change as well as sex, and he will teach you both how to drive.  I have the better end of the deal.

Look, knowing about what makes you tick supersedes any of the squeamishness I might have talking to you about the female body, s.e.x, and sexuality.  Even though I am a feminist, the thought of you growing up literally brings tears to my eyes.  You and I always laugh about keeping you little, but I know that cannot happen, so it is up to me to make sure you are armed with as much information as possible.  Your body will mature and change, and I’ll be there.  You will have sex, and I will be there. (Well not literally there.  That was awkward.  Yeah, I’m going to stop right there.) You will figure out your sexuality, and again I will be there.  You might get really annoyed with how much I will be around, but I hope I am the one you talk to about anything, and I mean anything.  I also will not repeat the advice I received, “Don’t do anything stupid!”  Thank god I had Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Forever, the Tampax information kit, Young Miss (YM), and Seventeen as my educational materials.  But what I really wanted was a hand to hold and the advice that my body was my own and to respect every inch of it (and to demand that others respect it).  Becoming a young woman (and hell an old woman) is not easy, but you and I will figure it out together.

You will be a feminist too: There I said it.  I am indoctrinating you at the tender age of six.  That is what feminists do, you know.  We have babies just to breed more feminists.  Even the boys are subjected to the tyranny of feminism’s evilness (your brother is going to find this out in a similar letter in a few months. Can’t wait to see his face).  So now that you have been advised of your future and you have no means to escape, let me explain what this entails exactly.  It is easier to break it down into points.  We find that young female minds accept the program if information is simplified.

Point One:  Feminists like men.  In fact we love men because without them we cannot breed more feminists.  Just kidding.  Seriously, though, we like men, male feminists to exact.  Most men believe that women should be treated with respect, but many men do not recognize women as their equals.  That is a fundamental difference between male feminists and other men because although some men will argue that they respect women, equality is a dirty word.  We like,  no LOVE, the men who believe in feminism and call themselves feminists.  Not sure how to tell them apart?  See the male feminist might say “Hey girl, should I wear the condom or do you want to?”  Whereas other men will use respect as a cover for “Hey girl, I respect you, but you expect me to wear a condom?”  See the difference?  Good, let’s move on.

Point Two: Feminists value equality for everyone.  Period.  In feminism, there is no difference between skin color, sexuality, body size, gender, age, and religious creed.  We are every woman (and man), from every section of world.  We are lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals, homosexuals, pansexuals, transgender, wealthy and poor, young and old, skinny and fat, tall and short, religious, antagonistic, and atheist.  We have short hair, long hair, and no hair.  We represent every race and ethnicity.  Because of this, there are many different feminist viewpoints, which makes feminism a complicated, but a deeply satisfying movement to be a part of.

Point Three:  Feminists are not ugly (which is a highly subjective and sexist term) or manly (again sexist).  Yeah, somewhere down the lane, our desire for equality meant that all of our “feminine” qualities went out the window.  It was/is easier to call feminists ugly then to take their points seriously.  And god forbid you are attractive.  In fact, a beautiful feminist is proof positive that feminism is  an evil, evil institution that indoctrinates beautiful women to breed beautiful children, who will then become beautiful feminists.  Oops, I think I just let out a well hidden secret.  Sorry everyone.

Point Four (which is part of point three):  A lot of us do like fashion.  Now we are not slaves to fashion, but as your daddy can attest to, feminism and fashion can go hand in hand.  Again, we have to look good to lure in our prey…uh…I mean our future partners, spouses, lovers, etc.

Point Five:  Feminism will never end.  Our work will never be done and we will never disappear.  Honey, you know how you tell me that you are scared of the monsters in dark; Bloody Mary being the current ghost in the closet?  Well baby, there are bigger monsters out in the real world.  The ones you imagine will fade with time, but real ones are the scariest and the most dangerous of them all.  They are the reason we continue to fight.

Well, baby girl, these are my promises to you on your sixth birthday.  I’m sure I am missing some and I probably will think of new ones as you grow up.  But, never forget that I love you with all my heart.  Now let’s go open those really cool presents and have some cake.

With love always,

Your Feminist Historian Mom

Featured image caption: Mary Cassatt American 1844 – 1926 Maternal Caress. (Wikimedia)

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.