Happy International Women’s Day!
I’m squarely in mid-life, 42 years old, a mom to two, no longer a “young” doctor or young entrepreneur or young voice. Perhaps because of that, I’m starting to see things differently when it comes to raising boys and girls to support equality.
I’m a feminist. I think that means I don’t want gender/sex to get in the way of any individual. I was raised with a mom and dad who didn’t present a world of possibilities different for me than the one they presented for my brother. At least not that I could see. I’ve been mentored, supported, encouraged, and nurtured as a woman in the workplace, and a mother in my community, by female mentors like my mom and my advisor in college (a professor of psychology who studies gender), current and past colleagues, advisors, employers and co-workers, and dear friends. But more than ever before I’m feeling the profound support I’ve had from men in my life to be an active, striving-for-equal opportunity physician and advocate. In some ways it’s easier for me because I have the fortune to work as a physician in pediatrics, a field of physicians with a majority of women. In fact, 3/4 of the pediatric resident physicians in the US are women. It’s complicated though, so if interest consider reading, “The Good and Bad Statistics On Women In Medicine.”
However, now more than ever,
I’m starting to feel it isn’t my voice that will make things better for equal rights at large as time unfolds, it’s the voice of my boys.
Obviously this isn’t only about women supporting women. My strongest and perhaps most loyal advisors during my medical school education and during my residency training were both men who have helped me see and also helped me strategically carve out ways to get work done while also having children. I’d describe my residency mentor as one of the biggest feminists I’ve ever known. His feminism and support for me persist in my work and life. Exhibit A: I posted a photo in my pink hat on the day of the Women’s March in January and he was the first to comment saying, “I’m with you, Wendy.” He’s 40 years my senior and carries with him an elegant view of different ways to contribute to pediatric health care and also enjoy raising children of my own. Circa 2005, I vividly remember him drawing out, on a napkin, the different kind of career trajectories one could have in pediatrics and public health, describing them in terms of typical gender norms and roles and stating that I could do this — this career and life — any way that fit with my ethos, energy, passion, and tempo. I could adapt a “male” trajectory or a historically “female” one but that all models could work for all people.
Boys and men in my life do show me also how much they include me. Of course, I’ve felt discrimination, too. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the BIG opportunity of NOW.
Raising Boys And Girls Who Nurture Equality
In the near middle (half way to college!) of raising two little boys, during this profound and illuminated time for girls and women in history, and I say let’s tap on the shoulder of little boys and men today. Deliberately. So much opportunity for girls and women to have equal rights, equal pay, and equal perception of opportunity in their lives rests not in the work of loud and quiet women but in the voices of men who support equal rights.
Today I’m quietly (or not so quietly now) wearing red. I’m not alone here in Seattle. At school drop-off I saw red shoes, red purses, red sweaters, and red down jackets. The welcome note on my 2nd-grader’s chalk board celebrated International Women’s Day in red pen, nonetheless. When I saw it, I felt a pang of regret that I didn’t make more a to-do this morning about my little boys wearing red. Perhaps we’ll suit up in red for dinner.
Do-overs are okay here.
Equal rights, we’ll keep working for them for all children, all minorities, all of the underserved, the vulnerable, and those without the strongest voices. But today I’m reminded how very much we must get our boys and the men in the midst to share their support for girls and women in STEM, in leadership, and in life.
It’s women who largely will wear red today, sure. But it’s my hope we’re raising children into a new world where each year more and more men wear the red, too. We need to call this out when we see it, endorse and celebrate it. I’m getting more deliberate. When my family recently watched Hidden Figures, I stopped the movie a couple of times to show my boys what was happening explicitly. How male characters in the story helped take a sledgehammer (literally in one scene) to racism and sexism carving a path for women mathematicians at NASA. How men were encouraging and literately plowing opportunities for their female, black colleagues. I remember saying to my boys something like:
You may never have a chance to fight for equal rights in a way that feels this dramatic or poetic, like they do in this movie. But you might. And if you do — take the opportunity — and remember these images as a great example of brilliant strength. By celebrating and advancing women’s voices you’ll not only advance their understanding, science, and work but your own opportunities, too. No question in my mind.
There are countless articles written about how companies do better when women are included in leadership roles.
There is infinite hope in equal pay and what that will mean for families in the US.
There is boundless smarts in acknowledging we need to keep evolving to support girls and women.
I’m not writing a “how to” here. I’m just hoping we can all talk about International Women’s Day at dinner or bedtime tonight. Get ideas from our people at home on how to support equal rights in an every-day way. No more tip-toeing, I say. Let’s tap on the shoulder of girls and women, yes, but all the boys and men in our lives today, too. So much of the velocity of equal rights for women is held in their hands…
Karen Lewis says
Cage-rattling, worthwhile challenges start at home. And fortunately echoed at school. This teacher clearly provides leadership to people within her circle. Grandma thanks for this celebratory post to the task yet-unfinished.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
She IS quiet the teacher — one who constantly looks into the situation to think about discussing what really matters. We are grateful for all of those who help us raise our boys and so triumphantly thankful for the teachers in our lives.
Thank you for writing this. As a feminist mom to a son, I am constantly thinking how to raise him to be a feminist too and help him understand the stereotypes and struggles in the world so he too can advocate for equality. Great article.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thank you, Danna!
On vacation recently, I was sitting with my husband and our daughter by the pool. There were a group of older (my age) guys drinking and talking loudly together (in the kiddie pool – in front of my 10-year-old daughter) while their wives were tending the kids at the very bitty kid pool at the other end. The guys talked loudly about whose wife was fat, who was still hot, who was getting some and other such fabulous topics. There were talks of drinks and sports, but lots of talk of sex. There were no other open seats, so my husband and I turned our family’s chairs to face away from the guys and tried to engage our daughter and distract her. At one point, she leaned in close to me and said “you know, I don’t think these guys are Papa’s people.” I thought about the good fortune my daughter has had to have been surrounded by a ton of great men who are ‘Papa’s People”. I’m grateful that your husband is one of his people, and I’m so glad you are raising boys who will also be “Papa’s People”. The world needs a whole lot of good men – Power to Papa’s People!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Ooofdah. Our children certainly are keenly aware of what’s going on, what feels “right” and what fits into their own schema. It’s lovely to see a child define what makes sense and what is respect (and what isn’t). Thanks for your kind words — yes, I do feel surrounded mostly by men in my life who work just as hard as I do to make certain that gender/sex isn’t holding back ideas and opportunity. Like Sheryl Sandberg noted in her book Lean In, so often we women are able to contribute and work and give and be who we are in our workplaces and communities in part because of our partners. A big huge truth for me in this wild ride. Yesterday, Jonathan wore red, too!
Sometimes when something like this happens in my life I think on the power of negative role models. At times their voices are more potent than the beautiful good ones. But it’s a skill to be gracious and thankful for the negative role models — I feel like we can use them to continue to remind ourselves who we don’t want to be to not only define our margins but boost up the energy we have to live intentionally, with kindness, and in ways that support those we don’t even yet understand.
Thanks for taking the time to leave this comment. And for sharing your good fortune!
This is my first time running across your blog and I’m glad I did. I’m the mom of two boys, ages 12 and 14. Both have attended progressive, social justice-oriented schools in Ballard and had great role modeling in their lives. But my older one, especially, is very sensitive and headstrong. As his teenage/high school emotions are coming strongly into play, it’s harder than ever to figure out the best ways to support his independent growth as a feminist young man as his inclination at this stage is to push boundaries and not just take authority without testing it or accept others’ values/judgments over his own. He is particularly sensitive to his own feelings and experiences with “justice” and “authenticity” (which as this stage have more selfish inclinations than they did during his middle school years). As a young white male with constant messaging swirling about him regarding equality that (to him) doesn’t feel inclusive of his own challenges, I am aware on a daily basis of how important it is to emotionally and intellectually nurture and have healthy dialogue with this next generation of men. Teenagers are fascinating and challenging and growing up in an ever-more-hard-to-explain world. We’re on the look-out for fresh role models and targeted inspiration in these tangled times.