Before I had a child, I was sitting in the dentist's office one day when I casually flipped through a magazine featuring an interview with Blake Lively. I'm not someone who follows celebrities, and I usually give up on the Oscars after 20 minutes of playing "Wait, who's that?" with my husband. But, bizarrely, this interview changed how I would parent my future child. Really, it changed the way I saw the world.
Lively said that when speaking to their daughter, Reynolds referred to bugs and animals as "she" and "her" instead of "he" and "him." She said she never thought to do this herself until Reynolds did it. This small tidbit from an otherwise forgotten article stopped me cold in my tracks, and it stuck with me long enough to influence how I spoke to my own daughter when she was born years later.
This small change in how we speak about the world can have a dramatic impact on how our children view things. I didn't realize what a male-centered world we were living in and continuing to create with our words until I read that. That's often how the most ingrained aspects of society are: we don't even realize they are changeable until someone changes them.
Why should everything be Mr. Frog and Mr. Bird? Why is our default to view the world and everything in it through a male lens? Sure, call things by their proper gender when you know it (my male dog is still very much a male dog). But for the things with ambiguous genders, let's not start out by telling our girls that they are living in a male-only world. Once your eyes are open to this, it becomes quite jarring when you realize just how much maleness is in this world.
Changing the way I addressed animals was extremely difficult. I had to correct myself over and over again. It took months before it was natural to discuss things by defaulting to female pronouns, and I still slip up sometimes, even years later. I had to do the work of unpacking and undoing what our culture has been humming in my ear since I was born: that it's a man's world.
Luckily, our daughters are young, and we can give them an advantage that we didn't have. We can hum a different tune to them. We can start to tell them, ever so subtly and in a way that they don't even notice yet, that the world is theirs, too. When my daughter sees a dolphin she says, "Look how fast she's swimming, Mama. She's so strong."
Raising a feminist daughter doesn't mean buying books for toddlers with feminist themes (though those can be nice if you're into that). It doesn't mean discussing the wage gap with a three-year-old who thinks that everything costs "30 million dollars." It means that we need to start small and work from the ground up. We need to choose female doctors and dentists so they see the achievements and power women have in their real lives. They need to see their fathers (or the other men in their life) doing the dishes and folding the laundry. They need to hear how strong and smart they are. We need to create a world where they can look up at the sky and dream about who they'll become, then look down at the ground and see a caterpillar creeping along and think, "I wonder where she's going." We need to surround them with the idea that they belong in this world.