I am a therapist specializing in women’s mental health, and I am insatiably curious about the experiences of women. Naturally, when I started to write an article about the ways in which women can raise sons to not be sexist and instead be respectful to women, I of course was interested in how women’s own experiences of sexism might factor in.
I was raised in a family that taught girls about the respect they deserved and boys how to be respectful, and I was curious about the experiences of raising anti-sexist boys within my own family. My great grandmother, affectionately referred to as Grama Boone, had 9 children, 5 of whom were girls. For generations, girls in the family have been taught that they are just capable as boys. As a result, we have some remarkable women in our family. We are a large bunch—imagine Thanksgiving with 4 turkeys and 75 people in a rented hall to house us all. Amongst our ranks are women with PhDs in Chemistry and Biology, architects, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs, park rangers, and women in other male-dominated fields that can boast they are the best in their industry within an entire geographical area. With the encouragement and support of these women, I have dedicated my career to women’s health through the creation of a counseling and wellness center specialized in women’s mental health. We are an intergenerational female powerhouse.
When I initially reached out to these women, I received many responses to my inquiries. One point became apparent: women can find it difficult to do the emotional labor of raising boys to not be misogynistic on top of being saddled with household responsibilities, lower pay, lack of support for some, and for many, their own everyday experiences of sexism and discrimination.
Raising antisexist boys is no small feat, in other words. Stories from two cousins from this long line of empowered women particularly caught my attention. Jessica (names changed throughout) has taken a direct approach to raising her two boys to not objectify women and to be respectful to women. She learned hard lessons and chose to be alone rather than have her sons see her disrespected. Ashley has navigated a male-dominated industry under the watchful eye of her now 17-year-old son. Setting the example that all women are capable has been first priority in raising both her son and daughter.
For Jessica, the reality of being alone in her efforts to raise her sons to be respectful of women hit hard. When her two boys, now grown, were still young, Jessica returned home from running errands. Arms full of groceries, she saw her then-husband and the father of her two boys watching a wrestling tv show with them, and her heart sank. She had explicitly communicated that she did not want the boys to watch the show due to its demeaning representation of women. Her young son alerted her husband to her presence, at which point he jumped and tried to change the channel, pretending he was not going against her wishes.
When reflecting on this experience she said, “I knew then I was on my own teaching my boys to respect women.” She told me, “I realized my husband had just taught my boys to not only disrespect me, but also that it was ok to lie to me by watching the one show I asked him not to let them see.” It was part of a deep pattern, and “I knew my marriage was over.” Jessica blamed herself for what happened. She thought to herself, “you picked a real winner for your boys’ father.” She told me, “I had two choices. I could remain in this marriage and hope I could get him to realize what he had done, or leave. I chose to leave.” She spoke of the disrespect she endured until she was financially independent enough to leave.
Jessica had to monitor what her sons were exposed to and teach them how to be respectful to women while being disrespected and disregarded herself. This extra emotional labor was piled on at a time when she was already feeling alone and hurt. Eventually, she married again, and she credits her now husband, her sons’ stepfather, with setting a better example of being respectful to women. She says she regularly receives compliments about how polite her sons are and how much they act like gentlemen. She describes the relief in feeling as though “they got it,” and they understand how to truly treat women with respect.
Another cousin, Ashley, had a different experience, also difficult. Ashley’s son watched her be dismissed and treated rudely in the male-dominated field she is an expert in. This experience has shaped his view of how women should be treated. Ashley’s father and uncle owned a prominent business in the home building and repair industry in New England. She grew up on job sites, working on equipment, and learning the family trade. Her years in this technical field, and her interactions with many of the men she encountered there, made her no stranger to sexism and discrimination. But when she took over her father’s portion of the business after his death as a young mom, she struggled with how this treatment would be perceived by her son.
She told me of a time when her son and daughter, ages 7 and 4, had to accompany her to a job for a homeowner. She had spoken to the man on the phone, and because she knew her field well, she easily advised the man on how to fix the problem. As she told me, “He didn’t want to hear it and wanted a man to come fix the problem right.” When she showed up to his home with her two small children in tow, he was even less impressed. Certain of her skills, she offered to only charge the man for her service if she fixed the problem. She of course quickly remedied the situation, and the man continued to grumble in complaint. His brushoff of her was in full view of her son and daughter. She told me what she heard as she drove away: “My son’s small voice said, ‘You showed him, Mom.’” She promptly took them both for ice cream.
Ashley’s ease at remembering a time when she was discriminated against in front of her children speaks to just how much disrespect and sexism she faces in her work. She did not waver in her self-confidence, and she knew she had an example to set. She told me, “The biggest thing that I have always taught both my children is that you can always control your actions and the way you treat people. And although you [can’t] control others, you can lead by example and stay true to yourself. As with anything in life, we are not limited by our bodies but our minds.”
These stories illustrate the responses I heard from mothers of infant boys to grown men. They told me about their reactions to the Brock Turner sexual assault and the Me Too movement. They told me about their deep sense of responsibility to raise their sons to be good people, to be kind, and respectful, to know that gender roles are not always what they seem, and just as girls can like sports or trucks, boys can wear pink shoes and like unicorns. Some mothers were direct in discussions with their sons about respect, while others hoped that setting good examples would be enough. Others still struggled to know what age was appropriate for addressing these complex issues with younger boys. I learned that there is a lot you can teach your sons, that you can set the best example possible, and that you will do it while dealing with your own experiences as a woman facing sexism.
While women have the added challenge of teaching their sons how to be decent to women while facing their own mistreatment, they also have the insight that only comes from personal experience. Both Ashley and Jessica’s boys were affected by what they saw their mothers deal with and had the benefit of being taught by mothers who knew personally the weight of sexism and misogyny. This painful but eye-opening inside scoop is more impactful than a father teaching a son to be respectful to women when he has not had this experience himself. That lived experience made the lesson of how to not be misogynistic personal and more impactful.