Friday, December 4, 2009

What is feminist parenting?

In order to develop a working definition of feminist parenting, I have combined the findings of three studies on feminist parenting with definitions of feminist parenting found in edited volumes and other scholarly works on the subject. Much of the research I used to form my definition of feminist parenting was found in sources on feminist mothering and needed to be appropriated by applying to them the gender neutral term parenting. What I eventually developed was a list of characteristics, values, and behaviors found in families that practice feminist parenting.***

Characteristics, Values & Behaviors
Several studies indicate that neither sex nor biological relationship determine what makes a good or appropriate parent. Likewise, the number or marital status of parents, or sexual orientation of parents are equally inadequate in determining the capability of a parent. What does matter is the quality and type of parenting performed by whatever parents are available.*

The first characteristic of feminist parenting is that it can be done by any person who takes responsibility for a child and that it will promote the acceptance of a diverse definition of what constitutes a family. Therefore, for the purposes of defining feminist parenting, the word parent should not imply gender or genetic relation. Similarly, when used in the plural it should not imply a specific relationship (i.e. married, divorced…), romantic or otherwise, between the parents.

When more than one parent is present, all parents in a feminist family will share equally in the physical and emotional work of caring for children regardless of sex or gender identity. Children also share in household responsibilities at an age appropriate level so as to teach them responsibility, fairness, and practical skills for self-reliance. Both children and parents perform domestic duties that are atypical for their sex in a conscious effort to challenge traditional gender roles.

Feminist parents encourage open communication between all family members. Decisions are made as inclusively and democratically as appropriate to the child’s age and level of understanding. “It is inevitable that parents have more power than children” because they “have more knowledge and skill, control more resources, and ultimately have the physical power (at least when the children are young) to pick up…or physically restrain” their children. In instances when a parent must make a decision based on their parental authority (i.e. physically restraining a child to prevent them from harm or refusing to buy a coveted item), feminist parents communicate their reasoning for these decisions to their children. Despite the inevitable necessity for a parent to make some decisions despite their child’s wishes, parental authority is not taken for granted and children are not discouraged from questioning excessive or unfair use of adult authority. This open and inclusive communication and decision making allows for a warm and intimate parent-child relationship.

Children of feminist parents learn to challenge not only patriarchy and sexism but the idea of hierarchy itself. Parents encourage and model acceptance of diversity. Parents engage children in discussions about imbalances of power between groups of people based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other discriminating characteristics and teach them to recognize discrimination. Children are taught to view the world through a feminist lens and to think critically about the dominant culture.

Because children are taught to think critically and parents include them in decision making processes, children learn to be self-reliant, have self-governance and mutual respect. These skills allow parents give them appropriate levels of autonomy. Having children participate in household chores, allowing them autonomy and an open communication process is empowering to all members of the family. This also helps prepare children for interaction with the world outside of the family which may not hold the same values as they or their parents or where they may encounter discrimination.
Styles of Parental Control

The field of developmental psychology has developed four styles of parental control. These parenting styles have been researched extensively and produce differing outcomes. Because feminism is based on an understanding of power and control, it is useful in understanding and defining feminist parenting to understand the power and control dynamics associated with it. It is additionally beneficial that there is research on the outcomes of the parenting styles put forth by the field of developmental psychology because this research will be useful in deriving outcomes of feminist parenting later.

… Each of these four styles of parental control (authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent & neglectful) has an associated level of parental involvement, acceptance and warmth. …

The authoritative parent accepts that they have some authority over their children but encourages negotiation of rules and standards, prefers open communication and reasoning with children rather than punishment, is judgmental, allows appropriate levels of autonomy, and encourage free thinking and expression of feelings. These parents are described as very involved, displaying high levels of warmth toward and acceptance of children. Although the parent has slightly more power than the child, there is more of a balance of power between them. [This slight power imbalance is due to the parents’ inevitable control of access to resources and societal responsibility. It is important to note that authoritative parents intentionally do not use this inevitability to control the child].

...[This] authoritative style of parenting control is most similar to the feminist parenting style. Feminist parents use as little authority as necessary to parent and encourage their children to actively engage in decision making processes similar to that of the authoritarian parents described by the developmental psychologists. This is an interesting correlation since feminists refute the idea of hierarchy and fight for equality of power.
Joint parenting

Another type of parenting developed by the field of family studies, although inspired by the feminist movement, is joint or shared parenting. Joint parenting involves the sharing of household and childrearing responsibilities. This form of parenting does help to level the amount of work that each parent performs and encourages equal participation in work outside of the home. The main goal of sharing the work of parenting is to empower both parents, particularly the mother, which is also an aspect of feminist parenting.


Simply combining shared-parenting with authoritative parenting does not equal feminist parenting, however. In order to practice feminist parenting the parents must identify as feminists. They must consciously instill in their children an awareness of intersectionality and other feminist values as well as the ability to view the world critically through a feminist lens.

Feminist parenting provides significantly positive outcomes for children and studies show clear evidence of transmission of feminist values down the generational line. Children of feminist parents are more accepting of diversity, recognize discrimination, “have a willingness to challenge oppression” and a desire to change society. Children are also more self-reliant, autonomous and have the ability to think critically.

Parents also benefit from feminist parenting in that all parents regardless of sex are empowered and respected by their co-parents and children. Relationships between feminist parents in romantic partnerships are more equitable and satisfying to both sexes. Parents also benefit from their children’s heightened political awareness and feminist consciousness. Because children are allowed to openly communicate and debate with their parents the transmission of feminist values becomes reciprocal.

If we take a moment to extrapolate from the proven outcomes of feminist parenting the possibilities for social change and the feminist movement it becomes clear that this is a significant step toward the goal of equality. Patriarchy and other oppressive structures have gained their power in having been naturalized through patriarchal ideas and practices of family. Just as patriarchy and power imbalances have been naturalized by the patriarchal family, so to must we naturalize equality through feminist parenting.
In order to accomplish this, we need more literature on feminist parenting methods with inclusive language and better readability that is readily available for consumption by anyone looking for parenting information. It is important to develop practical methodologies of feminist parenting that enable us to move from theory to praxis.

*** This is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote. Citations have been removed for increased readability. If you are interested in the full paper with reference list, please contact me and I will gladly send you a copy to review in exchange for comments. I plan to continue my research in graduate school and welcome as much "constructive criticism" and feedback as I can get.***

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Feminist Review of Parenting Literature


With hundreds of parenting books on the market to guide us through our children’s development and give us an idea of “What to Expect” (Murkoff, 1984-2008) one would think that among them all there would be at least a few on how to parent from a feminist perspective. My search at the beginning of my pregnancy found this to sadly be untrue. Almost all of the books on feminist parenting focus exclusively on the mother and overcoming the trappings of being a mother in the patriarchal family. I was lucky to find one or two with a chapter that briefly discussed the act of feminist parenting. In addition, all of these books were written with the mother as the intended audience and addressing her as the primary caretaker (which is disconcerting considering the books’ focus on the necessity of joint-parenting).

I was even more disappointed with the lack of useful feminist parenting books when I found in the mass of mainstream parenting books (which are, for the most part, similarly directed toward women as the primary caretakers of children) entire books specifically for fathers who are either the primary caretakers of their children or who are actively participating in joint parenting. No such book exists for feminist fathers. These “fathering” books are readily available in well-known bookstores and bookseller websites. It is disappointing to see such availability of fathering books when there is no equivalent amongst feminist parenting literature. With no alternative to these mainstream parenting guides, fathers are lead to believe there is only one ideal definition of an adequate father.

After exhausting my resources to find a book that would offer guidance and insight into the practice of feminist parenting through the mainstream market, I turned to academia and began searching for articles, studies and books that might give me some direction. The feminist literature mostly focused on the plight of the mother with little attention to the practices, challenges or outcomes of feminist parenting. There are some narratives by women who are feminist parents or who were parented by a feminist, but these lack analysis or guidance. With the exception of one compilation (Taylor 1994), these narratives are found in various feminist compilations but not as a part of a specific compilation on feminist parenting for ready access by anyone looking to learn about the subject. Other narratives and compilations focus solely on mothering and women in the role of mother.

I have found a few books on the practice of shared parenting (Ehrensaft, 1987; Deutsch, 1999) but these do not necessarily incorporate feminist ideologies. Although shared parenting does challenge traditional patriarchal family roles and will have some non-sexist ideology influences and outcomes, simply sharing parenting responsibilities alone will not instill feminist values in our children. There needs to be a deeper understanding of feminist ideologies such as intersectionality and why we challenge traditional gender roles.

With so little information on the methodology of feminist parenting, I began to wonder if such a theory of methodology exists in feminist studies. It seemed to me that the idea is latent in feminist writing about motherhood and parenting but the issue has never been addressed directly. There exists no “how-to” on feminist parenting and there is a serious need for research and literature on the methodology and praxis of feminist parenting.

After mining through journals and anthologies on every subject from child development and family studies to women’s studies, I found a few useful studies specifically on the practice and outcomes of feminist parenting (ironically none of which originated in feminist publications) and a collection of narratives and poetry about feminist parenting

Literature Review

In this [blog] I will discuss the existing literature on both feminist and non feminist parenting. I will discuss the gendered language used in each and give an overview of their perspectives and the audience each address. I will also discuss the availability and readability of the different types of parenting literature discussed.

Non-Feminist Literature

General Parenting Guides

The What to Expect (Murkoff, 1984-2008) series has been the parenting and pregnancy guide for more than twenty years. It is currently the best selling childcare series (The New York Times, 2009). Although there are hundreds of other books on childcare and parenting, the What to Expect (Murkoff, 1984-2008) books are the childcare books we hear about the most from friends, family and media. The majority of parenting guides are modeled, to some extent, after these books and the language and audience are all very similar. For this reason, and because it would be nearly impossible to review the hundreds of parenting guides on the market, I will use this as my example of non-feminist general parenting guide.

There is no doubt that the What to Expect (Murkoff, 1984-2008) series is the most readily available parenting guide on the market. It is widely available in stores and online. The series is written in plain English which makes it easily readable by anyone who picks it up. Although predominantly directed at the mother, I was pleased to find that the sections on bathing, changing and other care were gender neutral and even included pictures of men performing these tasks. Sections on breastfeeding were understandably directed at the mother and there are even tips on how to include the father if you chose to breastfeed exclusively. However, when it comes to questions of bonding, nurturing, or soothing these sections are almost exclusively directed toward the mother. There is less than one fifth of one page in the section on bonding (Murkoff, 2003, p. 115) about fathers bonding with their newborns and it directed the father to the one chapter on new fathers.

Although the book often uses the term ‘partner’ when referring to the parent other than the mother, there is no mention in any of the What to Expect books (Murkoff, 1984-2008) about alternative parents or lifestyles. The books are exclusively directed at heterosexual couples with children. The only exceptions to this are a few very small segments on adoption. There is no mention of race or class and the buying guides seemed to assume the parents reading it had little concern regarding costs as emphasis was on product features rather than affordability.

Joint Parenting Guides

Most books about shared parenting are written for divorced heterosexual couples attempting to play nice with joint custody. There are a few books that are about two parents in the same household sharing the responsibility and workload of caring for their children. The two that I found that dealt with this type of parenting were Parenting Together (Ehrensaft, 1987) and Halving It All (Deutsch, 1999) are also directed at heterosexual couples. These joint parenting “guides” are really studies done on shared parenting. They are not written in highly academic language which makes them reader friendly and although not specifically written as advice books, offer insight into how to go about sharing parenting responsibilities.

Although Ehrensaft (1987) describes herself in the introduction of Parenting Together as “an active participant in the feminist movement” (p. 1), the book is not about feminist parenting. The book does focus on the transmissions of gender attitudes to children but no other feminist principles. She also primarily refers to the nurturing and caring aspect of parenting as mothering. In two of her chapters “The New Mothering Duet” and “The Child with Two Mothers,” Ehrensaft points out on several occasions that both parents are biologically capability of “mothering” but does little to move away from the gendering of these aspects of parenting in her use of language. For example, “The Child with Two Mothers” deals with the issue of attachment of a child to two parents acting as “mother.” This contradiction between ideology and language sends the message that parenting is a still a female/feminine task but it is okay for men to do instead of relaying the message that parenting is neither a gendered nor a sex-specific task that both parents should undertake equally.

In Halving It All (Deutsch, 1999), the language is less focused on the sharing of “mothering” and more on the sharing of parenting responsibilities and equality between the parenting partners. Despite the lack of other feminist principles there is a strong effort by Deutsch (1999) to “de-gender” parenthood in a section entitled “From Motherhood and Fatherhood to Parenthood” (pp. 233-235).

Feminist Literature

Mothering & Motherhood

Although there are many books amongst feminist literature on motherhood and mothering, one of the best known is Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978). Although this book is an important and valuable contribution to the literature on feminist parenting, it offers little guidance or insight into practicing feminist parent. This book was essential in defining the problem of patriarchal motherhood but did little to de-gender parenting. She refers to the nurturing aspect of childrearing as mothering and assumes a family in which there is a female and a male parent; a family form that is not universal although it is assumed to be by both Chodorow and society. Chodorow’s solution to breaking the cycle of reproducing traditional motherhood is to teach boys to be nurturing and caring so that these traits will carry into their adulthood and parenting. She does little beyond this to outline a solution or to include men in the definition of parenting but instead demands that men take part in ‘mothering’ their children. Additionally, this psychoanalytical feminist work is very dense and not an easy read, making it less accessible to the average parent.

Chodorow is not alone is focusing on the plight of mothers under a patriarchal ideal of family. In Recreating Motherhood, Rothman (1989) discusses the lack of value placed on women’s genetic material, the capitalistic view of mothers and children as laborers and products, respectively, and the problems mothers face with the increase in technology and medicalization of motherhood and birth. Similarly, Nanko-Glenn, Chang & Forcey’s (1994) compilation includes sections on how traditional motherhood is constructed and how to deconstruct it, but there is no focus on how to parent as a feminist. The latter two books do offer some intersectional insight into the dilemma of traditional motherhood, which is a welcome step forward from Chodorow’s work.

A more recent publication, Feminist Mothering (O’Reilly, 2008) is a collection of articles and studies on feminist mothering. A reprint of the only study on feminist parenting (Mack-Canty & Wright, 2004) that does not focus on the mother is found in this compilation but the remaining chapters are focused on mothers exclusively. The book does provide information on transmitting feminist values to future generations and various pieces on intersectionality. As with the other books on mothering and motherhood the language is very academic, the content is dense and almost exclusively addresses women.


Books on feminist parenting as a practice were the hardest to find. Only two books surfaced in my search: Non-Sexist Childrearing (Carmichael, 1977) and Integrating Gender and Culture in Parenting (Zimmerman, 2002). Carmichael’s book is a useful and readable combination of research and narratives that provide examples of how to raise a child with a feminist consciousness and without stereotypical gender roles. It addresses both feminist fathers and mothers and even challenges feminist women with the idea of “female chauvinism.” Her book is definitely an asset to the literature on feminist parenting but it is dated at more than thirty years old and lacks the intersectionality of today’s feminism.

Zimmerman’s edited volume Integrating Gender and Culture in Parenting also gives some straight forward examples of strategies and activities to challenge gender, race and class stereotypes in childrearing. Unfortunately, the accessibility and readability ends with the introduction to the book. Although it includes the needed intersectionality and some practical advice on feminist parenting, beyond the introduction the reader is bombarded with scholarly writing and data rendering the remainder of the book much less useful.

Onc collection of narratives and poetry on feminist parenting surfaced in my research. In Taylor’s (1994) collection she explicit states in the introduction that the book “is not a how-to” but a collection of stories in which parents attempt to bring “a feminist consciousness into their childrearing” (p. 2). This book does include narrative of both men and women as feminist parents, as well as narratives about parents gaining feminist insight from their children. It is a readable and inspiring collection but it lacks the practical advice on feminist parenting needed in feminist literature.

Narratives about feminist parenting and growing up in feminist families are found throughout feminist literature. Unfortunately most these pieces are scattered amongst many different compilations and are rarely grouped together for the purpose of communicating information about feminist parenting and a significant number of them only describe situations involving feminist mothers. Also the “how-to” information on feminist parenting must be deduced from the literature.
Few exist on feminist parenting and only three could be found that explicitly researched the outcomes and practices of feminist families and each study had a slightly different focus. Green (2009) focuses on feminist mothers, White (2006) focuses on African American feminist fathers, and Mack-Canty and Wright (2004) focus on feminist families of various forms. These studies proved invaluable to defining feminist parenting and provide a significant benefit to the feminist scholarship on parenting. However, they are scholarly research found in peer reviewed journals that are not readily accessible by most parents. Additionally, two of the studies were not found in feminist publications. Mack-Canty and Wright’s (2004) study is found in The Journal of Family Issues and White’s (2006) study is found in The Journal of Black Psychology. While it is refreshing to find feminism seeping into other fields of study, it is disconcerting that these studies are not readily available amongst the feminist literature and that they were not carried out with the intention of publication in feminist journals.

*** This is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote. Citations have been removed for increased readability. If you are interested in the full paper with reference list, please contact me and I will gladly send you a copy to review in exchange for comments. I plan to continue my research in graduate school and welcome as much "constructive criticism" and feedback as I can get.***