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Raising a feminist

I had a feminist awakening in my early twenties, and since then I’ve become passionate about analyzing female characters in books and films with a critical eye. I search for strong female leads whose identities are not defined by the men in their lives. Now, as a parent of a seven-year-old boy, I wonder about the gender schema he constructs from the texts he interacts with, as well as the messages he receives from the wider society. I want him to be unfettered by repressive binaries that dictate what girls and boys should be, for both women’s and men’s liberation.

I wasted too many of my teenage years chasing the Cinderella ideal, affected by the roles I observed of many women around me, the passivity of women and girls in many books I read and films I watched, and in the subtexts of my socialization. It took years for me to unlearn the negative messages of self-worth, to gain back the confidence in myself and the power of my own ideas, after an adolescence spent learning to accept “mansplaining”* [see footnote below] expertise. Now I desperately search for strong female leads, as I yearn for the inspiration and hope these leads create in me.

So how can I help my son, Miles, develop a different schema from the one I see in so much of the media; how can I counter the sickening sexist messages that even some of our nation’s leaders seem no longer ashamed to model and display?

* * * * *

Happily, more and more of the books and films that Miles encounters pass comics creator Alison Bechdel’s feminist test** [see footnote below]. The Magic Tree House and Geronimo Stilton series feature confident and self-sufficient female leads, especially in comparison to some series from my childhood. Recent children’s films, such as Moana and Zootopia, offer strong female characters who outsmart men and do not exist solely to find a male. Recently, I’ve observed my son explore graphic novels, including Low Riders in Space, the Apartment 3-G comic, Zita the Spacegirl, and Space Dumplins, all of which feature leading female protagonists, strong and intelligent in their own right, as well as  other characters who challenge restrictive gender schema.

My son’s school librarian encourages children of all genders to explore books that don’t promote binary gender roles. The Amulet, a graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi, has captured my son’s imagination (and jolted his reading development). This series centers around a young girl, Emily (and her family, but she takes center stage), who discovers her own magic and power as a stonekeeper and saves the world in multiple ways. Now on the third book in the series, I watch him across from me on the couch, spellbound to such a degree that he is determined to read the books on his own.

The series has boosted his reading fluency and his awareness of the excitement of fantasy…and recently I’ve been struck by its possible effect on his thinking about gender roles.

* * * * *

Since Miles was younger, we’ve engaged in drawing pictures, acting out stories, or making books in response to things we read together. Miles’s latest self-made book, created in response to finishing the third Amulet volume (as well as seeing the movie Moana), struck me as decisively feminist.

This twelve-page mini-book, made by stapling several pages together, is entitled Our One Hope. It depicts the main character, Ella, as she experiences tragedy, trains with a master, and eventually moves out of her everyday role as soccer player and daughter and into a role as warrior savior of the world.

Wow. Girl power! It passes the Bechdel test. Does it assure me that something is going right? Does it show me that our critical discussions around the problematic gender roles in certain stories have paid off? Does it show that he has become accustomed to strong female leads and has come to see them as a matter of course? Does it mean that he himself will feel liberated from stifling societal schema surrounding masculinity as well?

Hard to say, but whatever it shows, I am inspired by Ella, and my hope is that more and more girls like her will rise up and take the lead when we so desperately need them. My parallel hope is that more and more boys will rise up and express roles true to their core and feel free to be who they are. Our feminist project is in no way a parenting issue reserved for parents of daughters. It is a parenting issue for parents of all genders; the books and media that capture our children’s imaginations, and the conversations and responses surrounding them, contain tremendous power for fueling the revolution.


*Rebecca Solnit’s recent Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books) captured this phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.

**The Bechdel test is a list of criteria to evaluate films, assessing the female roles from a feminist perspective. A film is usually said to pass the Bechdel test if:

  1. The movie has at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man (

An alarming number of films do not pass this criteria, even in recent years. And if you add my requirement of a strong female lead, even more films and books fall short.

Summer Clark About Summer Clark

Summer Clark is assistant professor of literacy education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on literacy, diversity, and education for social justice. Her writing has appeared in The Reading Teacher and The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (3rd edition).



  1. Linda A Pursley says:

    So happy this was featured in ICYMI! I will try to figure out how to follow. Cheers for Miles!

  2. Great list! I would also love to (respectfully) suggest, ‘Space Bugs and Selfies!’ an empowering story for 5-10s about a little girl who is pressured to change from her muddy, messy self to fit in with the ‘pretty-princess girls’ but stays true to herself, and her imagination. Also, lot’s of good, silly farting fun!

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