Opinion Raising feminist sons seemed easy. A daughter? Much trickier.

The author, Kate Cohen, with her daughter. (Katye Brier for The Washington Post)
The author, Kate Cohen, with her daughter. (Katye Brier for The Washington Post)
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When I was a young mother, I was certain my husband and I could raise our two boys to be feminists. We took all the necessary steps. They got a clunky but equitable surname and painted toenails upon request.

They also got a male role model with traditionally “masculine” jobs (farmer, builder) but also plenty of stereotypically “feminine” traits. He bonded with babies, treasured his female friends and wept through the opening sequence of “Up.” For my part, I could teach them to cook, write thank-you notes and not be grossed out by menstruation.

Picture me whistling down the road with a double stroller, confident that we could bring up fair-minded and whole human beings.

Now picture me stopping in my tracks when I learned that our third child would be … a girl.

What would she learn from my example? That women do the cooking and write the thank-you notes? That mothers put their families first? Sure, my husband did that, too, but when he did it, it was progress; when I did it, it was the 1950s all over again.

Even worse: As a feminist, I was good on theory but mediocre in practice. I shied from conflict, craved approval and reflexively deferred to male authority. I knew that trying to get thinner to conform to patriarchal beauty standards was a betrayal both of my intrinsic self-worth and of women everywhere, and yet every day, I tried anyway. Every single day.

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What if my daughter grew up to be like me?

I was on guard from the moment she was born. No Barbie dolls shall breach this perimeter! But as soon as she went to preschool, princesses and teen pop stars entered her consciousness and worked their Disney magic. At age 3, she would wear only dresses and announced, to her brothers’ consternation, that pink was a “girl color.”

I couldn’t control her taste, I thought, but I could control myself. I made sure to praise her brains and not her looks. I refrained from counting calories in her presence. And I stopped hugging her without permission.

That last one took me longer than I like to admit. She was 12, and the #MeToo movement was pointing out just how casually and commonly girls had their bodily autonomy taken from them. I realized how often I had made her kiss this or that relative whether she wanted to or not, ignoring her reluctance in the name of politeness.

I began to ask for permission before hugging her. When she said no, I felt a kind of woeful joy. As a girl, I had not fully believed I had a right to my own body; maybe, as a woman, I still didn’t. But she did.

So when she started wearing makeup and asked for a razor to shave her legs, I was conflicted. Clearly, she was under the sway of the patriarchal beauty standards I so desperately wanted her to defy. But just as clearly, she was defying us.

Growing up, I had done the opposite: declined to wear mascara or shave my legs or even pierce my ears, not for myself but because I didn’t want to disappoint my left-wing father. That’s right: I totally stuck it to the patriarchy to please a male authority figure.

Needless to say, I bought my daughter the damn razor. Who was I to lecture her?

I had the same feeling when she fought with her dad, which she did often as a young teen: heated skirmishes between two strong-willed people whose politics were close enough to clash. Visiting her afterward in her room — no, she did not want a hug — I was tempted to suggest that she yell less and placate more. Be more like me, in other words.

But I didn’t. I was astonished that she could make a smart, passionate argument and stand her ground. The least I could do was refrain from chastising her for it.

Her stance on makeup has since shifted, but her sense of self-possession hasn’t budged. The other day, while she was arguing with her father, her brother sat beside her heckling nonstop. Annoyed, she paused midsentence and turned to him. “I get that you like to make fun of me,” she said, “but wait until I’ve finished what I’m saying and then make fun of me.” He shut up. And she turned back to her father to finish making her point.

I pictured her then with a sword in each hand, parrying with her left while advancing with her right. She definitely didn’t learn that from her mother. But I hope I have modeled one lesson for my daughter: It’s never too late to do better.

Maybe one day I’ll grow up to be like her.

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