How Having a Son Made Me a Feminist
August 12, 2016
By Ian McCall, Alpha 2016 Fellow
As the first boy born in two generations, I grew up doted on by superwomen. I was raised by my mother, her sisters, and their mother – Grandmama, the most fearless one of all.
Grandmama was basically a Marine Corps Sergeant. She didn’t really sleep, she just laid down – usually last – and was always the first one up the next day. Grandmama policed us from her recliner using a system of mirrors triangulated to show every corner of the house. The mirrors were decoration, instruments of vanity, and a home surveillance system.
Her domain was vast, spanning the household, the finances, the calendar, family health, and anything else she wanted to shield from my grandfather, who ran a construction crew. Grandmama made every decision, or she would tell the decision maker what decision to make. In all things and on all fronts, there was only Grandmama’s way. She wasn’t disruptive or argumentative. She was just always right.
Grandmama’s drill-instructor brand of love forged her daughters into iron-fisted women. They made eye contact. They said what they meant. They were frighteningly intelligent – a gang of lionesses on the hunt, who could filet a man with their words and leave his ego splayed across the hood of his car for the vultures.
On the other hand, my grandfather, father to three girls, had not always known what to make of them. He’d grown up hearing that daughters were liabilities. “They can’t do nothing but sit up in the house and spit out more mouths to feed,” his father had warned him, repeatedly.
My great-grandmother – Grandma Margaret – had the vision her husband lacked. Well after my great-grandfather had died, she lay on her deathbed, and her son sat by her bedside, frustrated and confused.
“Mama what can I do with them?” he asked. “They’re girls. What can they do?”
“You educate your girls,” she told him. “They can do anything anyone else can do. Things are going to change.”
My grandfather believed her. And he later believed in empowering everyone he came into contact with, from his construction crew (who got regular bonuses), to his wife (who he brought to work with the men when she wanted) to his daughters, whose ways through college he paid for with cash, from laying bricks at 25 cents a piece.
I’ve come to suspect that it was due to this upbringing that my social circles always resembled the paradigm I most understood – a tribe of women with me at their center.
Eventually I found myself as the official photographer at a reproductive-rights rally. I’d gotten involved because I was dating a woman who volunteered with the host organization, Georgians For Choice. Wherever she was, I wanted to be.
For the first time, I was around women who were openly lesbian, sharing fruit platters with women in transition. I’d been exposed to queer people, but I’d always found their sexual orientations dizzying, and I’d certainly never been in an environment where there were more of them than there were of me.
At this point in my life I was still very much an ex-grunt. I saw every room I entered in slices, kept track of exits and entrances everywhere I went. I got along better with civilians than some of the fellows I served with, but under the surface, I was just as isolated out here as was any monkey shot into space.
For some reason, I was comfortable around these women. They didn’t judge me; they too were renegades. Mavericks. They were some of the realest, most complex human beings I’d met since getting out.
And most of all, they were the first people I’d found in my adult life who were talking about ideas.
Once more, I found myself surrounded and shaped by a tribe of women, as I was the only man I ever saw there. But I’d never been around women like these. They were socially conscious. Politically informed. Righteously angry. And they went to work on me immediately. I quickly learned that everything I said was misogynistic. And whether I liked it or not, most of what I did was chauvinist and pigheaded. “Would you even think to say that to a man?” became the question of the hour.
I’d gotten out of the military very aware that society was jacked up, but without a clue how the world really worked. It was through the consciousness of feminists that my awareness expanded to include the history of Western imperialism, the prison and military industrial complexes, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the difference between democracies and republics.
I didn’t realize it then, but the foundation of my resocialization into the world was being built.
I’d always been conscious of injustice because I’d lived my life as a racial minority. But as a Black man, my entry into understanding oppression was racial. I had the option of being awake to sexism and misogyny when and if I wanted to.
Most Black men miss this reality. Like most Black men, I’d never had to consider the multiplicative effect of race and gender on Black women, even though the women who’d raised me battled it right in front of me my whole life. Perhaps I saw the battle and without understanding, mistook it for power.
I wondered if my upbringing had given me a false sense of what women were actually up against. It dawned on me that the women in my family seemed “strong-willed” because I was used to women suppressing their wills everywhere else I encountered them. I’d overlooked the obvious: the women in my family had all been to college and were successfully employed, but they still didn’t hold any real power out in the world. I remembered that after 20 years, my mom was passed over for a job she’d trained others to do twice.
I realized I’d been calling them superwomen for all the wrong reasons. They weren’t superwomen because they were smart and opinionated and decisive. They were superwomen because they dared to assert these qualities in a world that didn’t think Black women should be any of these things.
My mother was not a superwoman for raising us by herself; she had no other choice. She was a superwoman for raising us to know no ceilings, while the ceiling she was pressed up against suffocated her. She was super because even though she had no clue how to raise a man, she single-handedly raised a feminist.
At age 32 I found out I was expecting a daughter. My first thought was that I wanted her to be a woman of power, a mighty lioness like those I’d encountered throughout my life. My second thought was that I wasn’t sure if I was equipped to protect her from all the odds against her. What if she was so pretty that nothing else about her was taken seriously? What if she wasn’t pretty at all? How would I explain to her that prettiness would have no bearing over the success of any little brother she might one day have?
I was confused. Conflicted. I had no clue how little girls developed into women, how I would help a daughter navigate a world built upon her subjugation. I was suddenly touched by the problem of sexism. Now it was personal.
I didn’t just have blind spots. I felt completely blind. I wanted to talk to my mother, but she was dead – she too had seen her deathbed with her contribution to the world (beyond motherhood) untapped. I realized I wouldn’t be able to understand how gendered oppression really worked until I took ownership of all the ways I had participated in it. I had to admit that I didn’t actually see women as equals, that they were accessories at least and appendages at most, human-like beings who displayed human-like traits but needed to be managed, like my emotions or my bank account.
I knew what my mother would tell me – that my daughter could do anything anybody else could do. And if I equipped her like I’d been equipped, she too would be a force of nature.
Then we found out our little girl was a little boy through another ultrasound. I wasn’t overjoyed. I wasn’t even relieved. My heart sank, actually. I had finally wrapped my mind around raising a daughter, and I realized I knew even less about raising a son.
I’d been raised by women, and couldn’t really conceive of what it meant for a man to interact with his son positively. I barely understood how to connect with those who weren’t exactly like me: artists, idea-preneurs and warriors.
From childhood I developed a binary filter for quickly discerning men as either adversaries or speed bumps, always boring, pitifully simple to break down, and one-dimensionally driven.
But women were cunning and exciting. My thoughts went haywire. Don’t judge me. I saw men – including myself – as expendable. I was a product of a society that taught its men to take pride in that expendability: to go to war, to put our bodies on the line for work, and sacrifice ourselves for family, was what it meant to be a man.
So I wrestled. I picked my own pieced-together manhood apart, trying to figure out how to relate to this baby boy. Then one day, I heard a voice from Georgians For Choice asking me a familiar question, but framed differently this time: “Would you be having this existential crisis if your boy were a girl?”
Herein was another lesson from feminism: Patriarchy doesn’t actually benefit us men in the long run. When women are robbed of their humanity, so are we men. Again, it was through the lens of feminism that it became clear how I should raise my son. If I was going to raise my daughter lovingly, it was simple – I would raise my boy the same way. I may not have known what it felt like to be absolutely bathed in the love by a father, but this boy – my boy – would get everything that his father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father had missed. The bullshit would end with me.
I would set the example I wanted my son to follow. I would be the type of (hu)man I wanted him to be: a man whose strength didn’t rely on close-mindedness, whose security wasn’t couched in his ignorance, and whose humanity superseded his “manhood.” I’d raise my son to be awake. Conscious. A feminist. And if he came to me and told me he’d been a girl all along…that too would be a dance I’d have already done.
Epilogue For the last six months I’ve been volunteering with Cunabula, a storytelling campaign sponsored by Planned Parenthood Southeast that asks questions about women’s self-image, shame, and stigma to change the cultural narrative. Its hope is to tell authentic stories to tear down stereotypes and promote positive self image. This was a fellowship made possible by The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that gets veterans working in their communities through service. I can’t thank them enough for providing me the chance to not only do definitive work, but to also be around for my son’s first days.
Ian McCall is an artist, a storyteller, and a father. He has a blog, Millennial Dad, and is an Alpha 2016 Fellow. Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and twitter.