Today, as we mark the eighth annual International Day of the Girl, a United Nations observance that focuses attention and resources on the fight for girls’ rights and empowerment, I’ve actually been reflecting on boys: that is, how we raise boys in this country.
All my life, I’ve been surrounded by strong, brilliant women. I was raised by a hardworking single mom, a grandmother who taught me what everyday activism looks like, and an aunt who showed me what it means to be a fighter. Especially now that I’m a parent myself — a mother of two young girls — I can’t imagine anything better than providing my daughters with the same kind of upbringing these phenomenal women gave me.
But the more I’ve thought about the challenges of raising girls in this moment — and about the America I’d like my daughters to grow up in — the more I’ve compared notes with friends who are raising boys.
Why? Because the fight for progress on behalf of women and girls cannot rest exclusively on our shoulders; men and boys have essential roles to play, as well. Restrictive ideas about masculinity and gender roles are transforming, but not quickly enough. And as the national conversation continues to evolve, we must ensure that it doesn’t leave boys behind — or let their parents off the hook.
Even as infants, boys tend to be touched and held less than girls; by the time they reach adolescence, many are emotionally difficult to reach, stunted by years of overt and implicit pressure to mask their anxieties, prove their “manliness,” and fit stereotypes that specifically exclude anything that could be perceived as feminine. According to Liz Plank’s powerful new book For the Love of Men, the result is not just inner turmoil but an elevated risk of emotional and interpersonal conflict, or even violence — much of it targeting the women around them.
Clearly, we have a responsibility to both boys and girls to do better — for men’s own sake, but also because raising healthier, more mindful men has enormous potential to improve the lives of girls and women. As long as men hold a place of privilege and power in our society, they have both the opportunity and obligation to use that position to lift up the people around them. Which is one of many reasons why, throughout my career, I’ve been vocal about the importance and impact of male allyship.
From the young partner at my former law firm who gave me a literal seat at the table during a big meeting, to my all-time greatest champion — my dad — I’ve always been grateful for those who understand that representation matters. And I’ve seen, time and again, that men who use their influence to help bring women’s voices into the conversation don’t diminish their own power; they enhance everyone’s.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen that the opposite is true. In the same way an individual male ally can enhance everyone’s power, a man steeped in destructive ideas about masculinity can wreak havoc — and is even, according to Plank, more likely to engage in sexual harassment.
I’ve been focusing on this even more over the past few weeks, as we marked the anniversary of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s telling her story before the nation during Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings. Her testimony centered on Kavanaugh’s behavior when he was a boy — a high-school student living under his parents’ roof.
Kavanaugh’s treatment of Dr. Ford and other girls his age ranged from boorish and demeaning to (alleged) sexual assault. And his response as an adult was not to display empathy, humility, responsibility, accountability, or even emotional maturity; instead he raged on national television and attacked survivors, as if he were the victim.
Of course, no parent can prevent their child’s ultimate actions. But surely the example set by now-Justice Kavanaugh — both in his treatment of girls and women years ago and in his behavior at last September’s hearing — is not an example we’d want any of our children to follow.
I thought about my daughters a lot as I watched coverage of Dr. Ford’s brave testimony. I had been particularly concerned about the message this hearing would send to survivors and young girls everywhere — and the need for male voices to join the chorus of solidarity with Dr. Ford. So, inspired by a group of 1,600 Black women who’d run an ad in support of Anita Hill three decades earlier, I helped organize a “1,600 Men” campaign that gathered more than 13,000 signatures — and raised enough money to run our own full-page ad in The New York Times — declaring that countless men in America “follow in the footsteps of those courageous women,” and that “women should no longer have to carry these burdens alone.”
That’s why I’m celebrating this year’s International Day of the Girl by urging male allies to get off the sidelines and into this fight: because it’s not enough to raise our daughters to keep overcoming barrier after barrier (though they certainly can, and we’ll certainly keep teaching them). It’s past time to teach our sons they have a responsibility to tear down barriers down, too.
Meena Harris is a lawyer, the head of strategy at Uber, and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to intersectional social causes. You can also find her on the 2020 campaign trail with her aunt, Sen. Kamala Harris.
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