I was probably around eight or nine at the time, and my father had some people over for dinner; our house was often filled with people eating and having vivid, complex conversations and I was never driven away from the table as too young to participate. Consequently, I was used to engaging with adults as an equal, not as something lesser-than, and I was used to following the threads of complex arguments, and speaking up for myself when I felt it was warranted. My father never told me I should feel otherwise, even though I sensed that sometimes it made the guests uncomfortable.
I can’t remember precisely what the conversation that night was about and how exactly it wrapped around to this point in particular, but one of the guests was maintaining that the reason there were so few women in key roles in business was because women weren’t capable of handling the complex tasks involved in administering companies. This guest, I hope it should go without saying, was a tagalong brought by someone else, not someone my father had actually invited.
The other guests sort of laughed uncomfortably, in that way people do sometimes when they don’t want to deal with sexism or attempt to challenge someone’s attitudes, like if they avert their gaze for a moment, the issue will pass. But my father looked at me, and looked back at this guest, and then he started to press the point. He reminded me of a fencer patiently stalking an opponent, thrusting and thrusting and thrusting so that the guest was so concentrated on defense that there wasn’t a moment for offense, and then, suddenly, the guest ran out of ground and was left with nowhere else to go.
My father pressed the point because he thought his guest was wrong, and because he was disgusted by the fact that no one else seemed willing to take the issue on, but he also did it because he looked at me and thought about what I was hearing when the guest said that women couldn’t be CEOs, couldn’t found or run or maintain businesses, and that made him angry. So he talked back to the sexism, violating that rule that says you’re always supposed to be polite to guests, because he saw no reason to be polite in the face of sexism. And I remembered it through the years, even if I can’t recall the precise specifics of what was said.
It stuck in my memory because of all the other times I was in groups of people where similarly ignorant and offensive statements were made and no one said anything. Because I got so used to seeing sexism just quietly accepted and allowed to slide by that it was a jarring reminder that no, you actually didn’t need to take sexism as it was, that you could fight back, that you perhaps even had an obligation to fight back when someone was being sexist. Not just for yourself and the sake of the discussion and the adults in the room, but for the benefit of the children around you who might be looking to you for guidance.
Children are like sponges, quick to learn and absorb what they hear. Whatever environment they’re steeped in, they’ll pick everything up and sort through it later, and you never know quite how children will process information. You never know if your child will pick up a racial slur from a movie and think it’s the polite and generally recognised term for members of a given racial group, for example, or if your child will hear a sexist argument and then parrot it on the playground later. For that reason, there’s a special imperative to be careful around children; not to shield them or protect them from the realities of the world, but to make sure they receive balanced information.
My father was always careful to answer questions and provide more information, and he was always quick to counter errors and offensive statements made in my presence, to make it clear that he didn’t support those things and to provide information about why. And as much as I can, I try to follow the same model, because of the profound impact it had on me; I don’t let casual statements, let alone actual detailed arguments, slide when there are kids around (or the rest of the time, let’s be honest). Because I want kids to know that these things are wrong, and more than that, I want them to know why, and I want them to know that they are allowed to stand up for themselves, and that adults with integrity can and should back them up.
I don’t want little girls to hear casual hateful comments about what women can and cannot do, because those comments have the potential to be tremendously damaging. And I don’t want little boys to hear that it’s not okay to be gay. I don’t want children of colour or nonwhite children to encounter casual racism that’s never refuted or sternly opposed. Not just because it’s wrong on its face, but because people should know that there is no requirement to be nice and passive in the face of people doing and saying offensive things. They don’t need to play nice for people who don’t respect them or people like them, and the earlier they learn that, the better.
Talk back to sexism, for the children, if not for yourself. Because every time a kid hears a sexist argument refuted, that lesson gets absorbed.