How to Raise a Daughter in the Trump Era

7 minute read
Rachel Simmons is the director of the Phoebe Reese Lewis leadership program at Smith College and the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy & Fulfilling Lives.

Watching Donald Trump’s inauguration on television, an 8-year-old girl asked her mother about the new President.

“Why doesn’t he like us?”

Us, meaning women. It’s a question many parents weren’t prepared to answer last fall, when the election results stunned a nation. Now, the misogyny that seemed like the ugly by-product of a political campaign — “Look at that face!” “Grab them by the …” “Blood coming out of her wherever” — may define a presidency. As Trump spends his first weeks in the Oval Office, parents from all walks of life will be looking for ways to arm our daughters to thrive in a Donald Trump world that clearly tolerates overt sexism.

They should take a page from the playbook of many African-American parents. For generations, black children have been brought up to have a critical race consciousness, a framework for dealing with prejudice and discrimination, which helps inoculate them against the spiritual toxins they will almost certainly encounter as they come of age in our society.

Black parents equip their children early to deal with cruel stereotypes and slights that rain down on them in schools, stores and neighborhoods: the 12-year-old girl who faced expulsion and criminal charges after writing “Hi” on the locker room wall of her Georgia. The 19-year-old boy who tried to buy a Rolex in Wisconsin only to be met by police called by the store associate. The Baylor University student shoved off a sidewalk and called the N word as she walked to class. Parents inculcate their children with the message that the disparate treatment they absorb isn’t their fault, and that they are not less than. You are worthy, they are told, but growing up in a broken, unequal culture.

“I would not have you descend into your own dream,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in his book, Between the World and Me, “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

It’s not a parenting style familiar to the parents who may have thought opportunity for their daughters was limitless. While they shouldn’t let up on instilling in girls the belief they can be anything, parents must now add raising political consciousness to their toolkit. Parents of all girls must simultaneously explain overt and covert sexism, name it whenever they see it, and teach their daughters to do the same.

Despite girls’ sparkling résumés — including rates of college enrollment and high school grades that outstrip boys — sexism is a barrier that still leaves girls ambivalent about power. Opening doors has not amounted to ambition to lead for many of them, even those with options, networks and resources. A Girl Scouts study found that while many girls saw themselves as leaders, low confidence and fear of being called “bossy” held them back. “Emotional safety,” the researchers concluded, would be key in attracting girls to lead. In 2015, a study by Girls Leadership found only half of teen girls identify as brave.

In a study of college students, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox showed that young women are less likely than young men ever to have considered running for office — and receive significantly less encouragement from their parents to do so (girls are also more actively discouraged from pursuing elected office). The American University study, called “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” uncovered a sizable gender gap in political ambition that originates in girlhood.

Lawless and Fox found that girls who grow up in families that encourage them to run for elected office are more likely to believe they can — and to plan on it. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) credits her grandmother as her first political mentor. “She taught me that I should never be afraid to raise my voice about the issues that matter to me,” Gillibrand has written. In the American University study, half the students surveyed whose mothers regularly suggested that they pursue elected office said they would definitely like to run in the future. Only 3% who were not encouraged by mothers expressed interest in a future candidacy. The findings were nearly identical for fathers.

African-American girls pose a stark contrast to their peers. They are among the most ambitious of any group of youth to lead, a trend that continues into adulthood. In adolescence, when girls are known to lose self-esteem, black daughters lose the least. In a review of research, 23 of 26 studies showed black girls had higher self-esteem than white girls.

Yet ambition and self-worth don’t amount to opportunity for black girls. Sexism, racism and stereotypes do their cruel work once they leave the protection of their homes. Black girls are, according to U.S. Department of Education data, six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls. In adulthood, black women remain the most disadvantaged of any group of women in the workplace. A 2016 report from Lean In and McKinsey found that only 29% of black women thought the best opportunities at their company went to the most deserving employees, compared with 47% of white women, 43% of Asian-American women and 41% of Hispanic women.

Over the next four years, parents of all girls should speak candidly with their daughters from an early age about sexism. They can teach girls to cast a critical eye on the media that sexualizes them, and define the concept of consent at a time when 1 out of every 4 girls will be sexually assaulted in college. Fathers play a special role here. The way they treat women and girls will help determine how high a bar girls set for the boys and men in their lives. At a moment where men on the national stage may be failing girls, “going local,” to say nothing of the personal being political, has new meaning.

We will never know the precise role internalized sexism played in the voting booth, but we do know that white women broke for Donald Trump. The tendency of white women to decline supporting one of their own originates in girlhood. Last year, a Harvard study found that white girls and their mothers were unusually biased against white girls as leaders. They expressed more support for boy-led student councils than those led by girls, a preference researchers attributed to competitiveness and low self-esteem.

Interestingly, the white girls who preferred girl-led councils showed strong awareness of gender discrimination. In other words, their consciousness was raised.

Girlhood is often marred by schoolgirl cruelty, a grim rite of passage in which parents sometimes cruelly collude. Mothers and fathers must take a stand against petty or protracted hostility between girls. My research has shown that when girls grow up seeing other girls as threats, they become women who do the same.

My social-media feed is filled with promises from my parent friends to double down on the fight for social justice. They should take their daughters with them: girls, far more than boys, are most drawn to a vision of leadership premised on public service, helping others, and changing the world for the better.

An age of discontent isn’t always bad for girls. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was galvanized by slavery and was an abolitionist before she pursued suffrage. Shirley Chisholm grew up in the Depression and became a college activist for the NAACP before becoming the first woman to run for President. Maybe it really is true that, somewhere, a girl out there will find her voice and cause and reason to lead in a Trump presidency. But she is unlikely to do it without her parents teaching her to resist the same culture she will serve.

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