Trolls went bonkers last year over a J. Crew shirt for boys that dares use the word feminist. Commenters on the retailer's Instagram post are livid, shouting about indoctrination, brainwashing, horrible parenting and politics.
Surprised at that vitriol? We weren't. As a company that's been making feminist shirts for kids (and grownups) since long before it was trendy, we've been hearing this stuff for years.
Gold ink on black "Feminist" romper / t-shirt (6m to adult 4XL) by Free to be Kids.
"I would never put my kid in a short that says ‘FEMINIST’,” commenters declare on our posts. “I’m not going to make him into a walking billboard,” people tell us. “Little kids have no business wearing FEMINIST shirts because there is no possible way they can know what feminism means,” others say.”
Well, we beg to differ.
Our motto here at Free to Be Kids is "Spread positive messages one fashion statement at a time." One part of positive fashion, we believe, is gender equality. And one important part of gender equality is -- you guessed it -- feminism. Which is simply, as Merriam-Webster says, “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Basically, we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men, women, variations thereof, and identifiers as none are created equal. Boom. Done. It’s not rocket science (which girls can do, by the way, contrary to popular culture). It’s not complicated.
And kids get it.
Our friend Blaise, barely 8, wore his gold-on-black Feminist shirt on the day of the Women’s March this year. When asked what feminist meant, he furrowed his brow like he didn’t know why someone was asking such an obvious question. “The idea that boys and girls are equal,” he said. “Yeah,” his little brother chimed in. He’s 6. He has a shirt that says, “Feminist like My Dad.”
My own Kindergarten son's definition of feminism is simply that "girls should be allowed to do the same things as boys." One day when he heard other kids on the playground say that girls weren't allowed to play soccer with the boys, he not only raised it with his teachers -- he actually stood up at an all-school meeting in front of more than 100 kids to state that girls should be able to do the same things as boys, then call on his friends for comments and discussion. Pride does not begin to describe what I felt when I heard about this.
Four- to six-year-olds discussing gender equality at school.
Listen, kids don't come out of the womb believing that only boys can fly planes or be scientists or CEOs, or President. That's a belief system they're indoctrinated into. It’s actually super easy for kids to understand that their different-gendered counterparts have just as much inherent worth as they do.
Any progressive parent has spent a good deal of time and effort on gender equality as it is. Boys can play with girl toys. Girls can play with boy toys. We can all enjoy the same TV. Boys can wear pink. Girls can be president -- still a possibility, even if it seemed a lot closer last year. Boys can cry and girls can be tough; everyone can play games together. Then when we say, “Feminism means girls and boys should be able to do the same things,” they say, “Oh, yeah, so that’s what it’s called,” and go back to playing.
"Little Feminist, Big Dreams" tee by Free to Be Kids (2T to YL).
No one accuses the people with kids in Nike logo tees of turning their children into advertisements. No one sees a kid in a Star Wars shirt and thinks they’re shilling for LucasFilms. When girls skip past in Frozen shirts, no one says they are selling their souls to Disney. So why is it that when we put a kid in a Feminist shirt, he’s suddenly a walking billboard?
Well, there's an answer. It's because, for a long time, people like Rush Limbaugh conspired to make “feminist” a dirty word. We were taught that feminists were bad, evil women who wanted to take everything men had, who wanted to trample society into the dust, who wanted to remake everything into their own selfish image, whatever that was. No more marriage! No more babies! Women running everything, from households to Fortune 500 companies, and all with the vague and ugly tint of lesbianism in there somewhere. This is the hatred we grew up hearing. This is what they taught us to believe, with horrible words like “femi-Nazi.”
"Feminist like Mom" tee by Free to Be Kids (also available in "like My MomS"), sizes 6m to YL.
Is it any wonder that some people recoil when we see the word on a child’s t-shirt? They aren’t reacting to what it really means. They're reacting to what they were told it meant, so long ago, when they had nothing to compare it to. That’s why they see it as so polarizing that it’s a “walking billboard.”
But feminism itself, the idea that men and women are equal, is not and should not be polarizing. It should be a fact of life. And where it’s not, it’s our job to bring it there.
"Feminist" baseball tees by Free to Be Kids. Available in kids' 2T to YL and Ladies S to 3XL.
So yeah, we are proud of our Feminist shirts. They say something important. Even better, they let kids say something important about themselves. I am a feminist. I believe everyone should be able to do the same stuff. And if I’m too little to know about that yet, well -- my mom and dad are the type of people who will make sure I know it when I get bigger.
That’s not indoctrination. That’s a promise to be a good human. It’s one we’re proud to help parents make. And it’s one we’re proud that kids understand.