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Memoir Offers Advice On 'How To Raise A Feminist Son'

Sonora Jha, author of <em>How to Raise a Feminist Son</em>.
Sonora Jha
Sonora Jha, author of How to Raise a Feminist Son.

When Sonora Jha gave birth to her son, she was certain of one thing: She wanted to raise him as a feminist.

/ Sasquatch Books
Sasquatch Books

Jha was living in India at the time, working as a journalist. She moved to Singapore and eventually Seattle. There was a divorce along the way, and she found herself a single mom.

Jha's book, How to Raise a Feminist Son, is about those experiences — but it also has practical to-do lists about how to tackle some of the hardest conversations. And while she notes that race comes into the discussion, she says it's universal.

A feminist son, she says, means many things, including "a boy who believes in the full humanity of women and girls around him, who knows how to trust his mother's voice, her anger, her love and then extend that to other women in society or other women around him."

Feminism for boys also means feeling the whole spectrum of emotions as well as recognizing that they can be led by women, Jha says.

Interview Highlights

You open up about the sexual abuse that you suffered over and over as a child and a young woman, and you ended up sharing that with your son, Gibran, when you thought he was old enough to carry the weight of that conversation. I wonder if you wouldn't mind just talking about the consequences of sharing that with him.

I was doing it by instinct. This was before the #MeToo movement, when he was 14 and 15 and he was becoming a young man. And I wanted him to know that women are vulnerable, that he needs to recognize what his place is as a man as he grows. And so it was important for me to tell him these stories and to give him the sense of the dangers that women face — and that he needs to be sensitive to those dangers. And that he'll also be a more loving partner if he understands that and believes them. And if he would listen to my stories, that he would listen and be open to listening to other girls' and women's stories.

So I told him about my sexual abuse. The only thing that I regret now is that I wish I had consulted a therapist and I'd talked to him with language around sexual assault and things like that and say, like, "We are safe now." Because he did tell me later that he felt a little vulnerable in the world and felt like, "Oh, my goodness, are we unsafe? Is my mother still unsafe?" And so that's something that I pass on to other parents and say, "You can do it better than I did." But he's 25 now, and he understands that when these things come up, how they can work as triggers for me and for other women. And I've given him that language, and I get to now enjoy that solidarity from him.

How did you broach conversations about sex and our bodies?

I was taking his lead ... because I was sensitive to the way my body had not been allowed its own autonomy, growing up as a girl. I began to realize that even as a boy, it doesn't mean all is open and everything is game. So when we used to play this lovely game called "the mama clinch," where I would hold on to him and he was supposed to kiss me in order to free himself. And I used to love that, and he loved it as a child. And then when he was about 8 or 9, he started to not really enjoy that game and he would not jump into it. And I realized, "Oh, he's growing up and he wants his own autonomy" and picking up on those cues. And I talk in another chapter about how important it is for us to pick up on those cues from our kids, and then that way they learn to pick up those cues from others.

You wrote that the idea of a vulnerable masculinity was the biggest gift you assembled for him. Do you think he is living that out?

I think so. When he had a heartbreak, he called me, but I wasn't the one that was going to serve him best in that, so he called his friends, and these boys, these young men, are talking to each other about heartbreak. They're talking to each other about "Oh, dude, maybe you should see a therapist." And they're talking to each other about missing their families, missing their moms and what should they say to a girlfriend, etc. And I think that is so unusual among men in my generation that it just feels like, "My goodness, like, you've got it. You're able to be vulnerable with your male friends." And that way he's healthier. I know that he's fine out there because he can pick up the phone and call someone.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.