I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am going to start publishing them here on my blog.
The Feminist Homeschooler
When my daughter was in kindergarten, it was politely suggested to me that she might do better in homeschool. I shrugged it off. Me, homeschool? I had thought of the first day of kindergarten as the first day back to my “real” life—my writing career.
Then, all of a sudden, we were homeschoolers.
If I’d imagined anything about my future daughter, I may have imagined a little Gloria Steinem.
Not a little Emma Goldman.
My daughter’s personality is way too big for a quiet little Montessori school room. That I learned over three months. But it took me years to understand that homeschooling was not just what we did because we had to, but a positive choice for her…and me, a lifelong feminist.
It has been four years since we reluctantly left school with nothing but the wish to find a better way. Homeschooling is now an integral part of my life. I have found wise, funny, intelligent, and—true to the stereotype—nurturing women in my homeschooling community. Most of the homeschooling parents I know are extremely dedicated to their educational choice.
All of us know that we’re doing the right thing, until someone drops the F-word: feminist.
Where did all the men go?
The role of women is the elephant in the room in homeschooling circles. We don’t really want to talk about this, but there it is: all of the parents who are on the board of my homeschooling cooperative are women. All of the teachers in our public homeschool program are women. Dads support their families through their work and through evening childcare so the moms can get together and commiserate. Dads show up to homeschooling events sporadically, mostly on weekends. A relative few take part in the actual homeschooling, and only a smattering out of millions stay home full-time.
One mom I know relates a story of a dad walking into a homeschooling campout and all the women stopping what they were doing to gawk: “It’s a man!”
But I’m not terribly comfortable with just letting this issue lie around unquestioned. I asked a wide list of my homeschooling correspondents, some of whom I know personally but most of whom I only “know” online, to respond to a few pointed questions in an anonymous, online survey. Within hours, 93 people had offered their thoughts, from taciturn “yes” or “no” to rolling text that sometimes spilled over into passionate direct e-mails to me.
Not surprisingly, almost all my correspondents said that they believed it was important to teach their kids about equal rights and opportunities for both boys and girls. Divorced from divisive political arguments, this issue is pretty uncontroversial amongst educated parents. But I was also not surprised that a full quarter of my correspondents don’t consider themselves “feminists,” disowning the label while believing in the tenets behind it.
Disowning the F-word
I purposely asked the first question without using the F-word, to remove any conflicted feelings respondents might have about the word. Divorced from the baggage of “feminism,” it’s clear that most of my fellow homeschoolers feel that what they’re doing is a positive, feminist choice for themselves and their children.
“I don’t have any conflicting feelings because it is a choice, not something I or any other woman has to do because she is a woman,” said one correspondent, summing up what most of them said.
“I feel that I have a huge impact on the world by homeschooling, and I am enjoying it personally.”
Once I identified the purpose of my survey, many of the women forcefully argued that staying home to educate their children clearly falls within the definition of a feminist choice.
“I have been the sole/main breadwinner for my family at different times,” one mom explained. “I didn’t feel any different than when I was at home. Either way, I’m exercising my choice. That is what the early feminists fought for.”
“Forcing women to follow a traditionally ‘male,’ linear career model is just as bad as keeping women out of the paid workforce,” pointed out another mom.
Others stressed that homeschooling is work, and important work at that.
“Nurturing, raising, and educating children is an incredibly important job—possibly the most important job I’ll ever have in my life—and feminism is about supporting a woman’s right to choose her path—it’s not about restricting her life in new and different ways!”
“I view it as the most important ‘work’ I’ve ever done. Maybe because I already had a career, and didn’t feel that I needed to prove anything to anyone any more.”
Like that last correspondent, some homeschoolers are clearly conflicted because of how they fear others perceive them. It’s not that they themselves have a problem with their choice, but that they hear a negative message from family and friends.
“There are times that I have felt less interesting to others because I am not working outside the home,” explained one mom. “However, I also know that I am living my life for myself and my family and so I must make choices that will benefit us.”
“I do have trouble with the whole perception of the ‘homemaker.’ I often feel embarrassed to describe myself as SAHM, and will augment it with other adjectives,” confessed another.
Others admitted that they felt at war with their own upbringing by second-wave feminists who believed it was a woman’s duty to prove that she was equal to men in the workplace.
“I had questioned [homeschooling] at first, only because of my upbringing. I was raised by a single mom with strong feminist views. But after looking at what was right for me and my family, I felt more grounded with my decision to stay home.”
“I try to let go of these feelings because my homeschool community is largely SAHMs, women I love dearly, but I do often feel a sense of privilege/feminine dependence from these traditional families that I haven’t been raised with,” another mom confessed. “I was raised by a very strong feminist mother who’d have a conniption fit if I’d decided to be financially ‘cared for’ by my husband while losing my job skills and raising the kids!”
My circle of homeschoolers does not include a large percentage of radicals on either side of the political spectrum, but the Fox News view of feminism was certainly represented:
“See, that’s the thing that makes absolutely no sense at all,” pointed out one correspondent, for whom the F-word was obviously a heavily loaded bomb. “Is feminism about being pro-female, or is it about being politically correct to the latest flavor of girl-power?”
Actually, it’s not about either of those things.
Another correspondent confused the push for quality childcare with a mandate that all children must be taken from their homes.
“I guess feminism = socialism, where kids are raised in a factory while every adult goes and does their specialized work.”
My other correspondents did a pretty good job of answering those voices, which they have clearly heard in their own lives:
“I think that women who feel that staying at home with their children is a non-feminist act are reacting more to their own personal circumstances than they are to what is feminist and what isn’t,” suggested one homeschooler. “If I’m a feminist must I have a job/career outside my home? I don’t think so.”
What do the girls think?
Clearly, some homeschooling moms feel uneasy about the message they are sending to their daughters.
“I feel bad that I can’t personally model a professional working woman,” one woman regretted. “Fortunately, I have several working mom friends to do that for me.”
Other homeschoolers believe that because they haven’t been steeped in a culture of fixed gender roles, their homeschooled children have become natural feminists, seeing women’s choices as choices, not gender-based obligations.
“One day, my daughter was talking to my mom, who is a Rabbi, and my daughter was getting very confused in the conversation,” related one mom. “Finally, she looked at my mother and said in astonishment, ‘You mean MEN can be Rabbis, too?’”
“I think my home educated kids will be well prepared to continue working for equal respect, dignity and human rights while pursuing their passions,” stated another.
Some moms believe that by keeping their daughters away from the corrosive effects of popular culture that start to eat away at girls’ self-esteem in their tween years, they are taking an active role in creating feminists.
“The bottom line, though, is I think the only way I have the hope of raising a girl who is confident and comfortable being as smart as she is, is to homeschool her.”
Most of my correspondents, no matter how they identify themselves, seem to be women with their heads screwed tightly on in the right direction. A general theme was that homeschooling was a family decision in which both spouses acknowledged the skills and needs of the other. One correspondent pointed out that conflicted feelings may stem from deeper problems in a marriage:
“When we decided to homeschool these children, we decided together and we decided together that I’d be the one at home with them,” she said of her choice.
And on the subject of careers, not a single homeschooling mom mentioned feeling that she had “given up” on her own career. Many of them work part-time while homeschooling, or are furthering their own education with an eye toward their post-homeschooling careers.
This mom shines with self-confidence that can’t possibly be lost on her children:
“When my son is grown, I’ll reinvent myself once again, on my terms with the support of my husband.”
We are part of the spectrum
One sad aspect of so many smart women not feeling comfortable with identifying themselves as feminists is that they clearly don’t have a sense of themselves as part of the ongoing revision of women’s roles. There is a confusion about what feminism is, whether someone can have conservative social views and still be feminist, and especially how other feminists would view their choices. One self-identified feminist mom worried that women don’t know how they benefit from the work of those who came before them:
“It disturbs me more than I can say when I see young women, who have benefited from the hard, hard work of the women who went before them, dismissively say ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’.”
As with feminism in any aspect of life, feminism in homeschooling comes down to the lens we look through. In my case, I am not worried. I am a feminist because I am.
I also believe that my children are seeing great role models in the women we spend time with: they are hard-working, talented, smart, and many of them also have gainful employment outside of homeschooling. Yes, many of my sweater-knitting, yogurt-making friends lead lives that would confuse first- and second-wave feminists who placed such a high emphasis on rejecting the womanly arts in favor of paid employment.
But I believe that all of them are perfect specimens when seen through the modern lens of feminism: they have chosen the lives they live with great deliberation, and they live those lives knowing what their choice means for them and their families.
My naive self
As for me, I have to laugh at my pre-homeschooler self who thought that dropping my daughter off at kindergarten would be the day I could get back to my real life: my writing career.
In 2012, my first book was published by Great Potential Press.
Originally published in Home Education Magazine, 2012.