A guest post by Laura Confer, a mother of two living in upstate New York. Laura is currently writing a thesis on masculinity in the works of Daphne du Maurier.
a beloved book from childhood
If you go look at my bookcase now, the one in my room crowded with Hemingway, literature reference books, and feminist theory, you will find a well-worn, yellowed book held together with tape. Rifling through a thrift store when I was about eight years old, I found a copy of Ellen Emerson White’s The President’s Daughter, which is the story of sixteen-year-old Meg Powers as her mother runs for, and wins, the presidency. Even at a young age I found the idea of a female president amazing, and the cover illustration showed a teenage girl that I very much wanted to be like. From the first time I read the book then to the last time I reread it several months ago, this story has never failed to empower me. As I grew older, new aspects would emerge; adult jokes would suddenly make sense, or I would understand a cultural reference with new clarity. Now, as I sit thinking about this story, I find it fascinating that White focuses on the daughter, not on the mother. Female president? Sure, it’s a big deal, but White frames it within the intimate family structure, crystallized in the experience of the first female president’s only daughter.
what that says about that child
That this book would have been so appealing at that young age most clearly shows what a born and bred feminist I am, apparently! Growing up in rural Alabama, I cannot say that I had many feminist role models. My own mother worked, despite the frequent shaming on mothers working by my mother’s mother. My sense of women’s achievements was funneled through a poor education system; I have few, if any, real memories of discussing specifically women’s issues in any of my high school classes, and I was well aware of – and practiced – traditional gender roles in social settings. It was only after moving away from that environment, slowly, by going to college in a bigger, more diverse city in Alabama, then years later moving to upstate New York, that I discovered my own feminism and understanding of gender, culture, and society. Looking back on my book selection now, though, I very clearly see how I would have been attracted to this plot and character.
a children’s book worth sharing enthusiastically now
One of my favorites to read to my daughters, ages 4 and 2, is T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Both love the linguistic acrobats of poetry and the fanciful notions contained in the book. While I am sure they do not always understand the vocabulary, they enjoy listening to me read these poems. They both also seem to have an underlying idea that cats probably do all these things somewhere we, as humans, cannot go, which is adorable to see acted out in the way they play with one another. As a mother, I also love this selection because it is not a ‘children’s book,’ per se. I believe it is important to push our children by presenting them with a variety of materials, ideas, and beliefs that may go beyond their comprehension; in other words, not everything I read to them needs to be simplistic or specifically geared toward kids. I think by incorporating ‘adult’ material into our reading I am encouraging them to think, imagine, and grow.
what that says about this reader’s evolution
I can see some similarities in how both these book choices go outside the norms for my eight-year-old self and my daughters. In that way, I believe these books reflect my personality. Further, you can clearly see how my feminism and career (I am studying to be an English professor) influence my choice for the girls. When I read about the raucous cats at the Jellicle Ball, for example, the girls and I like to jump, stomp, and dance around. While I think this is amazing, awesome fun for any kid, I can also clearly hear my grandmother’s voice in my head whispering something about “lady-like behavior.” Encouraging my girls to be themselves, to experience life as they want to, reflects my deeply rooted perspective on gender roles – which, in this case, means chucking them out the window.