I will assert, confidently, that toddlers are natural feminists. Until you tell them otherwise, they don't see their personalities, interests, or ambitions as being informed (or ruled) by their sex. They don't have any notions that girls or boys can't do anything based on their gender. They're just, you know, themselves. Kids believe anything is possible: when my uncle was a 4-year-old kid he said he wanted to be a horse when he grew up (keep dreaming, Uncle Mark). There are moments your toddler will make you a proud feminist because you will see, firsthand, how it's in their heart, blood, and soul without you even having to do anything.
This isn't to say, of course, that children are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of bell hooks and a muzak version of "Born This Way" playing in their heads. It's also not to say that boys and girls will not have gender confirming preferences or behaviors. While the research isn't conclusive, I'm sure we all know lots of girls who naturally gravitate toward dolls and boys who gravitate towards trucks. (My own children, for example, are usually pretty predictable in this regard; my daughter loves to cuddle dolls and my son used to run his over with his trucks.) But feminism isn't about going out of your way to subvert gender norms regardless of personal preference. It's about being free to be yourself and have equal opportunities regardless of one's sex and gender expression, and the freedom to express gender as an authentic reflection of who you are as a person. Toddlers are really good at authenticity and not caring what anyone thinks about what they should do.
Children aren't particularly interested in smashing the patriarchy, largely because the concept of malevolent, regressive forces don't exist for them yet. But that in and of itself is likely to instill joy in the hearts of feminist parents. With encouragement, those natural instincts to completely disregard the choir of voices telling children to change themselves based on sex and gender will stick. So, with that in mind, here are a few moments that'll give you hope for the feminist future:
They Assert Themselves
Making clear what they want and don't want comes pretty naturally to a toddler, regardless of feminism. Sometimes (read: often) it's going to be damn annoying because OMG for real, little one, I don't care if you don't want to brush your teeth because you have to. But other times you're going to be proud that your child has the sense of self and confidence to tell someone they don't want to hug them right now, or they don't want to wear a dress, or that they want to do something by themselves. Even when their insistence is irritating or embarrassing, deep down, as a feminist, you're going to be proud that your kid knows how to express themselves and feels comfortable enough to do so.
As far as tempering that with good manners and respect? Good luck, dudes. That sh*t is not easy.
They Accept Other People's Differences
That's not to say toddlers don't notice differences. Of course they do. They just usually don't care all that much beyond some initial curiosity (if that).
It makes sense, really: toddlers have a lot to learn about the world. So, their concepts of what's "normal," or what our society has arbitrarily decided is normal or acceptable or beautiful or "main stream," really haven't had too much time to normalize.
They Use Anatomically Correct Language
So, turns out that hearing a 2-year-old toddler say "testicles" with a straight face is really funny. Does that make me sort of immature? Yes, yes it does, but it also brightens my intense little feminist heart to hear a small child not getting hung up on the over-sexualized human body.
To hear a small child be blithely unaware that over-sexualization of the human body is even a thing, helps to remind you that behavior that's learned can, of course, be unlearned. The over-sexualization doesn't have to be the "norm." "Testicles" is no more scandalous to them than "elbows," and it's awesome (and, again, hysterical).
They Respect Other People's Boundaries
This one, I'll be honest, doesn't always happen. In fact, depending on the child and the situation they're in, it can happen infrequently at best. "Personal space" is a very distant concept to a toddler.
In all fairness, it wasn't that long ago that they were living inside of another human, so it makes sense that they wouldn't think much of clinging to one constantly. Nevertheless, feminists want and strive to teach consent early on (and as people who want to raise a child with manners). So, over time and rather slowly, a lightbulb will click in your toddler's brain (probably after the 1,000,000th time you say, "Stop putting your hand down mommy's shirt") and you'll realize, "Oh wow! My kid finally gets (for the most part) that it's not OK to grab people and that certain kinds of touch are off limits. Cool!"
They Are Legitimately Confused By Injustice
It was a bittersweet day when my 3-year-old could not grasp the concept of the movie Mulan. Not because he couldn't follow the plot, but because he genuinely couldn't understand why Mulan being a girl made a difference or had to be kept a secret or why she was supposed to be ashamed of it. And I couldn't explain it in any way that made sense to him. It was wonderful because I thought, "Oh, awesome, I've sheltered him from this crap for three years."
At the same time I was heartbroken by the realization that I wouldn't be able to keep it that way forever. Still, the small victory made my heart swell with egalitarian pride.
They Stand Up For Their Friends
By and large, toddlers are pretty selfish. This is necessary: they're neurologically designed to be pretty self-involved for a while. But every now and then, you'll see them defending, comforting, or standing in solidarity with a little friend of theirs who has been wronged or hurt in some way (daycare politics are tough, apparently, and everyone has lots of very big feels) and you'll beam with immense pride when you realize that you're raising someone with empathy, who wants to help others who need a hand up.
They Stand Up To Sexism, Bigotry, And Oppression
We're all subjected to this nonsense, even toddlers, and there is nothing more encouraging or heartwarming than seeing a kid who knows better and is having none of it.
Someone once told my son that his Princess Merida dress was for girls and he furrowed his little 3-year-old brow and barked, "No. This is my dress because I'm wearing it. Some boys like dresses, too."
They Announce That Girls And Boys Can Be Or Accomplish Whatever They Want To Be
Because your feminist agenda brainwashing is working! Mwa ha ha ha!
Actually it's not brainwashing because, again, left to their own devices toddlers would almost certainly think this anyway. So you're really not brainwashing so much as not brainwashing them into thinking otherwise. It's the "I can't" and gender roles that are learned. Unfortunately, an "I can't" is far more subtle than you'd think (and other times not, like when I was told I couldn't play bocce because I'm a girl) and so need to be counteracted with a lot of enthusiastic feminist pronouncements from adults. Fortunately, those stick and when you see that it's sticking your heart is going to look like The Grinch's in the penultimate scene of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
They Ask Lots Of Questions
Feminism is about dismantling oppressive power structures, usually by initially questioning why they exist in the first place. A toddler's constant curiosity serves them well. Yes, largely their questions are about the minutiae of daily life (and hey, even that can be fascinating), but you know that this is building a good foundation for them to questioning the bigger questions.
And, every once in a while, they'll ask you something like, "What makes a girl a girl and a boy a boy" and you'll look heavenward as a single tear falls from your eyes as you whisper, "I've waited for this day. I'll get the PowerPoint presentation I've prepared. One second, kid."
They Give None Of The F*cks
Unfortunately, even children whose age can still be counted in months will be subjected to patriarchal nonsense. They will be fed it over and over again, subliminally and overtly, every day. But the beauty of toddlers? For a long, long time, that instinct to only ever care about their inner voice is strong. And, again, it can be tough, as a parent, setting necessary limits and correcting antisocial behaviors, but it's absolutely awe-inspiring from a feminist perspective.
With your help and encouragement, they can continue that incredible instinct for the rest of their lives and in the face of society dictating what they should be and what they should like and how they should think, based on their sex. They can be empowered to reject the powers that seek to diminish them. Even if someone tries to feed it to them, with any luck, they won't swallow.