My feminist icon: Celeste Ng reveals who inspires her

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Stylist is running its first ever feminist advent calendar in 2018, with a remarkable woman revealing who her feminist icon is every day until 25 December. Here, Celeste Ng reveals why her mother is her ultimate feminist icon.

My feminist role model has been influencing me since the day I was born – literally: I became a feminist first and foremost simply by watching my mother.

For as long as I can remember, my mother explicitly raised me to believe that women should have the same rights as men – and that being female shouldn’t make me feel lesser in any way. She filled my bookshelves with novels featuring strong heroines – like Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the works of Judy Blume – and biographies of trailblazing women like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and Elizabeth Blackwell (the first woman doctor in the US). She made a point of pointing out prominent women in the world, like architect Maya Lin and Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Even more importantly, my mom showed me how to be a feminist by example. She was an experimental chemist, teaching at the university level while also performing her own research. As a kid, I went to work with her anytime I didn’t have school, and I hung around the lab while she ran her experiments. Seeing her at work showed me that it was totally natural for women to have jobs – even in traditionally male-dominated fields like chemistry. But it also helped me feel that spaces like laboratories weren’t scary or foreign: nothing was off-limits to me as a girl. I grew up feeling that even if I was the only woman in a room of men, I still had a right to be there, and I still belonged.  

Over the years, I saw my mother finish a PhD and a post-doc, then go on to earn tenure and advise graduate students of her own, eventually becoming department chair. All throughout, she always mentored other women, helping them with everything from classes to job searches and research projects, to asking for raises and balancing work and family life. By watching her, I saw how women could work their way into positions of power and use them to open doors for others.

My mother taught me that there didn’t have to be limits on what girls could do. In our family, I could have dolls and also a toolset; I could learn to cook and also to solder. (To this day, I’m the handy one in my own house.) I loved dressing up in frilly gowns, but I also had an astronaut suit – and a play sword. I credit my mom for raising me with the attitude that none of these things were “for girls” (or “not for girls”), and that a person could be interested in all of them. 

This is an attitude I want to pass on in my own parenting, as I raise my son: to ignore the traditional “rules” about what boys and girls – and men and women – should or shouldn’t be like. Feminism isn’t just for women; it’s for everyone. I’m trying to raise a person who’s kind, curious, and passionate – and who believes that everyone should have the same rights and opportunities regardless of one’s gender. 

To me, that’s what feminism is, and I credit my mom for being the first to show me that. 

Remarkable Women Awards 2019

philosophy are the official partner of Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards 2018 and, for every day in December, Stylist is asking a remarkable woman to tell us who her feminist icon is, and why. You can see more inspiring and remarkable women here.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is out now in paperback (Abacus, £8.99)

Images: Getty

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