Connecting Fatherhood and Feminism

“Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”

– Beryl Markham

This Father’s Day, I called my dad to thank him for all the things he’s never done.

My dad has never shown anyone how to treat me like a lady. He’s insisted that I learn to mow the lawn, tie a proper knot, drive a truck and use an electric drill.

My dad has never protected me. The most dangerous things that have happened to me–being caught in a flash flood, rolling an SUV into a ditch, confronting a rattlesnake on a remote country road–have all been under his watch, usually during family camping trips. (He stayed calm; I was not so calm.)

My dad: clearly indifferent to the danger of standing on cliffs.

My dad: clearly indifferent to the danger of standing on cliffs.

My dad rarely seems to anticipate his children’s needs. Once, during a long and lonely teenage summer, I had a meltdown over dinner, telling him that all my problems were his fault, and worse, he wasn’t doing anything about it. Exasperated and confused, he maintained his composure long enough to tell me this: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you do want something from me, or from anyone, please start by asking for it.”

My dad did not work hard to keep alcohol or drugs out of our home. A psychologist, he understood very well that prohibiting something makes it irresistible to a teen. He was, however, always transparent with me about his own use of these substances, and the consequences. As I recall, our Big Anti-Drug Talk began with “Did I ever tell you about the seventies?” and ended with “So that’s how we ended up stranded in the desert with an overheated engine, completely convinced we were ants.”

And my dad did not insist that I bring boys home for inspection. Instead, he gave me good advice on how to choose them myself. “Don’t decide before you decide,” he told me once. “Pay careful attention to how you feel, and to what they do. Try to see what is, not what you want it to be. That way, when you have to make a decision, it’s really a decision. You’re not just looking selectively for information to justify an impulse.” I still follow this advice (as my boyfriend can attest, after four years of courting). And not just when it comes to dating.

As a result of my father’s obvious neglect, I have grown into a woman who values self-sufficiency over chivalry, calculated risk-taking over playing it safe, moderation and exploration over shame and self-denial, and equality with others over protection from them.

I’m not the only one who has been thus scarred, either. Recently, I discovered that Florence Nightingale’s affluent father defied all norms of his day to home-school his daughter in science and medicine. This ruined her marriage prospects–and earned her countless accolades as a pioneer of modern nursing and health policy. Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic, was allowed by her father to hunt lions in colonial Kenya. And the madness continues: on Father’s Day 2013, , the founder of BoingBoing, allowed his teenaged daughter to pass with her midriff “uncovered” through the LA airport, even standing up for her (and penning a very pissed-off think piece that later went viral) when she was chastised by a security guard.

"Nightingale Receiving the Wounded," by Jerry Barrett (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Nightingale Receiving the Wounded,” by Jerry Barrett (via Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I am the same age as my father was when I was born, I find myself thinking often about how I will parent my own children. Especially now that fatherhood itself is a role that’s under revision.

In fact, several publications this week, including the Wall Street Journalthe BBCCNN,  and LearnVest, used the holiday to examine paternity leave–or rather, the illusion of it. Though it’s increasingly available at many companies, most men are still afraid to take it, for fear of losing their jobs or otherwise being penalized for refusing to “wear the pants.”

This means that while feminist fathers today can choose to free their daughters from oppressive gender norms, they still cannot free themselves.

Does this seem wrong to you? It does to me.

In the future, I think parents must fight together, creatively, to fix the rules of fatherhood. We may have to role-play with our male partners, as many articles advise us women to do before salary negotiations, pretending to act like scowling bosses as they practice the words “I’ll be back in two weeks.” Couples may have to develop new income streams to pick up the slack should fathers be fired for prioritizing their children. (Feminist crafts, anyone?) And we should all find new ways to praise the fathers in our lives–for their acts of parenthood, not just their manhood. “You know, sweetheart, I’ve never loved you as much as I did today, when you were showing our daughter how to use that power drill.”

Though the work itself won’t be easy, the choice should be. Should we choose creativity and resourcefulness, or continued oppression? That feels easy for me to answer.

Then again, I guess that’s just the way I was raised.


To get anywhere, we’re going to have to row together.


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