Show-and-Tell Feminism for Dads of Daughters


Last week, in response to a widely shared piece on The Huffington Post by Bret Spears entitled “10 Things No One Ever Told Me About Having a Daughter,” Tracy Moore, a writer at Jezebel, asked “Why must men have a daughter to suddenly get that girls are people?” In a similar vein, back in July Kat Stoeffel lamented on The Cut that the “writer-dad” who has a feminist awakening after having a daughter is “apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins.” And in August, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams also expressed concern about the recent online surge of dads who are engaged with and interested in their daughters. She worried that these dads were engaging in “self-congratulation, shaming and the eureka observation that all the crap the world inflicts upon women is now something you might actually have to care about.” Williams followed up with a request: “Show us you care about girls and women not because you’re a dad, but because you’re a human being.”

These women are rightly frustrated that it takes reproducing a girl from their own genetic material for many men to be aware of what it’s truly like to be female in our society. Yet, as we’ve seen from Ferguson and the Elliot Rodger shootings, it often takes tragedy—events that are so horrific that we feel them personally—for discussions about racism and misogyny to take place. It is thus not really surprising that when it comes to issues faced by girls and women it takes the personal for many dads to be conscious of the political.

This major blind spot is prevalent even though all men have had a mother or, at least, have interacted with women. And it is prevalent despite the fact that, for more than 50 years, the modern women’s movement has loudly been reshaping our world and bringing sexism to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

So, why does this blindness persist? First, let us not forget that boys continue to be conditioned to view girls as inferior, and are prevented from acknowledging their own emotions or from learning and practicing empathy. Bu, there’s something else. We’ve done too much telling and too little showing. Here’s what I mean: Feminists have done a great job telling us about violence against women, the rape crisis, the wage gap, how girls and women are valued only for their appearance and why reproductive rights are human rights. But we as a society still encourage looking at women as inferior and, in fact, we show that women are inferior in every sphere. Just look at the appallingly low numbers of women representing us in government or running companies. Think about how we handle domestic violence and rape cases in this country. Or look at the high status of male professional athletes compared to, with few exceptions, the lower status and pay of female athletes. Or consider the fact that most children’s books feature male protagonists or that most films feature male characters.

Father and daughter with Easy Bake oven, 1963

Father and daughter with Easy Bake oven, 1963

Looking at my own upbringing I can conclude that it was a combination of showing me and telling me that led to my understanding of the female experience. Had my mother, a feminist leader, simply told me that “women are people too,” it would not necessarily have been enough. But her teachings in conjunction with my being raised by two mothers during my formative years did the trick. In this way, I simultaneously listened to what I was told about women and observed with my own eyes two women authority figures who were distinct individuals with strengths and weaknesses, with different passions and ways of being and romantic desires. In other words, I was shown that women are people, too.

While it is certainly an interesting thought experiment, it would be ludicrous for me to suggest that all children be raised by two mothers, even though a recent Australian study has found that children of same-sex couples turn out healthier, in particular because they learn empathy and how to value and pursue their individual skills and interests rather than being squeezed into gendered boxes.

I am quickly learning that there is only so much telling I can do with my own daughters, who understand gender from the culture around us and learn from what they are shown. This is why I worry what they take from the fact of my wife staying home for the past two years and me leaving them daily to go to work, and why I revel in the fact that their pediatrician is a woman, their dentist is a woman, and their teachers are women. I make sure to point out when we pass female police officers or women in various roles around us. I also am heartened by another study finding that by showing them that I cook breakfast, give them baths, go grocery shopping and do other household chores, my daughters will aim higher and never scale down their ambitions.

However, in order to change things so that future dads will not learn of women’s humanity only after having a daughter, I suggest that we do more than small things. Diversifying our children’s media so that they see females as central actors and not inferiors is one great idea. We must continue the fight for equal pay and bodily autonomy and take violence against women seriously. Let’s demand gender equality in sports and jobs, including demanding an end to the “motherhood penalty” and the provision of universal child care. But, let’s also demand radical reforms like those seen in Iceland and France, where gender parity in government and on corporate boards are mandated by law. In this way, we will be showing future generations of dads that girls and women matter long before you have one of your own.

Top and bottom photos from Wikimedia Commons



Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife, two daughters and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.



  1. Ariel, great, wonderful, your mom really did good, but, she always does. I’m going to try to paste in a piece I wrote two years ago which was published in the East Hampton Star. Of course it was very much edited, but even worse, no one commented on my idea. I would love to know how you feel about it. By the way, I knew you when you were knee high to a grasshopper.

    GUESTWORDS: Rethink Domestic Violence
    By Marilyn Fitterman
    | September 26, 2012 – 11:53am
    Our society has created an environment where beating women and children and violating their civil rights are acceptable. In fact, we have actually created an industry — the violence against women movement. This movement thrives on building “safe houses” and places of “retreat” to protect victims, as opposed to enforcing on-the-books laws against the men who abuse.
    The 1970s ushered in the epitome of misogyny with the development of facilities to protect women from violent men. As well as brutalizing and maiming women, violent men in the United States kill three women each day. That’s more than we were losing in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Although we don’t acknowledge it, this is war.
    A few years ago, the governor of Illinois signed legislation increasing protections for domestic violence victims. The bill allows courts to order the abuser to wear a GPS tracking device as a condition of bail. The legislation was sparked by the murder of a woman whose ex-boyfriend shot her, even after on two separate occasions he had been arrested and prosecuted for violating a restraining order. Similar legislation has since passed in many states.
    In 2009, the Suffolk County Legislature voted to establish an online registry of convicted abusers. But the measure was vetoed by the county executive at the time, Steve Levy, who claimed the bill was unnecessary. The Retreat, a safe house for women and children in East Hampton, and the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence also denounced the bill as not necessary. Often legislation to protect women and children from violent men is met with “yes, but” objections and resistance, especially from those feminists, sometimes called protectionists, who choose to hide women away as opposed to changing the system that imprisons them.
    A too-large faction of the domestic violence industry is more involved with raising money, gathering volunteers, and building safe houses than with solving problems or empowering women to take care of themselves. By hiding women and children away, we are certainly not fixing the problem, as can be seen by the latest statistics showing that more and more retreats are being built as more and more women and children are being abused.
    Instead of being overly concerned, as we currently are, with the rights of men who abuse, we should begin to look at this problem by thinking outside the box, with a fresh perspective, with an egalitarian attitude, and with better ideas for aiding the women and children.
    We have semi-effective measures, using GPS and registering convicted abusers online in order to track them. These practices are not a panacea, however, as proven by the previously mentioned escalating numbers.
    Why not consider the obvious? Why should women and children be carted away, bleeding and bruised, often in the middle of the night, while violent men stay in the family home, resting comfortably, perhaps beer in hand, watching television, and showing absolutely no remorse? By anyone’s standards this is not equality of justice. If a man were to beat up another man he would be arrested. But beating a woman is tolerated. We hide the women away so abusers can’t find them. It’s absolutely outrageous.
    Why not use these “safe houses” to board the men? They could be put on work release and equipped with GPS devices, allowing them to go to work each day while being monitored. They would then be responsible for supporting their families, and at the same time be charged room and board. We could also be sure they were taking care of themselves in such ways as doing their own laundry and preparing their own meals.
    If judges and offenders had such a choice, offenders could avoid jail and still be held responsible for their violence. Furthermore, convicted batterers could keep their jobs, pay child support, and avoid incarceration without endangering their victims. Additionally, judges would be more inclined to impose meaningful sanctions. It would also save hundreds of thousands of dollars on prisons.
    The United States is spending close to $6 billion every year on domestic violence. This covers housing, counseling, medical expenses, etc. This money would be much better used if we implemented stronger sanctions against the men who batter. Meanwhile, our criminal justice system’s failing policies exacerbate criminal behavior and contribute to its prevalence.
    We need to put our heads together for a new domestic violence approach, a policy grounded in equality, to ensure that battered women are treated the same as victims of stranger violence.

    Marilyn Fitterman is a former president of the National Organization for Women in New York State and current president of the organization’s East End chapter. She lives in Springs.

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