Show-and-Tell Feminism for Dads of Daughters

Last week, Bret Spears wrote a widely shared piece on The Huffington Post about the “10 Things No One Ever Told Me About Having a Daughter.” Tracy Moore responded with a quick question in Jezebel: “Why must men have a daughter to suddenly get that girls are people?”

Back in July, Kat Stoeffel lamented the “writer-dad” type on The Cut who has a feminist awakening after having a daughter is “apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins.” 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,” she wrote, “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.