For most of us dads who are raising daughters, we have an understanding of the important role that we as men have in guiding the positive and healthy development of our daughters. Sometimes, however, we overlook the important role a daughter can play in the development of a man.
I had always thought of myself as a “good guy” – the kind of guy who treated women with respect, valued my platonic friendships with women and stood up for women’s rights. However, in 2005 when my daughter, Luna was born that all changed. The moment this amazing little girl came into my life it upped the ante on everything. As I cradled her tiny body next to my bare chest I was excited and hopeful for the life that lay ahead of her, but also nervous and scared because I knew of the challenges she would undoubtedly face growing up female in our society.
I thought of my grandmother, who struggled to become more than just a housewife in the post-war 1950s and how she triumphantly took a job outside of the home despite my overbearing grandfather’s objections. I thought of my mom who struggled to raise my brother and I as a single mother in the wake of the 1980s divorce epidemic. As she struggle to put food on the table with her part-time teacher’s salary she confided in us that she never really wanted to be a teacher and that as a young girl was told that career options for women were limited to nurse, teacher, or nun. I thought of all of the strong, independent, exciting, and in some ways intimidating women I befriended in college in the early 1990s; listening in horror to their stories of abuse, rape, and dehumanization during a campus Take Back the Night Rally. That event in many ways prompted me to begin to question my own masculinity, my role as a man and my relationships with women. I thought about my wife – my daughter’s mother – who is a survivor of domestic violence in a previous relationship and the hell she had endured. I thought again of my daughter and hoped that she wouldn’t have to experience any of this. Once again I found myself questioning my role as a man, as a father, as a partner, as a human being.
And now six years later I have seen Luna grow from an infant into a beautiful little girl with her own magical personality. I take great pride in knowing that in many ways Luna has accompanied me on my journey both professionally as a fatherhood practitioner and personally as her father. I will never forget her first Take Back the Night Rally at age 4 when she accompanied me on stage during my speech and stole the show by yelling “Girl Power!” into the microphone to the delight of the crowd.
My commitment to Luna involves more than just being a good dad at home. It means I have to take a stand for women’s rights and model aspects of positive masculinity not only to her but to everyone in my community. Many men have not yet opened their eyes to the invisibility of male privilege and the negative effects our patriarchal society has on women and girls. I don’t think any father would ever intentionally say, “I want to raise my kid to be a second class citizen”, but in effect that is the legacy we leave to our daughters when we fail to confront the status quo and when we fail to confront ourselves.
I know a lot of men get squeamish at mention of the “F Word” – feminism. I would like to offer a new father-friendly definition that comes from Michael P. Johnson Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Women’s Studies, and African and African American Studies at Penn State:
You’re a feminist if you believe that (1) men are privileged relative to a woman, (2) that’s not right, and (3) you’re going to do something about it, even if it’s only in your personal life.
I believe that as a father of a daughter you become a feminist by nature of the job description. And that wouldn’t hurt for fathers of sons too. Boys could also benefit greatly by growing up in a world were true gender equality was a reality. To paraphrase anti-violence educator Jackson Katz, feminism isn’t anti-male; it merely provides a world view that encourages men to be honest with ourselves about the society we’ve created and the way in which we participate in it. It’s really about promoting a state of equality that can benefit both sexes.
So this Valentine’s Day I encourage you to talk with your daughter about the issues she faces specifically as a girl. Be open to self reflection and talk with other men about what you can do to create new opportunities for our daughters and support the safe and healthy development of their full potential as human beings. And lastly, whatever your situation is treat her mother and all women with respect. She’s learning how to relate with men by your example. Provide a great one.