A phrase I’ve read too often (like three times) in the past few days is, “as the father of daughters.” The implication is that, by watching girl children grow up, a man learns to embrace feminism and to redirect whatever misogynist tendencies he may have embraced as the son of a mother or the student of teachers or the classmate of classmates or the supervisor of underlings or what have you.
In fact, I think this is the dream: systems change based on (overwhelming, revolutionary) individual change, so if patriarchs themselves embraced femininity, then patriarchy would crumble.
Much to my own dismay, that’s not how it works. Daughters can’t teach dads anything dads aren’t willing to learn. Daughters, in fact, are in the business of learning how to placate their fathers and all the other rulemakers in their lives. From a tiny age, many daughters are scolded or teased for how much we talk, how bossy we are, how demanding we are, and how much we move. I know a lot of daughters, ranging in age from 8 months to 83 years old, and I can cite examples of how each of them practices making themselves more palatable for patriarchy.
The father of daughters who believes his status as dad makes him an automatic ally has some more digging to do.
You are not an ally if you want to protect women. Being in the role of protector still has you making all the choices and setting all the standards. For example, if you want to know what your daughter is up to because you want to make sure she is spending her time wisely, back it up. You don’t get to determine “wisely” for her, even if she is four years old. Instead, you can ask, “What do you enjoy doing? What do you like about that?” and believe what she says. Even if what you enjoy is different, you can respect her choices.
You are not an ally if you want to tolerate women or femininity in your midst. Smiling and shaking your head, for example, when women do “womanly” things like going to the bathroom in a group, is not allyship. What you can do instead, in a safe setting (which means you have to be a safe, trusted person; no setting is safe with a threatening person), is ask a woman you respect, “Have you ever noticed that a lot of women go to the bathroom together? Do you have any ideas or personal experience about why that might be?” Then you can believe her answer and treat it as truth, even if it is different from your own observations or experience.
The first step in allyship is trusting that the other person is an expert in their own life. The second step is getting to know them so that you better understand lives that are different from your own. The third step is practicing interacting with them in different roles so you can get used to the myriad expressions of the identity, in this case, womanhood.
The cultural trope of a dad struggling with his daughter’s first date is not cute, it’s sexist. As hard as it is to watch anyone of any gender grow up — we love who they were as babies, as toddlers, as primary schoolers, and so on; each of those transitions is heartbreaking and exciting — if you resist or reject a role for your daughter, it’s not because you are having trouble with transition. You knew before the birth that she might grow up. She might grow up and have sex. She might grow up and fight wars. She might grow up and not be a woman, or a she. She might grow up and be a boss. She might grow up and sue her boss. She might grow up and drive fast motorcycles. She might grow up and train fast horses. If you reject any of those possibilities for her, then saying you are “a father to daughters” means nothing in the context of examining the space for women and for femininity in our systems.
Dads — and everyone— try this test: think of a time your boss was a woman. (Can’t think of a time? Imagine your mother, mother-in-law, or a teacher.) Think of what she did that impressed you. Think of what she did that intimidated you (or pissed you off). Think of how she was respected by you and by those around you. Now imagine your daughter (or anyone you love) in that role. Would you want that for her? How can you act differently so that you can honestly say you would want your daughter treated like that?
Which brings me back to the beginning: too often, daughters shift their behavior and their expectations in accordance with what’s on offer, not the other way around. I know plenty of dads who are comfortable with reproductive rights being inaccessible, or with women earning less than men, or with sexual violence being largely unprosecutable. I’m sick of the narrative that it’s a distinct pocket of neo-Nazis and politicians that aren’t down with liberation. Anyone who says sexual assault (or hate groups or unethical labor practices) is NOT a deal breaker is condoning that behavior. Silence is compliance.
Whether you are a dad, a dude, or someone else, spend some time getting honest about the ways men in your childhood taught you to be. Where there was harm, write a letter to or have a conversation with your smaller self, letting them know that you are grown now and can make choices about your own liberation and safety. Where there was help, write a letter or a have a conversation with your younger self explaining how valuable that help was and how it still impacts you today. You could share your reflections with anyone you trust so that we all hear more stories of helpful men and harm girls lived through.
Or you could keep your reflections to yourself because they are yours.