In many ways, my dad was a very traditional father. He was fairly conservative and stern at times. As a headstrong and independent man raising a headstrong and independent daughter, he and I butted heads on many occasions. But truth be told, my dad taught me a whole lot about equality and feminism – I mean really to be a feminist, and not just say you’re feminist – whether he realized it or not.
Now before anyone gets bent out of shape about the word “feminist,” let’s remember that it really just means: equal. Feminism is about equality.
Truthfully, my dad probably doesn’t like the word either. But it isn’t the word; rather, the meaning behind the word that matters (remember: it’s about equality). And whether he knew it or not, my dad was a feminist.
For one, there was never any doubt that he and my mom were in a true partnership in every sense of the word. The two of them ran a small business together (which eventually grew into a not-so-small business) for more than 40 years, and they shared household chores, with my dad often cooking dinners for the family.
But he didn’t just teach me about feminism in his own marriage, but also in the way he approached romantic relationships in general. Unlike all these ridiculous (and completely inappropriate) tropes about dads waiting at the door with a shotgun and a death glare when a boy wants to date his daughter, my dad didn’t meddle with my dating life. Did he love all of my boyfriends? Absolutely not. In fact, there were a few he downright hated. But never once did he forbid me from dating anyone or interject himself in an effort to “save me” or intimidate them.
Instead, every conversation we had about boys and dating was focused on me and my own control over the situation. Was this guy right for me? Was he bringing out the best in me? Was he complementing me, or was he constraining me? Was he treating me with respect? There was never any doubt in my dad’s mind that I could take care of myself.
My dad never bought into (whether he realized it or not) the overprotective dad stereotype that we see in everything from sitcoms and tv ads to running jokes (“Have a son and only worry about one penis; have a daughter and you worry about all the penises”) and social media memes (remember that viral photo of the dad who implanted himself in his daughter’s prom photos?). Like any father, I know my dad felt a fierce protectiveness for me and my sister, but he didn’t cross that line into overprotective. I appreciate this.
My dad, in not buying into this ridiculousness, understood that boys can and should behave appropriately. He expected that. And he also didn’t buy into the harmful, albeit inadvertent, assumption that young women are incapable of taking care of themselves.
Through my dad’s attitude toward my dating life—and his attitude toward the boys I dated—I was empowered and trusted to make my own decisions, secure in the knowledge that I was capable of taking care of myself. Did I make some horrible decisions and spend a lot of time dating the wrong guys? Of course. But isn’t that part of the process? And when I eventually met my husband, I was confident in my ability to decide for myself that he was without a doubt The One—not because my father would approve, but because I did.
But most importantly, my dad taught be about what it means to be a feminist with his ever-present confidence in me. There was never any doubt that I was just as capable as any man, or anyone for that matter. He knew that I didn’t need a man to protect me, or provide for me either.
“If you want something in life, you need to put yourself in a position to provide those things for yourself,” my dad said to me one night. “Don’t count on anyone to provide them for you.”
We had been standing next to each other finishing up the dinner dishes — he dried while I put them away — and he was likely responding to some whiny teenage request for a purse or new shoes or a pair of Guess jeans. Whether intentional or not, with those words, he dad gave me an important lesson in feminism: Be independent, take control of your life, and be the master of your own fate. And just as importantly, he reaffirmed his confidence in me as a capable, competent and self-reliant person, just as worthy of respect and opportunities as anyone else.
As parents, we are constantly teaching our children something — whether it is what to do or not do, what is important and what is not, how we feel about ourselves and what we think about the world around us. As mothers, we tend to fixate on our own role as parents, especially when it comes to issues like feminism and gender equality. But we can’t minimize the impact that men – the dads, uncles, grandpas, brothers, teachers in our lives – can have (either positive or negative) when it comes to raising our kids to be feminists.
These little lessons have a way of leaking out and sinking in. So here’s to all the dads who are raising up feminist sons and daughters – whether they realize it or not–because they are doing vitally important work.