It’s a story that’s become familiar in our cultural and political conversation. A politician supports anti-gay policies until his son comes out as gay. A woman is vehemently against abortion rights until she has an unintended pregnancy. Someone has an epiphany thanks to a brush with real-life experience. While anything that influences people to support more just, progressive policies is positive in a way, it’s frustrating that it often takes stumbling into a situation like this to change people’s minds. Kat Stoeffel takes on a version of this phenomenon that can be particularly annoying:
No act of personal writing makes my skin crawl like when a father sits down to describe what having a daughter has taught him about the female experience. It’s nothing against dads. I love mine, and I also welcome feminist awakenings whenever and however they occur. But often the writer-dad’s newfound sensitivity is overshadowed by his prior obliviousness: He was apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins. Did he take nothing from his other encounters with half of humanity? Not even from his mother?
Right away, she hits on one of the most fundamental problems with this. People can isolate themselves in a way that they don’t often interact with people of color, LGBT people (or at least that they’re aware of), poor people and so on. But very few people are going to be so isolated that they are not constantly interacting with women. It doesn’t take much to recognize the particular struggles women deal with our society. Hell, you could even talk to women about it. Don’t these men have female coworkers, friends, significant others, teachers, family members?
While men have almost zero excuse for not seeing the need for feminism through basic human interaction, people have no better excuse for not being able to empathize with struggles of other groups. The evidence is out there if you want to find it. I’m a straight white person who grew up in one of the whitest states in the country, but I make a point of listening to the experiences of people who aren’t like me, and my positions on policy issues are molded by that information.
You can read pages and pages of statistics about the racism that underlies our criminal justice system. You can read heart-wrenching personal stories about poverty, immigration, basically any pressing social issue we are dealing with. If you’re not a robot, those stories will have an effect on you even if you’re not sitting down face to face with the storytellers or don’t see them walking down the street in your neighborhood every day. Of course you’re going to be more invested in what happens to your loved ones, but you shouldn’t need to, as Stoeffel puts it, “acquire your own personal mini-woman” to care about feminism.
The other problem with “dad feminism” in particular that Stoeffel highlights is that it can easily turn condescending and/or creepy. She uses an open letter to Nicki Minaj as a jumping off point:
Creekmur’s “It’s a Girl!” revelation isn’t the only one that leaves something to be desired from a feminist perspective. Having a daughter inspired such profound revelations in a The Art of Manliness writer as “Men are born to protect” and “Every girl is some guy’s daughter.” Next time you hit the strip club or roll your eyes in HR sexual harassment training, think of your fellow protective man and daughter-haver! A Good Men Project writer had the good sense to direct his open letter to his “little one” and his little one only. Her existence made him realize — in the makeup aisle of his local Target — that women face undue pressure to look good. “Maybe a father’s words can deliver his daughter through this gauntlet of institutionalized shame and into a deep, unshakeable sense of her own worthiness and beauty,” he wrote. (In the battle of One Dad’s Words vs. the Rest of Society, I’m not optimistic.) Even the most basic principles of gender equality sound unctuous when they’re delivered in the form of a fatherly reminder that Daddy’s Little Princess deserves feminism. Like the viral Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter T-shirt from the “Feminist Father.” Can rule No. 5 be no novelty tees about my sex life?
Twisting this fatherly concern into judgment is not helpful and the infantilization of women and definition mainly in relationship to our fathers is insulting. In some ways, we need more feminists wherever we can get them. But we need allies who truly understand feminism. As Stoeffel aptly puts it, “it’s hard to bring down the patriarchy by reveling in your status as a patriarch.”