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Is It Possible to Have a Feminist Father Daughter Relationship?

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Sep 23, 2016

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I’ve recently been giving more thought to the father daughter relationship, specifically to what role fathers play as supporters of feminist ideals.

Having two daughters, I want them to be confident, secure and willing to try anything at all (except jumping off our staircase, which the younger one seems bent on doing all the time). I want them to take the same risks we expect young boys to take as a matter of course.

For example, the other day I was showing my older daughter how to skateboard, an activity routinely associated with being a ‘cool boy.’  But I wanted her to try it because – “Why not?” I said, when she asked. Why should boys only skateboard? It’s a ludicrous designation on its face (and on its back, which is where this boy ended up, in pain, after slipping hours later).

One benefit to feminist parenting in this current era is that male-only or female-only designations have been thoroughly debunked as obvious silliness. Whether it’s learning to skateboard, or Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s powerful COO telling women and girls to “lean in” and not accept being called “bossy,” or young girls playing in male-dominated sports like American football, or women serving in military combat units, we’re living amid a sea change in how we view women’s role in society.

And while I’m grateful for the powerful female examples available, I have also been pondering my own — whether a father daughter relationship can indeed be feminist, given the primacy of mothers in family life. Is the idea of the father leading his own daughter to “believe in herself” an act of male domination? That is, when I tell them: “You can be anything you want to be,” I am uncomfortable that the words carry the implicit suggestion that they have my permission to be anything they want to be — when, in fact, they don’t need to get my permission to do anything at all (unless it’s to jump off the staircase). At the same time, as a feminist father and their first male role model, I feel the responsibility of showing what an equality-supportive man looks like.

But figuring out what he (I) should do and be isn’t easy. The noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem once described the feminist father in an interview: “We need societies that encourage men to be nurturing parents, too. Men who raise children are much less likely to insist on having too many. They also raise children who humanize the gender roles because they know that men can be as nurturing as women — just as women can be as achieving in the world as men.”

It’s helpful in theory, but there are few clearer examples for a feminist father to look to, today. My father was a great role model, but unlike him, I have a propensity to tell my daughters I love them for no particular reason. I tend to engage in silliness or try to make them laugh at a terrible joke.

This is not to speak ill of my own father, who has been an amazing pillar of support in my life. Rather, having daughters has made me a fundamentally different father than my own, who had two sons. I am far more likely to hug my daughters, dance with them or discuss the various merits of ponies versus unicorns. While I never saw this as parenting, I now realize these are the nurturing acts Steinem refers to.

These musings might seem idle, but they have become an especially acute question during the current US election cycle, in which Hillary Clinton is the country’s first woman major-party nominee for president. Unlike India, the UK, Pakistan, Israel, Norway, Germany, the Philippines and a slew of other nations, the US is late to the party in even contemplating electing a woman as president.

Perhaps the delay has caused an appalling level of gendered vitriol to build up and burst forth; my daughters watch as Donald Trump, Clinton’s opponent, says degrading, sexist, and misogynistic statements about her appearance and physical attributes, or leads crowds in menacing statements about “locking her up.”

As I have seen Trump engage in this backward rhetoric, my belief is affirmed that a father’s role in parenting must be that of a feminist supporter of a daughters’ ambitions. We do so when we show enthusiastic support for a competent female presidential candidate in front of our daughters, when we express to them disgust at honor killings, when we talk with them about Malala Yousefzai and why her fight for access to education was so important.

It’s a fine line to walk, of course, but then much of being a feminist father is. Having these conversations with my daughters provides them with an equality-supportive home and male role model, yes, but it also introduces them to the realities of gender discrimination which, as a feminist father, I seek to insulate them from; my 9-year-old was surprised when I reminded her that just getting to go to school is not a guaranteed right to young girls. But that exposure is going to happen whether I like it or not, thanks to Trump and many others.

Discussing these important issues reinforces the subtler, quotidian feminist values in our household that might go overlooked. You may ask: Where is mom in all of this? She’s often working long hours in the office — showing my daughters, through her dedication, that women can be primary household earners.

To my wife and I, this is not a small matter; breaking the traditional model of the husband wife relationship and, consequently, father daughter relationship has been a challenge for our household, but we think it is critical to our daughters’ development from strong girls to strong women. Because theory is well and good, but living it is what matters.

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Written By Rajat Soni

Rajat is an Indian-American stay-at-home father of two girls, aged 7 and 3, one of whom was born in India. After working as a lawyer and raising his girls for several years in Mumbai, he moved to the U.S., where he became the primary caretaker for his daughters while his wife started a new job. He’s interested in exploring the role modern fathers play in the lives of their young children.

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