Notes from a feminist father

Yesterday was Father’s Day and I am proud to offer this piece written by my best friend Joshua Todd. He’s not only a brilliant social worker devoting his professional time in Portland, Ore. to the first Youth Bill of Rights in the nation, he is also an organizer for Daddies & Pappas, which held its 3rd annual Father’s Day event for gay dads at the oldest independently run amusement park in the country yesterday. I’m biased but I think Josh is amazing and one of the best dads I know.

The Ugliest Girl in the First Grade

In our house the most frantic time is in the evenings. I rush home from child care (clear across town), drop our bags and coats, chuck our shoes and projects from the day and quickly begin answering phone calls, sorting mail, cooking dinner, organizing lunches for the next morning, helping Charity and Aaron with homework (what a kindergartener needs with homework still baffles me), and get baths, pajamas, and bedtime stories done and all in the span of 90 minutes. Feel winded reading that sentence aloud? Good, you get a sense of the pace of the evening.

These precious 90 minutes are not my most attentive and loving parenting moments. I can’t count the number of “not nows,” “go plays,” and “calm downs” I have uttered. I shudder to think of the moments I’ve missed, traumas I’ve caused or neglect I have inflicted that will blossom 10 or 20 years down the road into full-sized, therapy-ready, blame-laden issues.

Last week, my daughter (the aforementioned Charity) was sitting on the stairs next to the kitchen. Our house isn’t modern, thankfully, which means that the kitchen isn’t open to the stairs. They are nearby but not a part of the kitchen. When you leave the kitchen, I can’t see you anymore. You could be on the other side of the wall or two stories away. Usually, that is just how I like it. “Ok, out of the kitchen! I’m cooking dinner!” This night though, Charity stayed on the stairs — out of sight but still within earshot. She sat on the stairs and talked to herself, mostly chatter that I successfully blocked out as I chopped vegetables. Suddenly, one sentence cut through my hurried daze as sharply as my knife through celery. “I’m kinda the ugliest girl in the first grade.”

“I’m kinda the ugliest girl in the first grade.” In the sad voice of my daughter.

“I’m kinda the ugliest girl in the first grade.” In the sad voice of a 6-year-old.

“I’m kinda the ugliest girl in the first grade.” WTF!

I looked into the hallway and up the stairs and asked Charity why she would say such a thing. She was beautiful, and I told her. Who ever told her she was ugly? It turns out no one, really. One girl told her she didn’t take care of her clothes. Another girl told her they couldn’t play together because she had other friends that day. Charity told herself that she was ugly because she couldn’t read as well as everyone else and because sometimes when she talked people didn’t listen.

Now Charity is adopted, adopted by a gay man no less. These are moments I fear because it points out like a big, flaming, gay pride banner…WARNING! NO MOMMY — YOU DON’T HAVE ANY RIGHT PARENTING! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE RAISING A CHILD, ESPECIALLY A LITTLE GIRL!

Some experiences Charity and I will never fully share. Some moments I will not be able to speak from experience. I dread her first menstruation. I hope becoming a father and becoming a mother are close enough that I can be helpful. Explaining, let alone giving advice that might actually help ward off the sometimes-vicious, sometimes-subtle attacks of other little girls was way out of my league. I felt totally useless and drowning in my six-year-old daughter’s sadness and sinking self-image.

I try. I read Reviving Ophelia. Ok, I didn’t read it but I thought about reading it. Well I watched the author on Oprah once. Ok, I hate Oprah. I didn’t watch it but a friend did and they told me about it and, and…I watched Mean Girls, twice! Regardless of my attempts to understand the unique torture inflicted by little girls on other little girls I would never know exactly what that was like. Believe me, I have plenty of experience with the unique torture inflicted by little boys on other little boys but that usually meant actual torture or being called a fag.

What worried me most was not that I didn’t know what to say right then because I think I pulled it together and was able to come up with something that helped. What worried me more was that I thought I had been saying the right things all along but when Charity walks out the door she hears from lots of voices, some louder and more influential than mine. Some voices so powerful they had convinced her that Pretty= “Good,” Pretty= “Smart,” and “Pretty” was the only measure that mattered if you were a six-year-old girl.

So where do we go from here? Charity is still in first grade. She still likes to play rough and tumble and her clothes still get dirty. She still doesn’t read as well as some kids in her class and sometimes someone won’t listen when she speaks. She still has two gay guys for dads and no mom. She still goes to school with girls and boys and probably more adults than I want to count who think for a girl SUCCESS=PRETTY, SMART=PRETTY, WORTHWHILE=PRETTY. Where do I go from here? As a dad, I can keep saying all the things I have been saying. “You are beautiful just as you are.” “You can be anything you want to be.” “I love you, no matter what.”

As a feminist man, though, I also know that I have to say a few other things. The ads and commercials Charity watches that show women as objects of beauty and desire, they aren’t just saying “buy this product” they are saying to her, “this is the goal,” “this is what you should look like.” The teacher who doesn’t step in when other kids tease and make fun of other kids isn’t just staying silent, they are saying those epithets are true, or at least not wrong enough to challenge. As a dad, as a feminist dad, it is my job to challenge the assumptions that Charity doesn’t even understand yet. To show her other options, other role models; to deconstruct, if you will, the false ideas that she is bombarded with when she leaves my care.

So on Father’s Day I want to give a shout-out to all the other Feminist Men and Feminist Dads! Feminism matters because a six-year-old girl can still go to school and walk away thinking she has to be pretty to be smart. Feminism still matters because inequality still exists. Feminism still matters because damn it, my daughter is going to be judged by the content of her heart and character and not her beauty! Feminism still matters because…(let me know why it still matters to you). Happy Father’s Day!

14 thoughts on “Notes from a feminist father

  1. As a mother of a daughter and a woman who LOVES Charity, that was a hard read for me. Charity is a magical little girl. It pains me that the world is already conspiring to undermine her confidence at the tender age of six. Happy Fathers Day to a really great dad. Feminism still matters to me because daughters still need amazing feminist daddys like you.

  2. This is difficult realization to have. I am sorry that Charity is confronting confidence issues at such a young age. I too have a daughter who at 10 seems to have less self esteem with each passing year. I too think I am communicating with her in the “right” ways. Josh you are right and with more people like you in the world our girls have a chance as rejecting these obscene narrowly constructed identities for women as portrayed in all aspects of our lives (especially through media and advertising campaigns meant to question our worth.) This life-long work. Thanks for doing it.
    Yeah…..why do kindergarten students need homework?

  3. A huge thanks to Josh for this rivoting, honest, and moving piece. It speaks truthfully of the insidiousness of such horrible belief systems and practices… experienced at such an early age. It also speaks powerfully of the conviction of incredible fathers such as himself and others working to make such positive change happen with their families, their worlds.

    One quote to offer from bell hooks’ book, FEMINIST THEORY, FROM MARGIN TO CENTER: “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

    And, Josh… along with the other folks who replied, I so strongly appreciate your thoughtfulness, conviction, strength in word and deed, and insightfulness.

  4. Hey ya’ll. Thanks for the great response to this piece. It was hard to write and harder to witness. The follow-up is that the week after this happened Charity started parroting the behavior the “mean girls” at school inflicted on her…Aaron can downstairs one morning and said “Charity told me my clothes don’t look nice.” She also started playing the I can’t play with you today because I have another friend I like better game!

    It is so frustrating to see this negative behavior and know that she is just trying to work out what was done to her by doing it to others. In one, tiny little interaction the whole dynamic of oppression and internalized hatred and self-loathing is on display. So an addendum…feminism matters because the vicious cycle of oppression, sexism, classism, and homophobia will continue to feed themselves unless we step in and stop them. They will end with me. I will not pass them on to my son and daughter!

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  7. Love this piece, writing an essay on women’s autobiographies, fathers and feminism, public and private. Thats how i landed here. I think the father daughter relationship is so complicated , its so important for a girl to have a father who reassures her that she is right no matter what the world says. Glad to know you are one of those.

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  10. Feminism still matters because there are still dads and father figures out there who tell their daughters that they are not as smart, nor will they be as successful, as guys.
    Thank you for being a feminist dad. I hope the girls out there who need to hear this stuble upon your post.

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