If I understand Stoeffel’s complaint, it’s that “dad feminism” – at least as it tends to live on the internet in the form of blogs, tweets, and other online ephemera – is condescending and patronizing. Her primary example is a recent post from the owner of an online hip-hop site who scolded pop star Nicki Minaj for the provocative cover of her latest single. I’m not going to wade into the issues of sexualized pop culture or the vast complexities of society’s objectification of women’s bodies right now. It’s a complex, difficult issue and I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on it. Stoeffel’s problem with this tsk-tsking is that it presents as a “fatherly” attempt to control Minaj’s use of her own body and image in the guise of all that he has learned since having a young daughter. The original title of the post makes the clearest statement of Stoeffel’s complaint, and she restates the thesis in the first paragraph: “[O]ften 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?”
This is dead on. Suddenly deciding that women are people because you want to protect your daughter from other men does not make you a feminist. One would assume that before you had a daughter, you had a wife or girlfriend. Not to mention a mother. And, one would hope, female friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I completely get this. Talking down to women because you have a daughter is not “Dad Feminism,” it’s “Paternalism.” (And I think it's fair to say moms do this, too.) As a man who considers himself a feminist – at least to the degree that it is possible for someone who does not have the lived experience of being a woman to claim the title – I can say that my feminist leanings did not start the day my daughter was born. I’d like to think that I was not previously oblivious to the struggles of women in our culture and whatever sensitivity I have is not completely new.
However. Whatever is meant by the term “Dad Feminism,” I can’t help but feel defensive. When I read the term in the article titles, I immediately identified with it, only to be offended to have it suggested that Dad Feminism is an embarrassing problem. I certainly don’t understand why having a daughter shouldn’t make men care about feminism (although, to be fair, I don’t think Stoeffel suggested this). There are, of course, lots and lots of other things besides having a daughter that should make men care about feminism. You know, like a desire for justice and equity in the world. Or basic sensitivity to the needs of other human beings. Or, at the least, the selfish recognition that patriarchy is also oppressive to men. But having a daughter should make men more interested in feminism.
Here is where I want to take my stand in defining what I think “Dad Feminism” should be. Having a daughter should make men interested in feminism. So, too, should having a son. I considered myself a feminist (again, with the caveat that I can only claim that title to a certain degree) before having my daughter, but I consider myself more feminist now because I am a parent. I think – I could be wrong, it’s hard to tell for sure – but I think it’s safe to say that I am more of a feminist because I had a child.
Caring for and about my child made me more of a feminist. It also made me more of an environmentalist. And more of a pacifist. And more of an LGBTQ ally. And more concerned about racial equality. And economic parity. And educational access. In short, becoming a parent – having the responsibility of bringing up a young life in this society – has made me more sensitive and concerned about the struggles of all people. It starts with my love for my child who, as genetic chance should have it, was born a girl. And from there it opens up my heart even more to others. Because yes: I see suffering in the world and think, “What if that were my child?” When I read about rape victims dismissed by universities and police, I become incensed. It starts by realizing connecting to that person as someone’s child, then telegraphs to how I would feel if it were my child, then opens me up to paying attention to the full personhood of human beings who suffer rape, humiliation, and other sexual abuse. The same thing happens when I read about Palestinian children killed when their school is bombed. Or when I hear the dire predictions of climate change on this planet. Or see the abuse heaped on people who are transgendered, or the vast injustices that face non-white Americans, or the impossible burdens of being poor. I don’t want these things for my child, and I don’t want them for anyone’s child. The crazy protective love I have for my child has broken open wider the empathy I feel for other people's suffering.
Yes, it runs the risk of paternalism. I accept that. I will work to keep from being patronizing, of treating people who aren’t my child as if they were my child. But I will not renounce my indebtedness to my daughter for making me more deeply sensitive to the suffering in the world. You certainly don’t have to be a parent to start caring about injustice; I agree that you should have started that long ago. But for this writer, I wholeheartedly claim that becoming a father has intensified my heart for other people. One day I will turn my child loose into this world and it terrifies me. I am not ashamed to be a Dad Activist in the hopes that this world might be a slightly better place for everyone's children.
So please tell me if I am clueless, patronizing, or patriarchal. I’ve never wanted that for myself. But do not scold or patronize me for having my heart opened more deeply because of the fierce love I have for my child. My role as a dad has an awful lot to do with my newfound dedication to bringing change to the world, clumsy as I might sometimes be at it. The work of healing and reconciliation is difficult and I care a great deal about it. I will not be silent when my efforts to engage in this work are dismissed because they come out of my identity as a father.