Dads have never been more vocal about flying the feminist flag, but Amanda Cassidy wonders if we are all on the same page...
"Even though Malala was born into a patriarchal society, I wasn't worried that it would limit her in this world. I looked at her lying in her cradle, I believed that she could do anything. I had faith in her and that was enough. I needed faith in my own position as her father too, and pledged to her and myself that as long as I was beside her, supporting her, nothing could stand in her way.” Ziauddin Yousafzai is the father of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai. He took a stand to change the world for his daughter.“When people ask me how Malala became who she is, I say, ‘Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.’
The first experience with patriarchy children have is usually at home with their fathers or father figures. And with that comes an important responsibility – in order to instigate social change, attitudes to gender culture need to be tackled early on by the men in our lives. We learn very early on what a father looks like - is it setting rules and exercising control or is it pitching in with the ironing? Does he toss a ball with his son and tell his daughter she's pretty? These are the earliest seeds sown in the minds of our children that shape their view of gender roles and power nuances. The arrival of a child is a unique chance to deconstruct some of the harmful social norms and today, more than ever, men are embracing fatherhood in a way that supports this.
So what exactly does it mean to be a feminist dad? Nigel Barker, an award-winning photographer and proud feminist father says it is about resisting the assumptions many men have grown up with. “The concept that some men think they are more deserving than women, that they should be the decision makers, that they have a divine right to lead and rule is absurd. Girls are actively being held back, minimised and even demonised for their actions simply because of their sex. That is intolerable.”
So-called 'woke' dads are aware of the unconscious bias that surrounds the male and the female and understands that he cannot assume that daughters are nurturing and sons shouldn’t cry. He doesn’t overprotect his daughter thereby instilling learned helplessness that won't do much for her self-confidence. A feminist dad encourages his sons to be emotionally intelligent and celebrates creativity and leadership in all his children. He is aware of the sexualisation of women in the media and is sensitive to the pressure girls face to be pretty and good and dutiful.
According to a recent study on the impact of fathers on the psychological wellbeing of children, those with involved fathers were shown to have higher self-esteem, better cognitive and social skills, fewer behavioural problems, and higher academic achievement. The results also showed that this is true at every income level and regardless of how involved mothers are.
"Use that voice"
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the award-winning writer of the hit Channel 4 show, Fleabag said it was her parent’s attitude and faith in her ability that gave her the confidence to really put herself out there. “ My dad always said: ‘Use your voice. Use your voice. Use your voice.’ He taught me about feminism at a really young age."
Of course, having loving parents isn’t the same as having parents prepared to actively challenge traditional gender norms. In fact, many so-called feminist dads have been criticised for not caring about women’s rights until they (literally) have skin in the game. Celebrity dads like Matt Damon and New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo were widely criticised for looking the other way when it counted, but are now using their father-of-a-daughter status as a way to speak out against Harvey Weinstein. “I have three daughters,” Cuomo said in a press conference. “I want to make sure at the end of the day, this world is a safer, better world for my three daughters.” Lucky them.
The great awakening
Perhaps woke daddies are the ones who used to roll their eyes at sexual harassment presentations at work and now sit up because the victim could, someday, be their daughter. Maybe fatherhood is the chance to see women as equal people in way that was too hard for them to understand when they were just trying to bed them.
But the sudden status of fatherhood shouldn't be the only reason to feel queasy over the mainstream mistreatment of women. Fathering a girl-child shouldn’t be the only requirement for standing up against our still-horrifyingly sexist society. Selfishness shouldn’t be the only motivator you have for change.
So congratulations to those dads who do place value on changing those inequalities – the fathers who adjust the message that daughters should focus on appearance and caretaking while boys smash the competition. But there is a heck of a lot of work still to do. That’s what we’ve been telling you guys for years now. It is just so wonderful that you’ve had your awakening now that you are a dad, but take a look around with your new fresh eyes. Children’s books are twice as likely to place a male hero at the centre of the story as a female heroine. One out of every three women experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime (statistics from the World Health Organisation). Your children are exposed to an average of eight hours a day of media every day – it is on you to point out how underrepresented or sexualised women are across those platforms.
Question it, criticise it, offer solutions, teach your sons, it isn’t enough to simply say you support feminism - talk has never been so cheap and the stakes never so high.
2030 is the year that the UN has set to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ through its Sustainable Development Goal. My children will be 17, 19 and 20 years old – a time in their lives when things like female objectification and the importance of leadership will resonate more than ever. In spite of laws aimed to narrow the gender gaps we see all around us in pay and attitudes, we still face some sobering realities.
This isn’t about men sweeping in to save the day. It has never been about that - despite the prince-in-shining-armour saviour complex we've been surrounded by, growing up. It is about being aware that you, as men (who also might happen to be fathers) have an important role to play if you truly care about making the world a better place for your children, your partner, your mother and yes, even your sons. It is about using your voice to stand up against the injustices that you might be newly aware of – and it is also about knowing when to step back, listen and let others speak for themselves.