When I travel these days, I find myself thinking a lot about my dad. This could be because he is a frequent flyer himself, I feel a kinship in the small victories and challenges of being on the road. The vegetative delight of hotel cable. The sweet flavor of a complimentary cookie. The slow resentment of yet another fast-food dinner clinging to your stomach. But really, I am thinking of my dad because of the work that I do when I travel.
My mother used to joke that I was such a feisty child she worried that I would grow up to be some sort of revolutionary. All through my adulthood, I felt twinges of guilt that I’m not. Not really. I don’t lead rallies or host sit-ins. I’m a far better cheerleader than organizer. I’ve read a lot of books but never written a manifesto. Truth be told I’ve never even been to a real protest. When I was in high school and the US declared war on Iraq, hundreds of students at my school staged a walkout. Afraid of getting a fail for the day, I stayed in class. In awe and inspiration I watch my friends in college organize, rally, speak into microphones, and create handouts and publications. I would never call myself an activist. The only public speaking I craved was on a stage, behind the veil of a role, or the written word.
A few months ago I began working as a presenter for a sexual-assault-prevention program that tours around the country to military bases and college campuses talking about rape culture. This work is the closest I have ever come to feeling like an activist. And it has changed me immensely for the better. But it has also brought to light certain things about my upbringing that I may have taken for granted. To say my mother was instrumental in my feminist upbringing would be an understatement. When most people meet my mother, they tell me I am just like her. Same expansive expressions and hand gestures, same eager smile and rapid-fire speech. And it’s true. But more and more these days I have been thinking about the parts of me that are like my father. My occasional sarcasm. My candor. A feminism that is grounded and pensive, but sharp.
When I was very young my father worked freelance from home and took the lion’s share of watching me during the day. What I remember most about my father were the questions. “Why does your doll feel that way?” “Do you think that’s a good idea or a bad idea?” “What do you think?”. My father taught me never to go without questioning. Perhaps at his own peril he raised a child who fully believed it was her right to know. Only now, as a young woman, do I see how powerful that is. Thinking critically is no easy task, especially for a little girl in a world where girls are told to smile more often than they are asked to think.
The most specific memory I have is from when I was about eleven or twelve. There was this show on the WB called Unhappily Ever After. For those of you who never saw it, you weren’t missing much. It was a sitcom that featured a typically dysfunctional family, with an idiot son and a brilliant but highly sexualized daughter played by actress Nikki Cox. To highlight this fact, every time Cox’s character appeared onscreen for the first time in an episode, instead of having the routine canned applause track, they would play a canned track of catcalls, hoots, and hollers. For some reason, I became fixated on watching this show. And my father forbade it. “That sound effect they play, Jessye, those whistles—that’s insulting,” he told me. “I don’t like it. Not in my house. No.” As a sulky eleven-year-old I was annoyed. I just wanted to watch the stupid sitcom and not have to really think about the damn thing. But now I couldn’t. And now I get it.
It was my father who questioned why all the Disney movies featured mothers that were either dead or evil. My father was the one who pointed out that “Santeria” by Sublime featured lyrics about the revenge killing of a girlfriend. And it was my father that taught me never to accept condescension as inevitable or merited.
Father-daughter relationships are often talked about in uncomfortably patriarchal terms. Father-daughter dances. The idea of being a “daddy’s girl” or having “daddy issues” calls to mind a kind of father-as-protector-and-owner mentality. While these attitudes by no means encompass the reality of father-daughter relationships, they seem to come out in full force around certain special occasions: proms, weddings, Father’s Day. This Father’s Day, though, I want to have a conversation about what it really means to be a good father. Especially to a daughter.
I want to give a shout-out to those fathers that raise their daughters to own themselves and do it proudly. To the fathers that sit through dance recitals and practice hitting line drives with their daughters. To the fathers that let their children shape their own genders. And I want to thank my own father for all he did for me. For buying me a toolkit that matched his own when I was a little girl at home with him. For telling me how much he always wanted a daughter without making me feel like that came with a certain expectation. For showing me what it meant to be respected. For teaching me to question. For protecting me not by policing my body, but by demanding that I make my own choices and trust them. These are the things that I want to celebrate about fatherhood this year. Because fatherhood is not the same thing as patriarchy. And that deserves to be recognized. Because I know that while my father may not identify himself as a feminist, I certainly would not be one without him. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Happy Father’s Day.