Why the “had daughter, became feminist” narrative doesn’t work for me

There is a part of me that thinks I should celebrate whenever a man suddenly becomes a feminist and/or sees the struggles of his female colleagues in a new light because he now has a daughter. But there is a whole other part of me that finds it sad that the sexism and inequality faced by all the other women in a man’s life (mother, wife, friends, colleagues, sisters, aunts, neighbors) were apparently not meaningful enough to bring about the same sort of epiphany. Of course it is great that these newly aware men are concerned about their daughters’ futures, but there is an implication that until the daughter came along they didn’t care much about the present condition of the other women in their life.

Beyond that, I am also 100% convinced that counting on men with daughters to join the feminist cause and thus constitute some turning or tipping point in the path to true gender equality is simply not a winning strategy. After all, men have been having daughters (and mothers, and wives, and sisters) forever … and yet the feminist revolution has yet to be won. Clearly, men having  daughters is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for commitment to gender equality.

In fact, gender differs from other major axes of inequality (class, race, sexuality) precisely in the regularity and intimacy with which most people interact across difference.  Men and women regularly interact in families, work settings, neighborhoods, schools, and places of worship. In the US, the persistence of racial and class segregation means that this kind of intimate, regular interaction happens far less frequently across racial and social class differences. Put another way, the majority of Americans live, work, learn, and worship in racially and socio-economically homogenous settings. A defining feature of structural inequality based on race and class is that privileged people are systematically blinded to the conditions of poor people and people of color. Not so with gender inequality. The overwhelming majority of men have consistent, daily opportunities to observe gender inequality and sexism if they are willing to pay attention to it.

So while I am glad for every person who commits to combatting sexism and gender inequality, I just can’t bring myself to celebrate the stories of men who weren’t willing to see sexism and discrimination until they started worrying about how it would affect their own daughters.

I think real progress comes when people fight for social justice whether or not they have a daughter, a gay neighbor, a black colleague, or a cousin on welfare.

 

11/29/13, edited to add:

Thanks to @librarianwilk for pointing out that it is a big, and troubling, leap from “sees the struggles of his female colleagues in a new light” to “weren’t willing to see sexism and discrimination”. Those are clearly 2 very different points on a spectrum, and my sloppy writing and tendency toward hyperbole make it sound like I think they are the same.

Also, it seems some folks think I wrote this in response to a specific person or story. I assure you I did not. If I was interested in singling out any particular version of this trope, I would have named and linked.

24 Responses to “Why the “had daughter, became feminist” narrative doesn’t work for me”


  1. 1 jvinopal December 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    For some inexplicable reason I happened to read Ross Douthat’s NYTimes column on 12/14/13 where he writes about a recent study suggesting that having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.

    Here’s Douthat’s column:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-daughter-theory.html?_r=0

    Here’s the study (paywall) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/socf.12055/abstract

  2. 2 Stewart Varner December 12, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Better late than never?

    I’ve wanted to get involved in this conversation since I saw it start up partially because, as a straight/cis/male/childless person who has considered myself a feminist since the first time I heard a definition of the word, I’m not a fan of the “had daughter, became feminist” narrative either.

    Not that I have it all figured out though. I always feel a little anxious wading into conversations like this because I really want to be part of the solution but I’m never sure I’ve taken everything into account. As a result, I totally expect my understanding of how things work and how things can be better to evolve for the rest of my life. Having a daughter would certainly influence that but having a son would too. What would I do to help him grow up to be a right-on, stand-up guy and not weigh him down with all the bullshit we usually inherit? What if my child didn’t feel comfortable with the shockingly limited range of acceptable genders? (Two? Really?) Even if I never have kids, I still don’t get out of my own responsibility for being a right-on, stand-up guy myself. And, I certainly have plenty of my own bullshit to work through.

    Another reason I wanted to chime in is that I really get frustrated when men don’t join conversations about gender (join in a constructive way, not a dominating way). This frustration is of course with myself as much as anyone else. Sure, I’m an introvert but I also have the privilege of being able to be introverted about this. All I have to shut up and mind my own business. In fact, my life might be easier if I do just that. Everything is set up to work out for me and keep about 51% of the competition out of my way.

    So, Chris, I think you put it eloquently when you conclude your post, “I think real progress comes when people fight for social justice whether or not they have a daughter, a gay neighbor, a black colleague, or a cousin on welfare.” But it is also seems to ask, if you are male, straight, white and middle class, what would make you fight for social justice for others? I mean, sure, basic human decency would seem to cover it but, judging by our track record, I don’t think we can bet on that.

    First, feminism is one tool in a suite of tools I have at my disposal for fighting my own struggles. If we were honest about it, even the most cis man could probably point to some way he feels prohibited by definitions of masculinity. Feminism is there for you. It names patriarchy and says its a power structure, not a law of physics. Where patriarchy sets boundaries and limits, feminism gives me a perspective and a vocabulary to take all of that apart.

    Second, and probably more importantly, feminism is my team. That first point up there might come off as a little selfish. Feminism is about me! I’m a feminist because it helps me! But I see feminism as something I joined, not something I took for myself.

    And its actually a much, much bigger fight and “feminism against patriarchy” is just one front. It is intertwined with all the other struggles for social justice. It’s obviously tied to the LGBT rights movement as patriarchy has strong opinions about how sex and pleasure are supposed to work. Its also tied up with the struggle for economic justice as men continue to be very protective of capitalism‘s control centers (both the nominally democratic ones and the straight-up oligarchic ones).

    So that’s more or less how I got here; every time I thought something was fucked up there was a feminist right there also thinking it was fucked and trying to fix it with a bunch of useful tools. That’s the team I want to be on.

  3. 3 Lisa Rabey (@pnkrcklibrarian) November 27, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I’ve been mulling this over myself for some time, but you wrote it much more eloquently and framed it much better than I could. Thank you.

    I do, however, want to add this: I’m trying desperately to be not be a judgemental ass but it is difficult when there are instances, such as a discussion I got into with someone, cis/white/male who self-identified themselves as a very strong feminist, who dismissed most/all of my issues with his piece on females in tech because his experiences did not match mine. When I also pointed out some of his suggestions were borderline ridiculous, I got tut tutted — which seems odd that you would tell someone who falls into the group you were attempting to support you will only support them as long as your predefined conditions were met. Sometime later, he writes a second piece doing a mea culpa that he had no idea things were as bad as they were — well, yes you did know. I told you. Others told you. You choose to ignore us until someone else (better well known, more publicity) decided to take up the angle. Which is equally as troubling.

  4. 4 Cecily Walker November 27, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    When I encounter these stories I always end up wondering why it takes parenthood for people to develop empathy for others. I don’t have children (and never will) so perhaps I will never understand that special bond and awakening, but empathy for others who are not us seems to me a cornerstone of what makes us human.

  5. 5 Steve Ammidown November 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    I’m a childless male, and have considered myself to be feminist for a while now. My mom, who doesn’t identify as feminist, was a huge influence on that, but a healthy dose of self-awareness has contributed as well. No kids necessary, just listening.

    So my take on these stories comes down to cookies. There is a selfish impulse, as you said- when a male has a gender-related revelation, however authentic, they want to share it to earn praise for how thoughtful/self-aware/enlightened they are. And thanks to the internets, they get those cookies more often than not. As has happened through most of our/their lives, they feel like the knowledge is it’s own reward, and that’s the end of it.

    What’s key to me, and is often missing, is the challenge- “That’s great. Now what are you going to do about it?” And I think this is the way you reach boys and men. Proper consciousness-raising has to be words and actions. Men who see the value of feminism need to share their experiences and offer a way to put that value into actions. And this is the tricky spot- I don’t know how we do this. I have sought out like-minded men for years and found more MRAs (which indulges a different selfish impulse) than anything. So maybe it comes down to breaking down the selfish instinct? I’m not sure.

  6. 6 Joshua Beatty (@beattyjf) November 27, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Childless male feminist here. I’d considered myself a feminist for a long time but, I’m ashamed to say, it still took a personal experience before I understood how much misogyny I’d not seen. In my case, I team-taught with a friend and, every day for a summer, watched the same students, both men and women, treat me with far more respect than they did her.

  7. 7 Jenn Riley November 27, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I think there’s something in the process of watching a daughter grow up, be affected in developmental stages by stereotypes, and become her adult self that is different than seeing women in other roles throughout one’s life. I wonder if it’s as much about seeing this process so close up that triggers new realizations, as much as because she’s a daughter rather than a sister, mother, spouse, peer.

    • 8 Chris Bourg November 27, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      Jenn-
      I’m sure that is how new realizations get triggered in some parents of daughters. But surely we can all agree that being a parent isn’t a necessary condition for becoming a feminist? What does that say about all the fully aware feminists who are childless? Or all the parents who are not feminists?
      If some men are able to be fully aware of the effects of gender without raising daughters (and clearly some are), then isn’t it actually a bit insulting to imply that other men couldn’t get it until they had a daughter to raise? Not sure I’m making sense.
      I guess my point is that I’m well aware that having a child or a closed loved one affected by some form of inequality is a common route to being an advocate for the elimination of that inequality. I just happen to think it is not a particularly effective way of gaining allies on an aggregate level, and it strikes me as a fairly privileged, myopic, and frankly self-centered path on a personal level.

      • 9 Jenn Riley November 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

        I definitely agree, and hope others would, that being a parent isn’t a necessary condition for being a feminist. (I don’t have kids, but I’m a woman…)

        I however don’t think that recognizing one person’s awakening to an issue implies that other people can’t get it unless they take the same path. So I wouldn’t see this as insulting, since I think that’s not actually the implication of recognizing one person’s path.

        I agree this approach doesn’t scale. I think unfortunately we’re still at a point where the little, individual wins are still necessary to celebrate even while we’re seeking means for greater impact. Start with recognition, move to awareness, then rage, then change. The system is broken, but people drive the system. So the solution has to start with people.

        (Look at that, praise sandwich. I totally didn’t mean to do that.)

      • 10 Chris Bourg November 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm

        That’s a pretty awesome praise sandwich!

  8. 11 Andromeda November 27, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Hm. I think there’s a difference between “I wasn’t a feminist before I had a daughter, but now that I do, holy )%**#(, women are a thing!” and “I’ve been a feminist for a while, but having a daughter has given me a new lens on the world and enabled me to understand issues in a different (and more visceral) set of ways”.

    I think we *all* are prone to engaging with issues more deeply, and to seeing more of the details, when they personally affect someone we really care about. And — much as we care about many of our friends and colleagues — there are few people any parents will ever love as much as their kids.

    And I think having kids is one of those things that can prompt a reexamination of, and a change in one’s intellectual and emotional relationship to, everything. Like for me, I’ve always been pro-choice, but it *feels different* to me now that I’ve gone through a labor which, in most times and places of human history, would have killed me. It would be weird if that experience didn’t alter and deepen my feelings, you know?

    I see men understanding the world anew through their daughters’ eyes in the same light…it would be far more troubling if this *didn’t* prompt some kind of reexamination, some new depth of understanding. And those feelings are big and sometimes people work them out publicly. And sometimes that means they work through things that make some of us go “seriously? we’ve known that since we were, like, 10″, but we’ve all had different experiences of life on earth, and that doesn’t necessarily make their prior intellectual commitments less credible.

    • 12 Chris Bourg November 27, 2013 at 10:54 am

      thanks for your comment and your perspective.
      I think the crux of it for me is in unpacking this:
      “there are few people any parents will ever love as much as their kids.” I’m pretty well convinced that is a pecularly western (and white and straight) sentiment. While it may be a common one, it is neither inevitable nor, in my opinion, something to celebrate. I’m aware of, but don’t have handy references for, plenty of work describing wildly different patterns of kinship and love and child-rearing that don’t privilege the parent-child relationship. Closer to my areas of (limited) expertise, Kath Weston’s Families we Choose & Jack Halberstram’s Queer Art of Failure both have lots to say about alternative kinship and love patterns in queer communities.

      The real concern I have is that this notion of celebrating and privileging love of our own offspring above other loves has actually done far more harm than good in the fight for social justice.

      • 13 Meredith Farkas November 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm

        “The real concern I have is that this notion of celebrating and privileging love of our own offspring above other loves has actually done far more harm than good in the fight for social justice.”

        I guess I’m just wondering how it has? And I also am starting to wonder what is an acceptable way to become a feminist? In most cases, it’s the personal that wakes people up to injustice, whether they, a friend, a lover, a child, etc. are victims of injustice. Is that really a bad thing if it not only wakes them up to the plight of their child/friend/lover/spouse, but also the plight of people like them? Lots of crusaders for different social goods started because of a personal loss or a personal experience.

        I don’t think it’s just privileging one’s offspring, it’s privileging one’s family. Most parents are just as attached/devoted to adopted children as biological. However people choose to define their family, those they consider part of their kinship network are the most important people in their lives and they will be more sensitive to things that can hurt those people than the person down the street they barely know. It doesn’t have to mean they don’t care about the world around them and lots of people involved in fighting and hurting for social justice have children and manage to privilege their children over other loves without giving up the fight.

      • 14 Chris Bourg November 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        More later, but a quick example is inter generational transfer of wealth – which may (or may not) be defensible on other grounds, but which certainly perpetuates inequalities of race & class.
        When white middle class parents wield our privilege in support of our own, we often perpetuate inequality – especially in a time of scarce resources. Again, possibly defensible, certainly understandable, but not a viable means of dismantling inequality or privilege. Quite the opposite usually.

        And not wanting to celebrate is not quite the same as labeling something “bad” or as a not acceptable means of becoming a feminist. The narrative simply doesn’t move me, as I find it often contains all kinds of unexamined privilege and myopic thinking.

      • 15 sophylou November 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm

        But don’t we have to be able to move beyond our families if we’re going to develop any kind of broader social empathy? Chris, you’re the sociologist here, I’m just a historian, but in earlier times people had various ways of defining/enacting relationships and friendships played important roles. Parent-child and spousal relationships aren’t the limit of relationship types.

  9. 16 librarianmer November 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Great post! I’m TOTALLY with you, Chris, although I will say that having my son was the first time I DEEPLY thought about gender role expectations from a male perspective. I love that at four years old my son loves playing piano, dancing, and going to the symphony, and I really fear that when he gets older, he’s going to give those things up because someone will tell him they’re girly. It has woken me up to how much gender role expectations can impact boys too. Only becoming a feminist because you have a daughter seems amazingly myopic and “me-centered”, but I can understand how frustrating it is as a parent to know that you can model great gender-neutral behavior and fight for equality all you want, but it’s the kids your kid encounters at school (and the attitudes they bring in with them) that will hugely influence your child’s life.

  10. 17 Megan B November 25, 2013 at 7:26 am

    I said it on Twitter and I’ll say it here: Amen!

    One thing I’ve noticed in the stories of how parents come to more strongly identify as feminists is the gendered nature of those comments. Fathers typically say they are becoming more feminist because they see what their daughters (but not the other women in their lives? *headdesk*) face; and mothers because they are raising sons. Is this something you see too?

    • 18 Chris Bourg November 25, 2013 at 10:13 am

      I can’t say that I’ve seen (or at least haven’t remembered) stories of women who experience feminist awakening because of sons. Is it usually a “OMG, my son might grow up to be sexist; maybe those feminists are on to something.”? Or is it “Sexism and rigid gender expectations are bad for men too … my poor son is hemmed in by gender too. Hey, look — feminism.”? Or something else?

  11. 19 sophylou November 24, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    THANK you.

    • 20 Chris Bourg November 24, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      I tried to “like” or “favorite” your comment, but this isn’t facebook or twitter; so I’ll just say I’m glad you like the post ;-)

      • 21 sophylou November 24, 2013 at 9:32 pm

        You’ve put into words very well what I think when I read those stories. That, and sometimes I get a whiff of a kind of patriachal-ish helicopter-parenting: let’s make the world better for MY daughter.

      • 22 Chris Bourg November 24, 2013 at 9:38 pm

        Yes. There is something quite selfish and instrumental to the narrative. And it baffles me that some don’t seem to realize how many people were able to embrace feminism without daughters. Cuz I think if they stopped and thought about that, they might hesitate to brag about their conversion.


  1. 1 Annotated LibTechGender article roundup for December 2013 | Exit, Pursued By A Bear Trackback on February 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm
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