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.