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How daughters turn fathers into feminists Sometimes it does take fatherhood to turn on men's empathy-valve

Did John Wayne become a feminist as-a-father-of-daughters? Credit: Getty/Images

Did John Wayne become a feminist as-a-father-of-daughters? Credit: Getty/Images

February 11, 2020   5 mins

Four years and four months ago, I became the father of a daughter, Ada, our second child. As is traditional, I am a pushover with her where I was stern with our son; she gets forgiven things that Billy would have been naughty-stepped for 20 times over. 

Sometimes I try to interrogate my own reasons for it, in that guilty way that parents do with every decision we make, everything that we could have done differently. I wonder if it’s second-child syndrome, that everything she does is old hat to us so we’re relaxed, whereas everything the eldest one does is new ground broken and new fears faced. Or if it’s just differences in personality, that she tends to misbehave with a cheeky grin that makes it harder to be angry. Or, of course, if it’s simple sexism: I forgive the girl-child things I wouldn’t the boy, because gender roles. I don’t know what the truth is.

Another cliché is that fathers of daughters are suddenly supposed to have a wave of newfound feminist feeling. “As a father of daughters, I now realise that, in fact, women should have the vote,” we are meant to say; or, “As a father of daughters, I now realise that perhaps we should pay women nearly as much money as men.” 

It’s such a trope that I know of at least two articles spoofing it. Both of them are good and funny and hit home. “As a man with no daughters, I am completely incapable of feeling any empathy towards any woman whatsoever,” says one. “How merrily I used to drive down country lanes in my old Ford, periodically dodging off-road to mow down female pedestrians (you must remember I had no daughters then),” recalls the other. Other pieces are more straightforwardly angry.

I haven’t greatly noticed such a change in myself, I think probably because I’m already as perfectly egalitarian and pro-women as it’s possible to be; DM me if you want lessons in feminism, ladies! But there’s an implicit accusation in the trope, and I want to defend my fellow fathers-of-daughters from it.

The accusation, I think, goes something like this. The father-of-daughters didn’t care about women beforehand; he was unable to even process the idea of them as fully human. Now that he has daughters, he wishes to protect them from bad things, and to do that — he belatedly realises — he needs to protect all women. But it shouldn’t take the production of a new woman from your genetic material to realise that women deserve equal pay, a life without fear of assault and all those other things. 

There’s also a suggestion that fathers in these situations still don’t see women as fully human: they wish to protect their daughters because they see themselves as the owners of those daughters, and wish to protect their property; or because their daughters are extensions of themselves, and they wish to protect themselves.

Most especially, I think the argument is: it should be obvious that women deserve all the things that men deserve, and if a man needs to procreate to realise it, then something is wrong with that man.

To argue that that is not necessarily the case, I want to go back to a beach in Turkey in 2015. That autumn, a little boy called Alan Kurdi died with his brother and mother, trying to cross the sea to Europe having escaped the Syrian civil war. You’ll remember the awful photo; it was everywhere, the little boy on the beach. A year or so later, another awful photo went viral, of another young boy, Omran Dagneesh, covered in dust and blood after an air strike.

That second time, I wrote about it. I was a relatively new parent at the time: when Alan died, Billy was about 18 months old, and Ada was as yet unborn. When Omran was caught in the air strike, Billy was two and a half or so, Ada just short of her first birthday.

The images provoked an extraordinary reaction in me. With the photo of Alan, in particular, I was close to tears; I swore online at a journalist who shared it (“STOP TWEETING IT. STOP TWEETING THAT FUCKING PICTURE. It is a little boy. A dead little boy. Let him have some dignity”). With the photo of Omran, to quote my own words from the time, “I stood staring at my phone for over a minute, with the picture, again, switching between Omran’s face and Billy’s in my mind, like those optical illusions that could be a duck or a rabbit depending on how you look at it.”

I return to that piece every so often, because it still evokes an echo of the same reaction each time I read it: the yawning, panicking horror; seeing myself, as in a dream, simultaneously the parent of the child and the child himself. In my imagination, the child’s inability to comprehend the horrible things that are happening is the worst part; he would not understand why it was happening or why I had been unable to protect him. My chest still tightens when I think about it. 

Three years earlier, I would have had an entirely different response. Of course images of dead and suffering children would have been awful and heartbreaking to look at, but they wouldn’t have evoked the asphyxiating shock that they did when I was a father myself. 

Why was that? After all, it should have been obvious that children being injured or dying in war is awful, that Alan and Omran would have been unimaginably scared, that their families would have been devastated in ways that the word “devastated” cannot do justice to because it is worn away by overuse. I shouldn’t have needed to have kids of my own to realise that. And yet I did. 

And I don’t think I’m alone. A lot of people, both men and women, messaged me to say that since becoming parents, they have become hugely more vulnerable to images or stories of children. Parenthood opened a sort of empathy-valve: suddenly we were all drinking from a firehose of empathy; we couldn’t not put ourselves in the place of the scared child, whether we wanted to or not.

That is, I think, what is going on in the minds of the authors of those fathers-of-daughters pieces. You can be a man, making your way through the world, and being perfectly aware — on an intellectual, conscious level — that the women in your life have concerns which are different from yours. Most, if you asked them, would probably agree that women deserve equal pay for equal work, that medical research should gather as much data from women as from men, that pathways to STEM careers should be as straightforward for women as for men. They might even have said that it was obvious.

But if the father-of-daughters experience is anything like my experience with the images of children, then perhaps – one day – that empathy-valve was opened. They couldn’t not feel themselves in the place of their daughters walking down a dark alley at night, or being told girls don’t do physics. And suddenly, instead of it being a thing of which they were intellectually aware, it was a great burning heart-squeezing pressure, and they couldn’t stop themselves from taking whatever platform was available to them and shouting from it to anyone who would listen.

Maybe that will happen to me, some day; maybe it happens when one’s daughter reaches her tweens or teens, when society starts to impose more strictures on what she should and shouldn’t do (at the moment she is far more concerned about whether she is Elsa or Anna in her playground games of make-believe). Maybe at the moment I’m in the calm “it is obvious” intellectual stage and it’ll all change for me.

If it does, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll suddenly realise the Right Thing to Do, any more than it meant that Andrea Leadsom would have been a better PM than Theresa May because she was a mother. The empathy firehose gives you insight but costs you detachment, I think, and sometimes detachment is important; empathy won’t tell me the correct maternity leave policies for a given trade-off between economic growth and female participation in the workforce, for instance.

“Parents don’t necessarily make better decisions,” I wrote in 2016. “They just make different mistakes.” There is, for any policy goal, a correct policy decision, and I’m not sure being a father of daughters reveals it to you. But it probably makes you want to shout about the problem a lot more.

I haven’t felt the father-of-daughters impulse, as I say; I’ve just felt myself become wrapped around our daughter’s little finger, even when she shrieks “I HATE DADDY. POO POO DADDY” and refuses to let me put her to bed, which she does fairly often. But I understand the awful rush of empathy behind it.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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