Emily Heist Moss’ father wasn’t actively trying to raise a feminist daughter, but by always being on her side, that’s exactly what he did.
My dad has always been my number one fan, so vocal in his admiration and praise that I’m often forced to pull the classic teen maneuver, an eye-roll and a “Dad, please. You’re embarrassing me.” He was the loudest and most positive parent at every sporting event, he writes the most effusive birthday cards, and he regularly comments on my blog with emoticons and dozens of exclamation points.
A happy daughter, I know he wanted. Healthy, smart, successful in whatever my chosen field should be, these were all goals he has articulated as far back as I can remember. But feminist? That wasn’t on the list, and yet here I am. When we talk about it now, he plays like my feminist streak, wide and outspoken as it is, was an accident. The evidence suggests otherwise.
Here’s how to accidentally raise a feminist daughter:
Step 1. Marry a Feminist
There’s no quicker way to produce a third-wave feminist than to marry a second-waver, which my mother most certainly is. As children, we model ourselves off our parents, and the model my mother created for me was and is feminist to its core.
Expected to leave college with a classic MRS degree, my mom instead set off into the world to explore before she settled down. With wide-legged bell-bottoms and stick-straight, waist-length hair, she headed overseas to teach and ski and hitchhike from Ireland to Tunisia. By the time she and my dad met, she still had no MRS, but was now the proud owner of the first of her two Master’s degrees.
When I read essay after essay about “having it all”—is it possible for anyone? What does it even mean?—I flash on a family photo at my mother’s business school graduation at age 41, with 5-year-old me pulling on her gown, and my infant brother in her arms. My dad is proudly grinning like a loon beside her.
There are more obvious second-wave markers, like how she Lucy Stoned it and kept her maiden name, and I’m sure there are areas where my parents’ marriage may not have been exactly what her feminist heart of hearts would have wanted, but the bar for an equal partnership was clearly set.
Step 2: Fill Her Head With Stories
Until I was about 12 or 13, my dad and I read together. Material ranged far and wide, from Bill Bradley’s memoirs to Flowers for Algernon, ‘tween literature to Boxcar Kids. I think at one point we even attempted Dune, though it remains to this day unfinished.
But the books I remember most, the ones that make it clear to me that he was secretly, if unknowingly, cultivating my feminist tendencies, are the stacks and stacks of books about famous and accomplished women. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Theresa, Ada Lovelace, Hypatia, Sally Ride, Ann Richards, Katharine Graham, Shirley Chisholm, Anne Frank, Mia Hamm, I had biographies of all of them, or puzzles with their faces, or books of their quotes, or anthologies of their essays.
I don’t want to do my mother a disservice here, since her contribution to my libraries have been equally designed to prove, in writing, that women can do and be anything. But it’s a different message, to a little girl, when that reinforcement comes from a man than from your mom. When you know that your father, with all the privilege that being male entails, is still committed to proving to you that the world is your oyster, it sticks pretty hard.
Step 3: Always Be On Her Side
If you are committed to feminist parenting, there is no more foundational tenet than ensuring your daughter knows that there is no wrong way to be a girl. The corollary, of course, is also true; for your sons, there is no wrong way to be a boy. Are there wrong ways to be human? Yes, like being a jerk or intentionally hurting people, but attaching your love or respect for your children to gendered assumptions, or to gendered hopes for their future, means that they can fail simply by being themselves.
For a girl, it is absolutely essential that she know that nothing she does will make her less successful of a daughter. Being athletic, or not, artistic, or not, musical, or not. Dating a lot, not dating at all, having lots of sex, joining a convent, marrying young, marrying late, never marrying, having lots of children, having no children, being gay, none of these paths, or any other, affect her worth as a woman. No career is off limits that would not be off limits for your sons. No behavior that would be permitted of a boy should be punished of a girl. If phrases like “Girls should…” emerge from your lips, you’re doing her a disservice by bracketing her absolutely limitless potential with your very limited assumptions.
Recently, while cleaning out old boxes of birthday cards, dental records, and elementary school essays about panda bears, I found a postcard my dad sent me from a business trip in 1998, when I was 10. On the front, the famous Rosie the Riveter with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s face super-imposed, on the back, from my dad, “We can do it! I’m on your side, forever and always.”
For my dad, formerly a long-haired hippie bumming from coast to coast, currently a suburban psychologist who likes to bike and garden, feminism isn’t a word he identifies with. For him, it is still a movement associated with the bra-burning connotations of the ’70s, tinged with extremism, and vaguely anti-male. The idea that some men (ones I know!) identify as feminists is new for him. When I tell him what feminism means to me, about allowing women to succeed in the workplace and giving men the room to be fully engaged parents and homemakers, about agency over our bodies and our decisions, about wanting a safe and welcoming world for my LGBT friends, it’s obvious that my feminism isn’t precisely the one he remembers.
But that 1998 postcard, that’s how I know that, whether or not he acknowledges it, whether or not he accepts the very warranted label of “feminist father,” my dad was one. There was nothing I could do, as a girl, that would make me less valued, that would make him abandon “my side.” What he wants for me is equal to what he wants for my brother, happiness and health and the fulfillment of our dreams, whatever they should turn out to be.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.