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Perspective: Redefining the ‘feminist dad’

No, society has not outgrown the need for fathers

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Baltimore Colts coach Don Shula poses with his daughters.

Coach Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts poses with two of his children at the team’s training camp on July 28, 1965 in Westminster, Md. With daddy are Donna 4, left, and Sharon, 3.

Associated Press

My father used to tell me he was happy he had daughters when he did and not in the 1950s. His reason, he acknowledges, is somewhat selfish. Growing up in the 50s, my dad’s sister could only play with dolls and have tea parties, he told me, but his daughters could play tennis and compete on swim teams and enter debate tournaments and join jazz bands.

He found it all so much more interesting to watch and nothing made him happier than cheering our successes. But being supportive of your daughters’ interests and ambitions can seem like it really doesn’t count for much these days. In his new book, “Father Figure: How to Be A Feminist Dad,” self-styled parenting guru Jordan Shapiro explains that fathers today must eschew gender roles entirely.

After all, from Shapiro’s vantage point, “research has consistently shown that there are no differences that can be attributed solely to the sexuality, gender or biological sex of the parents.” Shapiro scolds “those who disagree” and “base their opinions on outdated assumptions about maternal or paternal influence. They might say something like ‘A boy needs a father to teach him how to be a man!’ But it’s not true.”

Shapiro, whose previous book on how screentime is actually great for kids was also a little light on the meaning of “research,” argues that it’s time for men to stop embracing “narcissistic patriarchal authority” and start being more “committed to social justice.”

If you think there are no ingrained differences between men and women, feel free to pick up this book. But for those of us with more than three years’ experience on the planet earth, it is worth considering the unique role of a father at a time when girls have more opportunities open to them than ever before but also seem to be experiencing extraordinary rates of depression anxiety and even suicide. Grown women too are reported to be unhappier than they were in previous decades.

There are plenty of explanations for these trends. Social media surely hasn’t helped. Neither have broken families, declining church attendance and disintegrating communities. It’s also possible that treating girls as if they were boys has exacerbated problems. Yes, we want girls to have as many educational and professional opportunities as possible open to them. But what about the sometimes overlooked joys of finding the right spouse, caring for children and being surrounded by family?

It’s worth wondering whether mothers and fathers have been cowed out of speaking about those things to their daughters for fear they will seem sexist.

For fathers who want their daughters to live happy and fulfilling lives, what is the answer? In his recent book, “The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies,” Scott Yenor argues not that biology explains all differences or that we should push our children only to do the things that come naturally to them. Rather, he argues that biology provides human life with “grooves” and that the more we force people to ignore those “grooves,” the harder things can become.

Fathers still have an important role to play in exposing daughters to the great heights they can achieve intellectually — studies show, for instance, that fathers tend to increase their children’s vocabulary more than mothers. But fathers also play an important role in helping girls to see themselves as worthy of respect from men — girls with dads in the home have a later onset of puberty and a later age of first sexual experience.

Guiding a daughter toward finding the right partner and putting her on the path to a happy family may not seem in vogue. But if helping a girl to achieve a satisfying adult life is not feminist, maybe society no longer understands what it means to truly advance women. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.