Feminism vis a vis daughters

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In case it’s not obvious from the headshot at the bottom of the page, I am a straight, white, college-educated, middle-class, American, Christian guy in my late thirties.

Given that, what in the world am I least qualified to write about?


I’m pretty sure that the privileged-white-male view of the patriarchy is the last [goshdarn] thing any one wants to read. Who is this [fellow]? [Bless his heart].

True. I can’t really argue with that.

But I actually have a stake in this now. My daughters are four and six, and the world we’re building now is the world they’ll have to live in. I want to make sure it’s a good one.

Like President Obama’s views on same-sex marriage, my views on feminism have evolved over the past twenty years. Here’s where I’ve been, where I am and how that affects the advice I’ll give my girls.

Disclaimer: Politically, I’m an independent, what used to be called a “Yankee Republican.” Of course, in the current environment, the sensibilities of a Yankee Republican are seen as being to the left of Kennedy and Roosevelt.

Additional Disclaimer: I’m a knucklehead. Don’t take advice from random people on the Internet.

What did I used to think about feminism?

To be fair, not all that much.

I’ve never had a problem with the concept of feminism, because I don’t generally see equality as a bad thing. If a woman wants to be a doctor and she’s willing to put in the work, then good for her.

Of course, life is not that simple. What if, for example, the powers that be define “willing to put in the work” as never getting pregnant or having kids, because those choices prevent you from doing all things that person without kids could do.

When I was at Amazon in 1999, I did a dozen or so 100-hour weeks in a row leading up to our July launch. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do that now. But, if that’s the definition for success in a given industry (as it was in Seattle in 1999), then I’d be out of luck.

A startup CEO might need to be able to sacrifice all time and attention. This is not inherently gendered. A firefighter needs to be able to carry a 200lb victim 100 feet in a fireman’s carry. This is (somewhat) inherently gendered, in that there are very few women (and not many more men) who can physically do this.

This is where feminism in the workplace gets more complex. And outside the workplace?

I became an adult in the early nineties, when sexual harassment fever was sky-high, when colleges were putting in programs like Antioch’s ”Can I open the door for you now” policy.

But, here’s the deal. Up until BostonWorks, I had extracurricular relationships with coworkers at every job I ever had. Fun and fraught share a cubicle (or a walk-in freezer) sometimes.

What is different seeing the world through their eyes?

Ok, so now I’m married and have two daughters. How have things evolved?

As far as I can tell, the girls haven’t had any issues. Yet. But, I’m focused on these issues, because I need to be able to give them advice to help them navigate the ideal world, and the real one.

The two biggest changes I’ve seen in myself since I’ve started paying more attention are a greater awareness of my size and bearing, and a greater observation of power dynamics in the office.

Apparently, I’m intimidating

I see myself as about as unthreatening as a tall and broad male could be, but I’m sure that woman I hung out with saw me as a threat. From their perspective, you never know when I might flip out on you.

I’m almost never in a position where I have a continuous, rational undercurrent of fear. Many woman feel that every day. I need to be more aware of and sympathetic to that.

Dragon ladies and harpies unite!

I’ve also seen the power dynamics in the workplace.

An assertive man is seen as assertive. An assertive woman is seen as a bitch.

A man yells. A woman shrieks.

A man is pissed off. A woman is hysterical.

Recognizing this common dynamic allows me to adjust for it. I think this is changing a bit, but I’m not sure it’s ever going to totally go away. A lot of people have mommy issues.

Everyone’s a little bit sexist.

Just like everyone’s a little bit racist.

A teacher will not call on you. A waiter will not be prompt. The car salesman will talk to your husband instead of to you.

(Seriously. When my wife bought her car last summer, I tagged along. Although it was clear that she was the buyer, the primary driver and the ultimate decision maker, the sales guy talked solely to me when we were negotiating.)

If you get offended every time this happens, well, you’ll waste a whole lot of time being offended.

To quote the hoodie, “it is what it is.”

And, in the true spirit of the ironic segue fairy, here is some totally sexist advice to help the girls navigate the world as an equal.

Boys live in a state of benign duh

Boys are dumb. But, it’s worth getting good at detecting the difference between “benign duh” and “malevolent prick.”

Corollary: Boys are really far more insecure than you think they are. Hell, most people are. That’s another good reason to now compare your inside with other people’s outsides.

When I look back on my teens and twenties through the lens of someone who has a bit more of an idea of what’s going on, I’m appalled by some of the things I did – not done out of malice, but rather out of cluelessness.

A couple of times I’ve talked to a woman a decade or two later and found out that she had imagined me with this whole rich inner life with shades of nuance and deep meaning behind each word and gesture. I felt bad that my rich inner life was more often “I like beer” and “Wow, Paula Abdul is hot.”

Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by “boys are dumb”.

That said, I’m really not looking forward to the days when they start dating. I have a feeling it’s not going to be like I imagined.

When we first got married, our plan was to have four boys and then a sweet little girl. That way, when a potential suitor comes around, he’d need to get through a thousand pounds of Butler male.

Then we had our first child. We quickly realized that this “five” plan ain’t happening.

Then we had another girl. We quickly realized that this “boy” plan ain’t happening.

So, I decided once my wife’s cats died, I’d get a really big dog. That way, if potential suitors misbehaved, I could threaten to feed them to the dog. Then, my sister got a couple of dogs and I saw that a puppy is almost as much work as another kid. We quickly realized that the “dog” plan ain’t happening.

So, all I have is words.

If you’re going to date that boy:

a. Do what works for you. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Don’t feel compelled to tell me all the details.

b. That said, opening some doors may have consequences you don’t want to face right now. It’s ok to wait.

c. You can always go farther with him tomorrow, if you’re that much in love. Trust me, he’ll still be there (or, if he’s not, then you just dodged a major bullet.)

d. And, finally, don’t get knocked up unintentionally. Listen to The River if you don’t believe me.

Body image issues are annoyingly real

I’m 6’2”, ~200lbs. I’m not a waif. I’ve a barrel chest, long arms and a certain rugged handsomeness. My genetics theory is a little rusty, but I’m guessing the children may end up with similar body types.

They will likely not be waifs.

Things worked out for me. Some women like a man they can’t break.

I worry that it will be harder for them. I like some of the emerging trends in the fashion world, but I’m terrified they’ll run into things like thinspiration.

So, here’s what I have:

Strive for healthy. I’ve known women who were 115 pounds but would be out of breath after climbing the stairs. That’s not what you’re looking for.

Plus, starving yourself isn’t fun. It tends to make one cranky. When I lived in China, I got so sick that I ended up effectively starving myself for a few weeks. I made it through and functioned, but it wasn’t fun for me, and I’m guessing it wasn’t fun for the other teachers and students.

The other systemic thing I’m worried about is the pornification of the world.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a teenage boy growing up now. When I was their age, I had Friday-night Cinemax and any Hustlers I could steal from my brother’s stash. Now, it’s always on, 32 flavors and then some.

I don’t know what the implications of this will be for teenage boys and girls, but I can only how it’s going to get better.

At least I have a few years to figure that one out.

Sports are fun

Both the girls are doing sports now, and I think that Title IX has been a good thing in general.

Be athletic. Have fun. Try to avoid concussions.

If nothing else, I should be able to give them a good head start on how to talk sports. The girls have grown up watching the Patriots and Red Sox. They know the “Patriots Rules”. They know what a full count is. They know how to run routes. They know how to Gronk.

They know what happens when Daddy throws the penalty flag.

Build a base of options

This is (I think) the heart of feminism (and most other equality-based initiatives). We should all have equal protection under the law, and we should all have any options open that we’re willing to work for.

So, how do you build that base of options?

Math is good to learn, even if Barbie doesn’t agree.

Science is useful, as is poetry.

Ah, screw it, learn what you want. It will be what it will be.

That said, it’s always useful to be able to support yourself financially. I’m pretty sure my writing royalties ain’t gonna pay your rent.

Finally, use your powers for good

It doesn’t hurt to smile.

Try not to be manipulative. At some point, you’ll likely be able to get boys to do your bidding by batting your eyes. Don’t let the power go to your head.

Feminism doesn’t imply “mean.” Equality don’t give license for pre-emptive strikes.

You’re just as capable; you’re just as culpable.

Please think through the lessons from Don’t resent the current moment and Don’t betray yourself.

And, seriously, try to avoid getting knocked up unintentionally. Kids are expensive.

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