4 Ways to Be a Feminist Dad
In his book, Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad, author Jordan Shapiro shares how he's learned to be the best feminist dad he can be.
I want to be clear about one thing: I'm not holding myself up as some sort of luminary feminist dad. I certainly try my best, but I also make a lot of mistakes. Many nights, when I'm lying in bed before falling asleep, the first thing I feel is regret. I think of all the problematic interactions I've had with my kids during the day. I replay them in my mind, reviewing my choices, condemning my errors. Then I resolve to be a better parent-and a better feminist dad-tomorrow.
I'll be honest. At first, becoming a feminist dad hurts. A lot. Many dads today find themselves paralyzed as they confront conflicting messages. To go all in on feminism seems to betray the customary good-dad story. To go all in on the prevailing good-dad story undoubtedly betrays feminism. Even those who make valiant efforts to mediate these tensions often fail to recognize how their unconscious commitment to patriarchal narratives reinforces systemic inequality. They feel whiplashed when their good intentions backfire.
But dads can be better attuned to the current cultural ethos. Fathers can play a different kind of caretaking role in their children's lives, and they can leverage a different kind of parental identity narrative, fortifying a stronger sense of self. They can be feminist dads. And in the long run, it's liberating.
My process of becoming a feminist dad includes these four foundational principles. This is how I've learned to practice recognizing and reconsidering the unconscious and regrettable ways that I participate in sexist, patriarchal, binary, misogynistic systems and structures. I hope you can learn to do the same.
Cultivate Critical Consciousness
This means you're willing to engage critiques of what bell hooks-acclaimed author, theorist, professor, social activist, and feminist-often calls "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy." I know it sounds extreme, maybe more radical and subversive. Be open-minded. hooks says the phrase simply describes "the interlocking political systems that are at the foundation of our nation's politics." She can be considered one of the first intersectional theorists, acknowledging that it's disingenuous to talk about gender inequality without also talking about sexuality, race, and socioeconomic status.
A feminist dad acknowledges this fact. He tries to view the world through a critical, intersectional lens, and aims to identify, interrogate, and then reframe problematic and unjust narratives. He's also critical of the financial, economic, political, technological, and legal structures that are designed to steer us away from questioning patriarchal thinking. A feminist dad takes this stance even when the self-referential gaze burns because his beloved privileges are at stake-when he's forced to acknowledge things he'd rather not.
Practice Responsive Fathering
This means you're adaptable, reflexive, and open to diverse and multifaceted perspectives. You're dedicated to counteracting narcissistic patriarchal authority, a term I use to describe the taken-for-granted assumption that cisgendered men-especially fathers-are entitled to define and/or be the protagonists of the narrative reality that shapes everyone else's experiences.
The prioritization of a dad's life is often cemented into our institutions. For example, medical research still approaches adult male anatomy as the default. It's not just biology; I see the same pattern in my own professional endeavors. The western academic literary canon remains male-centric, and our psychological theories are still inexplicably dependent on gendered myths about patrilineage.
Teach Anti-Sexist Rhetoric
You'll be committed to raising your children in an environment devoid of what I call locker-room gender essentialism. This means you're willing to shed the narratives of biological determinism and replace them with anti-sexist rhetoric and actions. "Biology is an interesting and fascinating subject," Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her book offering advice on raising a feminist daughter, but "never accept it as justification for any social norm. Because social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed." A feminist dad knows this is true. He also recognizes how easy it is for a parent's behavior to inadvertently reinforce the presumption that oppressive gender conventions are grounded in natural law. In addition, he knows that sexism is ubiquitous, so he goes out of his way to create alternatives for his children to witness.
Fight For Rigorous Inclusivity
In the simplest terms, this means you're committed to parenting in ways that challenge traditional sexist stereotypes and gender binaries. In other words, feminist dad doesn't ask, how do I prepare my children for the tough realities of a gendered world? Instead, he acknowledges that it's his duty to raise people who are prepared to challenge all forms of sexism, misogyny, injustice, and oppression.
A father figure owes it to the rest of humankind to cultivate a nonviolent and nondominant demeanor, modeling for his children an attitude of acceptance and an appreciation for diversity. A feminist dad extends his commitment to equality beyond just cisgender prejudices, fighting to create a safer world for transgender, nonbinary, and other gender-nonconforming individuals, too. In fact, he rejects all forms of discrimination, exploitation, indignity, and coercion. He knows that consent is a prerequisite not only for sex, but also for education, work, religion, spirituality, psychology, policy, and play.
Adapted from FATHER FIGURE. Copyright © 2021 by Jordan Shapiro. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Jordan Shapiro is author of Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad (2021, Little Brown Spark). He's senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and nonresident fellow at the Center for Universal Education at The Brookings Institution. He teaches at Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Amanda Steinberg, four children, and two polydactyl (six-toed) cats.