On female traits

Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.

—Jay-Z, “Heart of the City”

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a woman a woman. You and Mom have both talked with me about the innate differences between men and women, differences that make the genders special. Mom’s even asked me to dive into those differences here and explore positive variance between genders. But then I got to thinking, what are those differences, exactly?

A black-and-white, vintage photo of a father helping his child with their homework. In the background, mother knits in her sitting chair.

Maternal mother knitting? Father-knows-best helping with the book learning?

The first “female traits” that come to mind are negative stereotypes, like the one Jay-Z names above. I think of cliches that made me want to shy away from being female as a child: cattiness, vanity, squeamishness and a fear of spiders. These traits are weak, and uncool, and traditionally thought of as feminine, so I told myself I was “not like other girls” and gallantly picked up the spiders on my own and put them outside, disavowed fashion and makeup, and avoided most female friendships.

You might be saying, “Those aren’t the female traits I’m thinking of!” Certainly, when you and Mom talk about differences between genders, the woman is the nurturer, the man the problem-solver. But these roles are neither consistent nor guaranteed across genders. Is a woman who is not maternal not then a woman? Or just a failure to her gender?

Even you and Mom don’t fit into these roles! When I was a child, I turned to you for comfort, because I knew if I went to Mom with a problem she’d say, “Well have you tried x, y and z solutions?”

And these same “positive” gender traits feed into the negatives. A man being a protector necessarily needs a weak, squeamish woman to defend, for instance. And, in a world where we’re at the top of the food chain, that strength and protection is often used to guard women against other men, instead of addressing the societal root of the problem and ending gendered sexual violence. Katherine Bushnell and Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew break it down quite nicely in their 1907 (1907!) book “Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers”:

What charm this word ‘protection,’ and the title ‘Protector’ has held for certain persons, as applied to the male sex! ‘Man, the natural protector of woman.’ Forsooth, to protect her from what? Rattlesnakes, buffalo, lions, wildcats no more overrun the country, and why is this relation of ‘protector’ still claimed? Why, to protect woman from rudeness, and insult and sometimes even worse. But from whence comes that danger of rudeness and insult or worse from which man is to protect woman? From man, of course. Man is, then, woman’s natural protector to protect her from man, her natural protector. He is to set himself the task of defending her from his injury of her, and he is charmed with the avocation.

Kelsey over at Peak City Life has a lot more on this book, if you’re interested.

I suppose what I’m saying is, I learned to like fashion, and I learned to have female friendships, but I also still put the spiders outside for myself. Mom taught me how to approach my problems, and you showed me that a shoulder to cry on can come from anywhere. Ascribing values such as “female” or “male” to certain traits limits the possibilities available to us, and limits us as human beings. It prevents us from becoming full-fledged individuals.

I’m still growing, but I recognize that I don’t have to behave in ways that are necessarily female. I am a fearfully, wonderfully made unique person, and you and Mom helped show me that.


P.S. I realized that I started this post with a rather sad, sexist lyric that upholds gender roles, so let me end it with a song that explores gender roles and their impact on our lives in a more nuanced fashion:


“Free” and “fair”

Hi Dad,

I think we’re having a problem with semantics: You say that the right to vote was “free and fair” when it was given to women by men. But you also agree that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of a long and difficult fight for equality.

As I pointed out, women were ridiculed, imprisoned and force-fed for asking for the right to vote, this by their government. Is it really free if it takes 70 years of protests to attain it? If I bake you a cake and say, “It’s free! But first I need you to clean my room and make me dinner,” you’d probably say that’s not free at all.

Second, both you and Tammy Bruce seem to believe that men deserve some sort of praise for the 19th Amendment. But it’s preposterous to demand praise for something that should have been in place to begin with. A voice in one’s government is a basic right of a citizen. It was shameful that women didn’t have it before, but I’m not going to thank men for a right that I should have had in the first place.

Another hypothetical: Remember the blocks my brother and I used to play with as kids? Imagine if I claimed those blocks all as my own, and said he couldn’t have them. Imagine he screams, cries, stages a protest, writes multiple well-reasoned letters to the newspaper, begs for you to intercede. For months, I refuse to let him play with the blocks. They’re mine. If, eventually, I decide to share, do I deserve to be rewarded for “freely and fairly” giving him the blocks? Absolutely not! They were his blocks too. I just kept them from him. There was nothing free or fair about it.

And that’s the problem I have with your argument.


A new response to domestic violence in the NFL

Dear Dad,

I am so excited for our fantasy football league to start! Hopefully, I’ve beefed up my game this year and will kick your butt. Brace yourself.

But I have another reason to be excited about football season this year, and that’s the NFL’s new domestic violence policy. Under new, strict reforms, players would be suspended for six games after a first offense, and completely banned from the NFL after the second. In a world where macho, strong men, some of the strongest in the world, too often get off the hook for their bad behavior, this is a huge deal. Such a huge deal that violence against a partner can end their career.

It’s a terrifically important first step, and hopefully a decision that will impact other sports leagues, such as the NBA.

I know this move won’t necessarily protect all women from domestic violence, nor will it ensure a conviction (“offense” will be determined by the league, not a court of law), but it will mean that players are not allowed to recover their careers after doing something so heinous. It will remove them permanently from the pedestal we put athletes on in our society.


Edit: According to a report I heard on NPR this morning, people won’t be completely banned from the NFL for domestic violence. They will be banned, yes, but can be reinstated after a year, according to Morning Edition. This is better than the two game suspension that Ray Rice received, but still a far cry from ensuring that abusers have their careers completely ended by their violent actions. While I applaud the NFL’s stricter standards, I’m still disappointed that violent men can be allowed to return to football at all after proving, multiple times, that they pose a danger to their partners. It remains to be seen how this policy will play out.

Holy Susan B. Anthony, it’s a suffrage post!

Dear Dad,

I want to talk a little bit about women’s suffrage. For many people, the start of the modern feminist movement began here, with first-wave feminism and the fight for basic legal rights like holding a voice in one’s own government. Many trace the start to the Seneca Falls Convention, in 1848, when men and women gathered to sign a Declaration of Sentiments, a document echoing the Declaration of Independence that argued for the equal rights of all people, including women.


Now, there were men at this convention, including abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, who expressed his ardent support for women’s suffrage. And throughout the push for women’s right to vote, men, such as Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin politician Gerrit Smith and Henry Blackwell, husband of suffragette Lucy Stone, all raised their voices and stood up for women’s rights. These men, like the women they fought alongside, are heroes.

But many men also actively fought women’s right to vote. You’ve already seen my post on anti-suffrage political cartoons. It’s no secret that suffragettes were disparaged and demonized as man-haters, hussies and sour old maids. This pamphlet from The Atlantic details the National Organization Opposed to Woman Suffrage’s reasons for wanting to deny women the right to vote, including that it would place women “in competition” with men, instead of a system of cooperation.


That argument is still used to this day to discredit feminists, though any competition from suffrage, I believe, has been a competition of ideas and that is a good thing.

You say “to even acknowledge that it was men who freely gave women the vote is some sort of betrayal of feminist values.” It’s not a betrayal of feminist values, Dad. It’s a betrayal of historical fact. Just the fact that 72 years of tireless protesting passed between the Seneca Falls Convention and the ratification of the 19th Amendment should be proof enough that men did not “freely” give women the right to vote.

Women’s suffrage in the United States was ratified less than 100 years ago. There are still people alive today who lived in an era when women could not legally vote. And people fought long and hard to obtain that vote, being ridiculed, scorned, ignored and even imprisoned.

You say you fear that feminists “are not looking for partners but only supporters of feminist values as define by hard-core feminism.” But I am not upset because you and others disagree with me. I am upset because you and others seek to distort very important parts of my history, and women’s stories. I’m not looking for a bunch of yes men (get it? Because this is about men?). I am looking for the importance and validity of women’s struggles to be recognized, and waving away suffrage is one step toward waving away feminists’ very real concerns, such as stopping sexual violence, objectification of women and toxic masculinity.

Women have made a lot of progress in this country. We can now own property, vote, work and report a spouse for rape. This is HUGE. And much of that progress we made with the assistance of men. But we still have a lot more progress to make, Dad, and looking back on the struggles of our mothers and sisters before us is a reminder of how brave and powerful women can be. And I won’t have that courage and strength erased by your men who “freely” gave women a voice.

Love and peace,

On fathers and feminists

Dear Dad,

One of my goals with this blog, besides opening up a conversation with you, was to explore how feminist ideals impact fatherhood.

It seems like a straightforward enough idea, but honestly, when I googled “feminist father” Google turned up only a handful of useful resources and a bogue study from the nineties about how feminism turns women against their fathers and turns them into lesbians (and I read the whole thing in the name of research. You’re welcome).

In fact, feminism and fatherhood are not antithetical, as the blog Feminist Fatherhood points out. Started in 2011, it was created to fill the void where discussion of dads who dig feminism should be, as well as offer guidance for guys who want to raise their kids to value equality. As the Feminist Father himself explains it:

A Feminist Father is a dad that seeks to transcend the sociopolitical gender landscape in the noble pursuit of raising a fully realized human being.

Not a bad goal for one’s offspring.

Feminist writer Jessica Valenti had a similar take on it, reflecting on her relationship with her dad and husband:

Feminist fathers know that parenting doesn’t have to come with a harsh dose of paternalism and reject the father-knows-best ideology that is so harmful to young girls (like purity balls). Girls with fathers who model equality at home are more likely to be ambitious about their future. And feminist fathers with sons are teaching the next generation that being a man does not have to be synonymous with deriding all things female.

How does this look in practice? While reading Jessica Valenti’s piece, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a feminist dad friend of mine, who told me recently about discovering porn on his young teen son’s computer. He brought it up with his son, who said his friends talked about porn and sex and he was curious.

My friend was, at first, a bit shocked; he tries to let his son know frequently that he is open and available to talk about sex, puberty, etc. But he kept his calm, and opened a conversation about how porn, as entertainment, is different from sex in everyday life. He explained that it wasn’t appropriate at his age, and then the talk turned into a conversation about anatomy, relationships, consent and sexual orientation:

I told him to remember it sets up unrealistic expectations. Women don’t behave like that, and men shouldn’t behave like that.

It was a difficult conversation, but also rewarding, my feminist dad friend said, and one he hopes will lead to healthy and fulfilling relationships for his son in the future.

Disliking patriarchy does not, it turns out, mean disliking dads, to poorly paraphrase Jessica Valenti. Feminist fathers are, in fact, instrumental to taking apart old, oppressive norms.

And that gives me hope for kids and dads everywhere,

On exerting peer pressure

(Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault)

Dear Dad,

I heard a really interesting study about rape on college campuses today on NPR. It started as too many stories I’ve read on the subject start: 6 percent of men sampled had raped someone they knew. Two-thirds of those were serial rapists, meaning they’d raped more than one woman. Together, 120 men admitted to more than 400 rapes. None were reported, mad none of those men considered themselves rapists.

Why? As psychologist John Lisak, who’d conducted the study, explained, these men didn’t see themselves as rapists:

Most of these men have an image or a myth about rape, that it’s some guy in a ski mask wielding a knife. They don’t wear ski masks, they don’t wield knives, so they don’t see themselves as rapists.

In fact, these men happily brag to their friends about what they’ve done, and often, they are met with no resistance from their friends, and so come to believe that “everybody’s doing it” or his friends approve of his actions, according to John Foubert, who studies rape prevention among young men at Oklahoma State University.

This silence is patriarchy, Dad. A sort of discomfort and fear of speaking out that leads rapists to believe that their actions are no big deal. But when men start being aware and vocal, they can make great strides in preventing sexual violence.

The report wasn’t all a downer, Dad. They proceeded to highlight a program called MVP, or the Mentors in Violence Program. High school upperclassmen meet with incoming freshmen through MVP. Often athletes, the older students talk with young men about how to be aware of other men’s actions, and when a woman is not consenting.

I learned a lot about peer pressure in school, and told not to give into it when offered drugs, alcohol or sex. But sometimes, like with MVP, exerting a little peer pressure can make a school a safer place. Starting in high school is key, as the study showed many serial rapists also got their start in high school.

It also opens men’s awareness up to power dynamics, as one MVP mentor, now in college, described seeing a female friend cornered by two men at a bar. Her body language concerned him. She was clearly uncomfortable. The mentor’s male friend said he didn’t see anything wring, so the mentor showed him what to look out for and they then joined the woman to help her feel safer.

It may seem minor, but such awareness and actions are an important part of creating a culture where sexual violence is entirely taboo, and where women are safe.


On a false feminism

Dear Dad,

I was really excited when I saw your new post, Feminism 2.0! And I thought you hit on some very important feminist notions of freedom and choice. I couldn’t watch the video because I wasn’t home, but I made time for it this weekend.

And what I felt made a little bubble of rage grow inside me until I felt like one of those anime kids with the cartoon blood vessels. I’m not going to link to it here because that page doesn’t deserve any more hits, but I will pull some quotes from it to summarize why Tammy Bruce’s “feminism for the 21st century” is about destroying a lot of the progress feminists have made, and I’ll even do it with her pillars.

  1. Dignity.
    Tammy defines dignity as meaning “that a woman should be able to freely choose her own path in life.” Okay, fair enough. She then goes on to say that while female college students might say they want to be lawyers or doctors, they never say they want to be mothers or wives. OH MY GOD. THIS IS SO BLEEPING WRONG ALREADY. I’m just gonna say, I am guessing I’ve been a female college student more recently than Tammy Bruce and for eff’s sake! There are women in college who talk about desiring a husband, or children, a family, and how they intend to balance home life and work. I even had classes with some wives and mothers, believe it or not.
    She goes on to cite the backlash to an opinion piece written by a Princeton grad that urged Princeton women to find a good man in college:
    “Any time someone has the temerity to suggest that a woman might want to look for a husband in college… feminists go nuts.”
    I read that letter when the story broke, Dad, and it wasn’t saying, “Maybe you’re interested in finding a man,” it was saying, “Ladies, you’re getting so educated and you’re going to be so successful no man will ever feel masculine enough to want you so marry a guy now.” She even said her sons, themselves Princeton students, could easily have any woman they wanted, but women aren’t so lucky when searching for potential mates, so better hop on that quick! As if the only desire in a woman’s life is to get a husband. Please.
    She then goes on to say that on the subject of dignity, women shouldn’t aspire to “be like men” sexually, casually drifting from one one-night stand to another. SO SLUT-SHAMEY! This, again, is not the goal of feminism. It is to allow women to safely and comfortably express themselves sexually, whether that is through frequent sex with multiple partners, or monogamously, or not at all! It means that a woman’s worth is not her chastity, purity or virginity, not that she is required to sleep with many people.
    Notice the double-standard, too? She never critiques men for the stereotype of their sexual appetite that she takes for fact. It’s fine that men sleep around, but women should be BETTER.
  2. The word “no.”
    Tammy just can’t stop slut-shaming. Though she earlier says a woman’s choices should be respected, here she says that throughout history, some “women said ‘yes’ when they should have said no.” Names like Anna Karenina and Cleopatra flash on the wall. Apparently, women’s power lies in the ability to say no. This has some heavy sexual overtones, and plays into the patriarchal idea that women withhold sex to punish and control men. As if our bodies are our only tools. IT’S EFFING GROSS DAD.
    Then she credits hook-up culture and naked pop stars to feminism, and while feminist empowerment has allowed women to a certain extent to feel more comfortable in our bodies, the current trend of objectification of women is actually a backlash to women gaining rights. For more on this, watch Miss Representation, since you like feminist videos so much. It’s a really incredible documentary analyzing women’s representation in the media, its origins and impacts. Plus it’s on Netflix!
    She goes on to say that feminists hate men but want to be like them. Which is false on two counts. A) I don’t hate men. B) If wanting some of the same rights as men means wanting to be like them, maybe. But I also embrace my right to wear lipstick and lace and cross stitch and be feminine. It’s about choice, remember, Tammy?
  3. Men. “That’s right, men.”
    Tammy says we shouldn’t forget that men “gave up their monopoly on political power and gave women the right to vote” as if we should be just grateful well gosh gee whiz to have some of the rights that men have. Isn’t it nice that my husband gave up his right to beat me? Isn’t it sweet when a man restrains himself from yelling rude things at me on the street? Isn’t it swell that they gave up some positions in the job market? Aren’t men AWESOME for GIVING US A BASIC VOICE IN OUR OWN COUNTRY’S GOVERNMENT??>??? Oh, and they also invented birth control, washing machines and refrigerators, Tammy says. Probably Tammy would say they invented shoes too, so we don’t have to be barefoot, pregnant, cooking in the kitchen making your GOD. DAMN. SANDWICHES.

In short, Tammy Bruce’s feminism is not in fact an advancement of women’s rights. She wants women to stop trying to “be like men” and go back to being feminine, subservient, chaste and motherly. It’s not feminism at all.