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‘Father of Daughters’ May Be a Dumb Phrase But It’s a Real Phenomenon

Raising a daughter changes men, but be careful how you articulate that.

Photo Illustration: Mark Forscher

When Matt Damon spoke out publicly about the sexual abuse allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, he did so while invoking his own status as a “father of daughters”. It pissed a lot of people off. “Men who talk about Harvey keep mentioning their daughters like it finally gives them skin in this game,” Kyle Buchanan, senior editor at Vulture, tweeted in response to Damon.

But in the Damon’s defense, pulling the daughter card does make some sense. Research suggests that fathering girls does change men and their views in a variety of ways — from how they vote on women’s issues to how much empathy they display to female victims of assault.

While fathers generally prefer sons (and having boys reduces the risk of divorce), studies suggest that fathering a home full of daughters comes with its own scientific incentives. One recent study found that dads are actually more attentive and engaged with daughters than sons. Additional evidence suggests that this early attention may alter men’s views on women’s issues as well.

One study of U.S families found that raising daughters may motivate dads to have less traditional and more progressive views. Likewise, data out of Italy indicates that politicians who are also dads are not immune to the “father of daughters” effect. Male Italian legislatures who have daughters at home are more likely to lean to the left when voting on women’s issues, especially related to reproductive rights. These findings have been echoed in the U.S., Germany, and Great Britain and could imply that daughters help dads become more sympathetic to the unique challenges they face.

Still, having a daughter doesn’t seem to automatically turn dads into liberal, pro-choice Democrats. A 2013 survey from Pew Research found that parents with daughters were more likely to vote Republican (although it’s possible that Republican families have more kids, and so their odds of having daughters are higher). Boys raised with sisters are similarly more likely to be Republicans later in life (again, possibly due to the fact that Republicans have larger families, on average).

In any case, the body of research hasn’t stopped people from coming down on Damon and the now infamous phrase “father of daughters”. Rightfully so. The phrase implies that men should defend women’s rights most vigorously only when their own children are on the chopping block. And even when that’s not what most dads mean when they say it, it’s not a great look. Sure, the science suggests you probably do care more about women’s rights now that you have a daughter.

But not everyone needs to know that.