Last night, after dinner, I sat outside on the patio, talking to three middle-school boys. One asked if I was concerned about how folks would respond to my new book, Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad. “Aren’t you or your publisher worried that a lot of people will think it’s cringe to call yourself a feminist dad?”
I told them I’m terrified that an onslaught of hate mail and online trolling will become a noxious burden, but I’m also fully prepared to confront criticism. Like most men, I’ve been fielding slurs and insults — all of them borderline misogynist, overtly homophobic, and undoubtedly toxic — since I was their age. “In our culture,” I said, “men seem to get that with or without feminism.”
The first article I published about being a feminist dad was met with predictably crass comments. Of course, the trolls challenged my manhood. They suggested I was weak. The moderators swiftly blocked the one which called me Mangina. I had never heard the word. I looked it up. “Mangina is a derogatory term for any man perceived as effeminate, especially used online to put down men who identify as feminists,” read the definition. Yes, that’s me! I’m printing t-shirts. I’ll wear them proudly, as if to say, “I’m so alpha, I’m over alpha.”
Of course, it’s easy to brush off the haters. But what about the folks who are confused? Already, a lot of early readers have told me they assumed a book on how to be a feminist dad must be all about fathering daughters. They imagined I was trying to teach men how to raise strong, empowered young women. They were wrong.
They were thinking of feminism from a limited, individualistic perspective. They assumed that the fight for gender parity must be inspired by self-interest — that the only reason anyone would be a feminist is to obtain more personal freedom, opportunity, status, wealth, or power. Therefore, they could only imagine that a feminist dad must be driven, like the territorial Lion-king guarding his pride, to secure his daughter’s prospects as if they were an asset of his own. It’s a kind of extended egocentrism, stewardship of the patrilineal estate.
People think this way because we’ve all been socialized to see Dad as man of the house. He wears the pants. He’s a tough-love stoic who, at his best, represents everything masculinity can and should be. Service? Protection? Decisive action? Patriarchy literally means rule by the father (from the ancient Greek πατήρ/pater/father + αρχία/arkhia/rule). Therefore, fatherhood identity tends to show up as the exact opposite of the misogynist, witch-hunt propaganda that’s been calcified in so many people’s minds — to be a feminist, so the story goes, is to be an angry, man-hating emasculator. It’s just not true.
I’m not the first writer to acknowledge that cisgender men can benefit from feminism just as much as their daughters. bell hooks says feminism simply means that you’re committed to ending sexist oppression, subjugation, and exploitation. You take an active, intersectional stance in favor of human dignity. You want to live in a world where stereotypes no longer limit anyone’s aspirations. You recognize that there’d also be no respite from the constricting, violent, humiliating grip of toxic masculinity without all the shrewd feminist and queer theory that preceded the APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.
Despite the obvious truth that American society is structured according to power dynamics which privilege white cisgender males, our current social and cultural attitudes don’t serve men. As sociologist Michael Kimmel explains, the rules of manhood have been constructed so that we expect an alpha-male will occupy a single spot at the top of a cultural and economic hierarchy. That means most men are locked in a high stakes game of “king of the hill.” We knock each other down as quickly as possible, oftentimes fortifying each blow with insults like pussy, fag, bitch, sissy, mangina — language which indicates that some categories of people aren’t even allowed to contend.
In a patriarchal order, men are always competing, and therefore, always bruised and battered. Nobody really wins because even when you do secure the top position, you’re just biding your time until someone at the bottom has trained long enough to mount a challenge. The dominant man is always counting down the days until he finds himself on the wrong side of a battle of murderous ascendency. It’s built into our popular mythology. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is essentially about a rebellious hero-son who conquers a tyrannical father-king. Authors have integrated Campbell monomyth into hundreds of self-help, business, and personal development books. And now “follow your bliss” shapes our social, cultural, economic, and political realities.
Coups. The deep state. Fake news. Even the most powerful men in the world are terrified of losing their foothold. We watched The Madness of King George play out in the White House and at Mar-a-Lago for four years. Men who embrace an orthodox version of winner-takes-all, hero-masculinity are locked into a delusional compensation for the tormenting anxiety of both Oedipal transience and imposter syndrome.
The point is feminism is not only about women’s rights. It’s also about doing away with the ends-justify-the-means competitive mindset that tells men life is a perpetual fight for dominance. Many men — and even some women — attempt to naturalize the existing social order by pointing to evolution. They use the term “survival of the fittest” to justify responding to the world as if it were an unending dog-eat-dog battle to the death. But this perspective doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Natural selection is like parenting; it depends much more on adaptability than it does on fortitude, strength, or rigor.
If you want get Darwinian about it, feminist dads can easily write their own winning narrative from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. We see a competitive advantage from letting go of the absurd notion that humanity’s apex predator status is based on the ability of a single man to dominate others. We know that it only requires imagining a battle between Grandpa and a grizzly bear to recognize that our species-level dominance comes from community — our ability to empathetically share resources and build the technologies which bestow advantages over the natural world.
Likewise, we know that being a feminist dad has nothing to do with fathering daughters. Of course, feminism is relevant to dads of daughters, just as it’s relevant to dads of sons, and dads of gender non-conforming children. And that’s why, in my book, I write a lot about the way sexism and misogyny is inadvertently reinforced through the common tropes and habits of mind which often contour the daddy-daughter relationship. But there’s nothing about the act of parenting daughters that necessarily makes a #GirlDad more likely to be feminist. In fact, some studies suggest the exact opposite.
One researcher found that federal judges with daughters were more likely to rule in ways that may seem protective and compassionate, but actually limit freedom, autonomy, and reproductive rights. In other words, fathering daughters might indeed make a dad concerned about women’s safety and wellbeing, but care can easily manifest in paternalistic ways. It may feel like compassion to dad, but it’s really a thinly veiled attempt to uphold the misogynistic, patriarchal status quo.
A truly alpha-dad knows that feminism is for all of us, not just women. It is not a battle against masculinity. It is not about canceling men. It’s not about taking power from one cisgender community and giving it to another. Being a feminist dad is about normalizing social justice, disrupting systemic inequality, and transforming patriarchy through parenting.
Jordan Shapiro, PhD, is father to two children and stepfather to two more. He’s senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. He teaches in Temple University’s Intellectual Heritage Program. His latest book, Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad, is out now.