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Fathers’ Day has come and gone, and though I called my dad and had a chat about the weather that day, I have far more to say about fathers and their place in my heart. Like any good social-media-driven daughter, I posted a throwback picture from high school graduation on instagram and facebook that Sunday; every time I peek back at it and think about the sentiment behind it, the true gratitude I feel, it prompts me to come back to this topic I’ve been toying with, this desire to elaborate beyond a, “Thanks, Dad,” while I can. (If a lengthy love letter to someone else’s father isn’t what you had in mind for your Sunday, I won’t be offended – check back tomorrow.)
As Fathers’ Day was approaching, Britni and I discussed options for posts in honor of the holiday. We sent out a few tweets asking fathers to share their thoughts on street harassment, and when interest was low we abandoned the idea. This is fine, of course; the day is not a happy one for everyone, and Hollaback! doesn’t need to acknowledge it directly. We shared more submitted stories and moved on, but because I think so often of my own father as I work with Hollaback! and victims of street harassment, particularly those young women who are uncertain of their own place and power, I can’t help returning to the idea that fathers have an important role to play. The older I get, the more I realize just how much of my outlook and empowerment I have to thank my dad for; so, as I am wont to, I’ll resort to personal anecdotes as a means of illustration.
I’m my mother’s daughter, from my teeth to my ankles, but my father and I have always had an understanding, and one that I’ve come to cherish as an adult; working with my dad as a teenager, I didn’t understand the simplicity of it all.
He’s a simple guy. He likes cold beer, vanilla ice cream, and cheezits, and he doesn’t much care what movie is on so long as someone (the cat, even?) will watch with him. He appreciates a well-timed pun. When he visits Boston, he settles into the couch with something off our bookshelves and awaits instructions as to our plans.
Uncomplicated. And so far as I can tell, he always has been.
Beyond all of that calm, straightforward behavior, what I didn’t realize as a child was that my dad’s no-nonsense approach to everything, including his daughters, was empowering us in ways that my strong, beautiful, outspoken, Girl-Scout-leader of a mother never could. Some things, coming from a father, make more of an impression on little girls coming of age in a world dominated by men.
I remember one very specific scene when I was 12 or 13: I was working with my dad at home, unloading hay bales from a trailer into the barn. (For those who aren’t secret hillbillies, a standard “small square” bale can vary quite a bit in weight, but we’ll call it 50 pounds. Bales are toss-able, but a bale elevator to carry them from the trailer to a higher storage space – “hay loft” – is a big help.) When we did this work, the setup was always the same: my dad would work in the loft, pulling bales off the elevator and stacking them in the closed, dusty space, while I stayed in the open air on the trailer for the sake of my allergies, hauling bales and lifting them onto the elevator. Long story short: I was lifting heavy things, and it was dirty (though not the dirtiest) work.
A car pulled into the driveway, a man (a cousin, a client, who knows) stepped out and my dad went to say hello; I continued pulling bales from the far ends of the trailer closer to the elevator. Some Pennsylvania Dutch greetings were exchanged, and with a wary glance my way, some questioning about “that girl you have working for you.” — “My daughter, Kate.” — “…oh.”
A few minutes later, the visitor left, and my dad climbed back into the hay loft. I remember asking what all the fuss was about; I remember my dad shrugging his shoulders like he does, and suggesting we get back to work.
And the thing — the important lesson — was that it wasn’t a thing.
It wasn’t a statement that he or I or our family was trying to make – that women can hoist bales, too. It just was. Of course you can. Let’s get back to work.
And that’s how it has always been. Need your oil changed? Here, let’s do it. Roofing job tomorrow? Well, pack sunscreen. We need the hay in before the rain. Grab the other end of this extension ladder. Learning stick? Stop on this hill; now go. I don’t know that any of this was a conscious parenting choice, but more likely habit (my aunts, grandmothers and mom are all strong, independent women, too) and practicality (my sister and I are the only two children – there were no sons to foist work upon).
There, too, we should pause – we were not just free, convenient labor. We were paid, for roofing and for unloading hay. We negotiated our rates. We were never expected to work for free or undervalue ourselves. These are lessons you can’t teach in one conversation. To have a father value you, expect you to value yourself, and shrug off those who might not, makes a lasting impression.
I’m not suggesting that my background and my childhood are available to everyone, that they are even close to average, nor that they’re better than any involved parent might offer; I’m not suggesting that a male, a father figure, is the only way to teach daughters self-worth. What breaks my heart, though, is talking to young victims of street harassment who don’t realize that it’s not their fault, who never had someone assure them of their value, who are accustomed to taking it, to ignoring it, to believing that they should appreciate it. My father taught me about respect – of myself, of others, of animals, of the environment, and of death. He taught me grace and patience. All of my fight and feminism comes from my mom – and I am my mother’s daughter – but so much of the experience I draw on unconsciously when the going gets tough for Hollaback! (what with the vitriol and the sexism and the daily doses of bad news) is rooted in the quiet, unspoken lessons I learned from my dad.
With more men shrugging their shoulders at sexists and misogynists, more men speaking up to say no, our fight would be an easier one. With more men stepping in when they witness harassment, more men showing their daughters their own power, more men valuing the women in their life not as women, but as diverse and capable humans, street harassment and the more horrific gender-based violence that follows from that culture could dwindle and vanish.
We spend quite a bit of time at Hollaback! cultivating a safe space for victims to share their stories, and more often than not those victims are women – but Hollaback!’s mission is not just to cope with street harassment. We want to fight it, to end it, to inspire real change, and to do that, we need the men, too.
So, better late than never: thank you, Daddy, for setting that example for me long before I could begin to understand what it meant. Here’s to all the fathers out there.
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