Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Dad the Feminist

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but my old man is a feminist. You read that right – John McCreary, the pipefitting, bass fishing, skoal dipping man who calls me his son is one of the biggest feminists I know.

About five years ago, my older sister, younger brother and I were all home for Thanksgiving, sitting around Dad’s kitchen table playing cards. We are a card-playing family. Our rook games are epic battles known to stretch into the wee hours of the morning, with nothing but bragging rights at stake. Our card games are great because, in addition to giving us an opportunity to scratch our “McCreary Competitive Itch,” it also gives us a chance to talk, laugh, connect and, as we often do, reminisce about funny stories from our childhood.

On this particular evening, we began questioning my Dad on his parenting philosophies. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but it was never a question that us kids would go to college. All three of us graduated from college and two of us have advanced degrees. I suspect that we all take some measure of pride about our blue-collar rural upbringing and the fact that we all turned out to be successful, well-adjusted (most of the time) adults. Dad (and Mom) had high standards for all of us, but my brother and I will be the first to admit that our older sister was held to the highest standards of all.  In fact, she was held to what some might call ridiculously high standards. She once brought home a B+ for her first six-week report card in her high school Health class, and was grounded for the remainder of the semester to ensure that she got an A in the class (which she did, and later graduated with a perfect 4.0 and got a full honors scholarship to East Tennessee State University). She had a strict curfew, was rarely allowed to spend “alone time” with boys (much to Mack Raines’ and Kent Leach’s chagrin), and she had a weekly list of household chores that would rival that of Cinderella’s (pre-glass slipper, of course).  By comparison, my brother and I had more than our fair share of weekly chores on the farm, but we were able to generally come and go as we pleased, and the occasional B on the report card was no reason for any cruel or unusual punishment. We were held to high standards, but were under considerably less scrutiny than our older sister.

We asked Dad that night “why were you so much tougher on Jennifer that you were on us?” Honestly, I expected his answer to be something about her being the oldest child and him just getting a little more laid back as time went on, which is typically how parents behave when multiple children are in the picture. The story of the over-programmed oldest child, the lonely, attention-starved middle child (i.e. me), and the baby who gets away with murder is so commonplace as to be cliché, and I expected that Dad’s answer to our query would fall within that familiar narrative.

I was wrong.

Here is what he said:

“I knew you boys would be OK no matter what happened. If college didn’t work out you could find a good job working construction and everything would be fine. But I knew that Jennifer’s only chance to get out of here (here being Campbell County, TN) was to go to college and be able to support herself. I didn’t want her stuck around here having to be dependent on some loser from Campbell County. I pushed her really hard because I wanted her to be able to live the life she wanted to live without having to depend on someone else.”

See, I told you he was a feminist.

I think my Dad, when he was in his 20’s and 30’s raising my sister (he was only 20 when she was born), probably had no idea he was a feminist. Hell, at 60 he still may not consider himself a feminist, but his way of thinking about raising his daughter speaks right to the heart of the feminist movement.

Feminism is not the ultra-left-wing, man-hating, baby-killing, angry, purple-haired lesbian movement than many in our society have made it out to be. At the heart of the feminist movement, as far as I can tell, are three simple beliefs:
  1. That every woman should be in charge of her own destiny
  2. That we should not have a society or an economy designed around the concept of a woman being dependent on a man (or anyone else, for that matter) for her happiness and well-being
  3. That all women deserve to be treated like humans with equal rights to men and not merely as objects of sexual desire.

Find any father who has a daughter, and ask him whether or not he believes that his little girl should be in charge of her own destiny, whether or not he wants his daughter to one day be completely dependent on a man, or if he likes to think about his daughter as a human being or a sex object. By those three standards, I would like to think that 99.9 percent of the fathers in America would define themselves as feminists. My old man is not an oddity – I choose to believe that most fathers in America would share my Dad’s goals for his daughter with their own.

So why such hostility towards the feminist movement? Why the Republican animosity towards the recent women’s marches across America? Why don’t more fathers, husbands, and brothers in America consider themselves feminists? I can answer that question with one word – abortion.

The right to choose has been at the center of the feminist movement for at least 50 years, if not longer. It is the line in the sand that the feminist movement has drawn – when it comes to abortion, you are either with us or against us. There is little room for wavering, and a lot of fathers, husbands, and brothers – those who might otherwise consider themselves feminists but are opposed to abortion – are unable to take up the feminist cause.  And in our polarizing society, if you do not consider yourself a feminist, you generally then must consider yourself “anti-feminist” and therefore deride and dismiss things like women’s marches. I think it is sad and unfortunate that abortion has become the dividing line that has kept otherwise feminist men (and women) from being part of the feminist movement, leading to fathers, brothers and husbands voting against the best interests of their daughters, sisters and wives (not to mention the women who vote against their own interests for the same reason).

While I am often frustrated that abortion becomes a line in the sand for the feminist movement, I understand why such is the case. If you fundamentally believe that women should be in charge of their own destiny, and that they should not ever be dependent on a man for their well-being, then you must be, by definition, pro-choice. The choice to have a child or terminate a pregnancy has much more impact on the destiny and well-being of a woman than it does on the man, even though he is equally responsible for the pregnancy. Beyond the obvious physical impact, it is incredibly difficult for young women, particularly low-income women from marginalized communities, to establish paternity and enforce a paternity ruling in this country in order to gain financial support for a child born out of wedlock. District Attorney’s offices are woefully understaffed, and enforcing paternity suits are not among their top priorities. 

The fact is, if a woman chooses to have a child, or is forced to have a child, the chances are high that she will end up bearing the overwhelming majority of the cost and burden of raising that child.  It will impact her ability to continue her education. It will impact her career choices. It will completely and fundamentally change her life. The decision to have or not have a child impacts a woman’s destiny in very real ways, and in ways that it does not impact a man. One cannot say “I think women should be in charge of their own destiny, and should determine the course of their own lives without being dependent on a man or on the government, but if a man gets a woman pregnant through mutual carelessness, the woman must be forced to have that child.” Those two ideas are not reconcilable with one another. We cannot say that a woman is in charge of her own life and destiny, but then mandate that if a man carelessly impregnates her, she must have that child. In other words, one cannot be a feminist and be anything other than pro-choice.

I think this concept is where the abortion rights movement has lost its message. The most common message we hear from the pro-choice crowd is “my body, my choice,” which is countered by the pro-life crowd with “abortion is murder.” I would argue that “my body, my choice” is a lousy slogan precisely because it ignores the fact that another “body” is at play here. We can have an intelligent, thoughtful conversation about when life begins (conception, birth, or somewhere in between), but even the staunchest pro-choicer is forced to admit that the pro-life crowd has a good point. A strong argument can be made for life beginning at conception, and if such is the case, there is more than one “body” involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

If you’ll pardon me a little “man-splaining” here, I think a much better slogan for the pro-choice movement would be “my destiny, my choice.” By using the word “destiny” instead of “body,” we elevate the conversation to a much higher plane. The word “destiny” covers not only the physical impact of a pregnancy, but the entire gamut of issues involved in what might happen if a woman chooses to terminate, or not terminate, an unwanted pregnancy. Whose destiny is impacted by raising the child? How will that decision impact one’s life and career goals? Financial goals? Who ultimately faces the moral and ethical consequences of the decision to terminate a pregnancy? All of these questions, both practical and moral, must be considered when making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Ultimately, a woman making this decision has much more at stake than her body. The decision to have a child, or not have a child, impacts the entire course of her life in ways that it would never effect of impact a man’s. And we can’t truly believe that women should be treated equally, that they should be in charge of their own destiny, and that they should not have to be dependent on others for their well-being if we do not believe that she has the ability to choose whether or not to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. I think some subtle shifts in messaging might create an opportunity for more men and women to come on board the feminist movement, despite their well-founded moral and ethical concerns involving abortion.

In writing this, it is important to point out that I am not “pro-abortion.” I think there are tremendous moral and ethical decisions at play when making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. But I don’t think it is my job, or the government’s job, to make that decision for someone else. If I believe a woman is in control of her destiny, then I trust her to make that decision on her own. My Dad shares this belief.

I want to live in a world where more men, AND women, describe themselves as feminists. I want to see men AND women continue to stand up to a President who has made the objectification of women part of his life’s work, not to mention his campaign platform. I want to live in a world where my sister, my nieces (whom I adore), or my future wife or daughter are truly in control of their own lives and destinies and are never dependent on a man for their success or well-being.

I am a feminist, and I come by it honest. You might say it runs in the family.