Long before I identified as feminist, I held a lot of the beliefs of the feminist and social justice movements and I was fighting for those beliefs (and would have fought you, hard, if you’d tried to label me a feminist). My relationship and my experiences with feminism are complex, and we are not always on easy terms; sometimes I doubt whether I have a feminist identity at all. But, whatever I call myself, I have my father to thank for thinking the way I do, for engaging with the world the way I do, for recognising the fundamental humanity of all people, even people I violently disagree with.
My father is not a feminist. He would probably be amused if I called him that. He has some ideas I don’t necessarily agree with, and sometimes we get into brisk arguments about them; we have been known to bring dinner parties to a screaming halt with debates about accessibility, for example. Sometimes I despair of ever trying to convince my father of things that seem pretty fundamental and simple to me, a legacy of generational differences, of socialisation, of culture. Even with all our differences, the things my father taught me, the core of who I am and of how I engage with the world, don’t go away.
My father taught me compassion. It is not possible to put myself in someone else’s shoes, but I can approach someone’s ideas with compassion in mind, to think about the origins of those ideas and to think about why they are being so firmly clung to. I tend not to engage directly with hateful rhetoric, but I do take note of it, and I push back on it in small, sneaky ways; I’ve long since learned that the direct attack is far less effective than the slow, steady chipping away. Rather than confronting something, I slip behind it and address a small element of it, with compassion, in the hopes that eventually, people will respond. Will shift. Will change.
My father taught me the value of action, of all forms of action. He never told me what I should and shouldn’t do and never valued some kinds of action over others. He encouraged me to write opinion editorials to the paper when I was angry just as much as he encouraged me to help high school students organise strikes, to provide literacy education to offer people the power of the written word, to march in protests, to lodge formal complaints, to take action in my community in all kinds of ways and to engage with my community. I didn’t grow up thinking some things or some people were better than others because that was never entertained as an idea in our household.
He taught me to pick and choose my battles, how and when to push back. Whether he was correcting me or questioning someone else’s words, my father showed by example. Some things, my father taught me, aren’t worth the energy, the time, the suffering. Others are. He taught me to weigh people and situations quickly but carefully, to figure out what was worth it to me and what wasn’t. And he taught me how to file things away for later; not pushing back in the moment doesn’t mean I have forgotten.
My father and I are both very stubborn individuals. We are set in our ways and our beliefs and we hold to them. Something else my father taught me, to not compromise my self integrity when it counted, to be unafraid to support the things I believed in, even if it meant experiencing pain now. My father taught me how to walk out of an offensive event, to stand my ground against people being patronising to me, to reject the idea that what I had to say was worthless. He taught me self-respect, and respect for others, and he taught me that denying myself to make other people happy wasn’t worth it.
My father taught me that I had value, and when we talk about feminist parenting, I often think of my father. He never told me I should or shouldn’t do things on the basis of my assigned gender. He was as happy to buy me an air rifle as he was to buy me costume jewelry. He resisted gendered clothing and activities and pushed back hard when the people around us tried to force me to adhere to their beliefs about gender. That if I wanted to do something, I should go ahead and do it, and if someone told me not to or suggested it wasn’t appropriate for me, that should be an additional motivator to push through.
He showed me the use of the indirect challenge, the sly statement, how to confront something with my actions, rather than tackling it directly, to show by example and by doing rather than to take the bull by the horns. And he taught me when that’s not enough, when you do need to address something directly. He taught me that silence can equal death, that failing to take action when action is needed is one of the most despicable things a person can do, but that this action can take many forms.
Even as I advocate for things I know my father would disagree with, I know my father is with me, and that, perhaps, is the greatest thing of all he taught me; to support the people I believe in, even if I don’t always share their beliefs.