In Honor of Father’s Day: A Father’s Influence upon a Feminist

 

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By Maria

 

Once upon a time, I had the courage to speak to a priesthood leader about several of my feminist concerns as they relate to church doctrine and culture.  After quietly and patiently listening to all I had to say, this good man then asked me to share with him my feelings about my relationship with my father.  I didn’t understand how the two topics were connected, and asked him why we needed to introduce my relationship with my dad into the discussion.  He then told me that he had a theory (based upon his counseling experience) that all women with feminist concerns had experienced damaging, negative, or strained relationships with their fathers.  And, having been denied the opportunity to emotionally connect with an earthly father, these women’s relationship with their Heavenly Father had been adversely affected, leading them to question their testimonies or church doctrine.

 

I was shocked as he explained his theory to me.  My father has been an absolute pillar of strength, love, and support throughout my entire life.  In all honesty, I attribute many of my feminist inclinations to the fact that my father treats me, and my mother and sisters, so amazingly well.  Although he’d probably never publicly label himself a feminist, his world view and actual practices are more feminist than many self-proclaimed feminist women I have interacted with. 

 

My father always taught me that I was capable of doing anything I wanted to, regardless of anything society or other people said to me.  When my siblings and I came home from elementary school repeating the popular “dumb blonde” jokes of that time period, my father sat us down and explained that these jokes were sexist. As he explained it, a statement is sexist if it tries to make women feel like they aren’t as smart or as good as men are.  In our home filled with very bright (and very blonde) women, the telling of demeaning blonde jokes would not be permitted.  From that point onward, we helpfully pointed out any potentially-sexist remarks that our friends, teachers, and relatives might not want to repeat in the future.   

 

I know of no better example of equal partnership than my parents’ relationship.  They counsel together in all major financial, spiritual, career-related, household, familial, and other matters.  When my mother decided to begin graduate school between the births of my fifth and sixth siblings, my father supported her whole-heartedly.  He’d leave work early to complete the lion’s share of the meal prep, cleaning, and laundry so that my mom would have more time to study.  When my mom later decided to pursue a part-time and then full-time career, there was no greater cheerleader (and at times vocal defender) than my dad.  His oft-repeated motto is “Whatever makes your mother happy makes me happy.”  Whether it was being a stay-at-home mom, attending graduate school, pursuing a career, or whatever else she wanted, my father was there to ensure that it happened.    

 

I talk openly and honestly with my parents about my feminist concerns within the church.  When I first told my dad about my feelings about the temple ceremony, his initial response had a profound effect upon me.  His inspired words (delivered through tears but with conviction):  “Maria, I just want to say that I love you so much.  Thank you for having the courage to share such deeply personal and painful feelings with me.  Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything you’ve expressed, I am committed to understanding your concerns on a deeper level.  Please help me understand more about why you feel this way.  Let’s work on this together.”  His initial response has paved the way for dozens of productive follow-up conversations about not only the temple, but problematic presiding language, lack of female leadership, the solemn assembly voting order, etc. 

 

In sum, my dad’s a pretty amazing guy.  I count him among my best friends.  I am certain that his love and support will continue to sustain me as the years go by.  So much for that priesthood leader’s theory. 

 

Have you ever heard of the “bad father = feminist daughter” theory before?  Is this idea prevalent in the church?  Has your relationship with your father informed your outlook on feminist issues in the church? 

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  1. jeans says:

    Maria, this is a wonderful post. Yay for your dad.

    I think your priesthood leader was confusing feminism with misandry. Not the same thing at all. I could see how a strained relationship with a father could lead to mistrust of men or trouble with relationships to other men, but that’s not the same thing as feminism. Equating feminism with man-hating is a common, but false, misconception.

  2. Melanie2 says:

    Jeans, that’s an excellent point. I’ve had several friends in that position–one who told me specifically that because of her dad’s mistakes and bad example, she had a very difficult time understanding what the priesthood was supposed to be or what good fathers were like–and that extended to some extent to her relationship with God. So I don’t think a bad father creates a feminist daughter, but a father’s mistakes can make it difficult for his daughter to trust/relate to/appreciate other men.

  3. sarah says:

    I remember thinking that my awkward relationship with my somewhat absent father was the reason I thought of God as distant and uncaring, but I don’t remember where I got the idea. It has been about 14 years since I started thinking that, and a lot has changed, including both my relationships with my father and God. My dad has always let me do what I wanted, never expressed any doubt in my ability to accomplish whatever I chose, but we’ve never talked about anything important. Growing up, we never talked at all.

    The other thing is that as my relationship with my father has improved, my relationship with the church has deteriorated, and my feminism has developed more and more. Those things might not be related, or maybe they are just products of my changing personality.

    It was awfully presumptuous (and ignorant, and sexist) of that bishop to assume that any woman who had a beef with a male-dominated system is just doing it because she had a bad father and doesn’t understand the natural order of things. (Gag, puke)

    Your own father sounds like a decent human being, and I’m sure you’ve told him so.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I have heard that theory–it seems to me like a dangerous stereotype, an attempt to explain away feminist concerns.

    My dad is a solid feminist and proudly calls himself one. I guess his example influenced my view of Heavenly Father. I never doubted that Heavenly Father was right on my side with my concerns–probably because my dad always has been. Whoa, profound realization! Lucky me!

    Maria, I think your dad’s response is particularly touching.

  5. Jana says:

    I had a very loving relationship with my father. I think my feminism has very little to do with my relationship with him, except maybe that he was also someone who believed deeply in equality and felt that women would someday hold priesthood office in the Church.

  6. ZD Eve says:

    Maria, I really appreciated this post.

    I’ve occasionally encountered these often well-meaning attempts to essentially pathologize feminism by descrying its roots in childhood lack or trauma. I think the dubiousness of this approach becomes especially evident to Mormons when critics of Mormonism similarly attempt to pathologize women happy with patriarchy as brainwashed or otherwise intellectually or emotionally deficient. I’ve no doubt well-meaning bishops like this one would be (rightly) horrified at such attempts, and so I think to be fair, we ought to grant people the dignity of their convictions and not assume that deviations from the orthodoxy in question are evidence of intellectual or emotional malfunction. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Kaimi says:

    “I think your priesthood leader was confusing feminism with misandry.”

    Miss Andry? I thought that was what people called Polly Andry, when they didn’t remember her first name. 😛

    Seriously, though, I really enjoyed this post, Maria. And the comments have been good, too.

    I think Eve has nailed it — this is based on the idea that feminism is a sort of mental malfunction, that has to be explained as any other disease would be. And of course, the implications of pathologizing feminism are clear: If it’s a sickness and a deviation from the natural state, then its victims should be cured, or perhaps quarantined.

    And yes, unfortunately, I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. (It reminds me of another pathologizing line of reasoning that also seems common among church members — that gays and lesbians are people who were molested as a child, thus mentally “messing up their wiring,” so to speak.)

    Your dad sounds great, and I think it’s great that you’ve got a good relationship with him. The same goes for some other strong feminists I know.

    And I have to say, I look at this issue not entirely unselfishly. I’ve got a daughter, who’s already very headstrong and very independent, and I hope to continue to have a good relationship with her as she grows older.

  8. E says:

    I’m not sure if I’ve exactly heard this theory, but I have thought it when I have encountered the sort of stereotypical, man-hating, angry women who label themselves feminists. You obviously do not fall into that category.

    I think your dad sounds like a wonderful, even ideal husband and father. But is the motto “whatever makes your mother happy makes me happy” the motto of a “true” feminist? It’s not exactly an egalitarian sentiment, is it?

  9. anonymous says:

    It looks like I am in the minority here…

    I have a complicated but loving relationship with my father. He had some very sexist and damaging views towards women for many years. He inherited many of them from my grandfather and felt they were sanctioned by both of their incorrect understanding of church doctrine.

    It wasn’t until I grew older that I realized that my dad’s understanding of the gospel isn’t necessarily the gospel.

    Given the effect my dad’s views had on me, I can understand where this bishop’s theory comes from, even if it isn’t always generalizable.

  10. Kiri Close says:

    Awesome post.

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