How My Father Influenced My Feminism

As my father's only daughter, I could have been doomed to a sheltered existence — coddled and handled with kid gloves. Instead, I was sent into a world of extreme sports, given books far beyond my brain capacity, and asked to rethink the political status quo. Although I can palpably feel my father's influence on my feminism today, it wasn't an easy road. Growing up, my dad's parenting felt unpredictable and at times abrasive: I was often angry that he couldn't be a "normal" dad who was clueless about pop culture and didn't ask his 15-year-old to debate the existence of God at the dinner table. However, as I enter my 30s and begin to radicalize with age, I am more and more grateful for those challenges.

Raised Catholic in the Deep South during the 1950s, my dad wasn't exactly given the tools to be progressive. White men of privilege in this country aren't taught to check themselves very often, and what inspires me so much about his journey is that through years of self-education he elevated himself out of ignorance. It was this spirit of questioning both identity and ideology that permeated my childhood.

In our house, intellectual exploration was king. Almost every day after school, I would make a snack and head downstairs to my father's library, running my fingers over the spines of his books until a particularly colorful one caught my eye. I found my first Camille Paglia essay on Madonna that way. The shock and pleasure I felt at the notion pop culture could be political still resonates every time I watch a seemingly innocuous pop star. (I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga.)

On top of the books I'd find on my own, there were the ones he'd give me to read by the likes of Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Oscar Wilde. We discussed gay rights in America after I became obsessed with the latter's catalogue, and he'd regale me with tales of the pro bono discrimination cases he tried for the ACLU as a lawyer in the 60s. He even begrudgingly sat with me one Sunday when I was particularly obsessed with the transgressive glamour of drag queens and watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show start to finish. Soon after, I was gifted a father-daughter trip to New York City to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch in its first Off-Broadway incarnation. I was in queer heaven.

It wasn't just mind expansion that was encouraged, however. The body was also a temple to be thrown down mountains, plunged into oceans, and propped up on bicycles for 20 mile jaunts. As an avid outdoorsman, my dad required his children to become mini explorers, to test their own limits — even if it was with tear streaked faces and inner monologues repeating "I hate you" in rhythmic cadence as they tagged along behind him. He had pushed my brothers 20 years before I was born to do these things, and since my gender seemed to be inconsequential in the matter, of course he would do the same with me.

When I wanted nothing more than to read or write quietly inside, I was being suited up in a wetsuit and driven into a Pennsylvania quarry in the dead of winter to get my scuba diving license. Or taken down the steepest double black diamond ski slope with nothing but a prayer to the elements to get me through. I was constantly afraid, constantly unsure of myself. But I survived. Becoming intimately acquainted with that process is what I largely credit with getting me through my toughest times as an adult. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be able to list things like cave rafting in New Zealand or shipwreck diving in Mexico amongst my accomplishments.

If it wasn't for these physically and mentally boundary pushing experiences, I might not have had the courage to think differently and act differently.

And then there was sex. Girls from divorced families know the awkwardness that can arise when you sometimes live in a household without an older woman around who can explain what's going down. But with a father who took it upon himself to teach me about periods and sex well before I was thinking about either, there was little mystery in my mind. Much to the chagrin of certain family members, he took me to see Boogie Nights in middle school and ended the screening with a discussion about the porn industry. (And yes, in case you're wondering, it is super awkward to watch Mark Wahlberg take out his prosthetic schlong when you're sitting next to your dad.) He'd also talk to me about his previous marriages and relationships, and say sage-sounding things like, "monogamy should never be assumed," which left me — pre-Internet — to wonder for the next 10 years what the hell that even meant, only to enter adulthood thanking him for such an unexpected gift of progressive advice.

If it wasn't for these physically and mentally boundary pushing experiences, I might not have had the courage to think differently and act differently. I might not be writing about sex and feminism and witches and the occult, and putting on X-Rated burlesque and music festivals celebrating those things — at which my dad has proudly been a front row witness. I am still so grateful for our weekly conversations where we lose track of time and heatedly discuss things from the presidential election to female genital mutilation and racism to rape culture. There is always a new article to dissect, a new theory to bandy back and forth. And although my father rarely dropped the "f-word" with me throughout our years and years together, it's never been clearer that both his attitude and his parenting ethos are feminist to the core.

Images: Author's own