My Father, The Feminist

A few years ago, at my father's request, I started doing a lot of genealogy research on the history of our family. I traced the Alvin family tree for generations, back to southern Italy where the name started as Alvino until my enterprising great-grandfather and his two brothers, a doctor, dentist, and pharmacist respectively, lopped off the "o" in hopes of skirting anti-Italian discrimination in early 20th-century Pittsburgh. I traced the Phillip family tree, my mom's side, as it wound its way through Ireland and Canada, England, Scotland, France, and Wales, eventually finding roots in Evanston, Illinois, South Bend, Indiana, and Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

In sifting through my family's history, I was struck by how many of the names on my tree I had never heard before, how many names seemed almost erased from history, their branches cut short when women took their husband's surnames and left their old identities behind — Margaret Byrne and Anne Higgins from County Cork and County Mayo; Helen Clara Finlayson from Scotland and Josephine Perrault from France; my great-grandmother Jeannette Sunseri, from New Orleans; Filomena Gellasso, born in Campania, Italy in the mid 1800s; Conjetta Bruno, who left her no-good husband in Italy and came to America by herself, pregnant and with three young sons in tow.

I told my dad how I felt about this and he became visibly upset. He turned to my mother. "Mary," he said forcefully, "It is absolutely ridiculous that you had to take my name when we got married. What an absurd tradition! Your last name is no less worthy or important than mine. Let's go to the court house tomorrow. Let's have both of our last names changed to Phillip-Alvin." My mom, probably not wanting to deal with the paperwork after nearly 40 years of marriage, declined, though she surely appreciated the gesture.

Though I must have always known that my father was a feminist, though his words and actions reflected it my entire life, it was in that moment that the force of those beliefs became clear. He could not have been more equal in his treatment and encouragement of me, my sister, and my brother, today and when we were growing up. He could not have been more insistent that we, all three of us, could do or be anything we wanted. Despite my distinct lack of athletic prowess and my brother's innate skill, he prioritized Mike's baseball games and my swim meets equally, and he let our natural academic and personal talents inform his encouragement and guidance of us. He parented us based on who we were as individuals, not based on our genders. His most salient slogan in guiding us through our lives was "Don't take any shit from anyone, kids. Anyone.", and he was especially vehement in imparting this wisdom to my sister and myself, surely knowing that, as women, we'd be given and expected to take more grief from the world.

He never treated my mother as anything less than his equal in every way. In his decades of work as a health care administrator, he never failed to hire women at all levels, and he always came to count his female colleagues among his most respected peers and valuable confidantes. He once recounted a story of getting into an argument with his dentist when she complained of how indecisive female patients were, telling her "This is garbage! You can't judge people based on their gender! That will only lead to problems!", and when a coworker once handed him a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus , he called it "the biggest bunch of bullshit I ever read."

Though I know that my father's feminist inclinations are rooted in a deep, intrinsic sense of fairness and equality, I also know that, without the spectacular women in his life, those inclinations may not have grown quite as strong.

My paternal grandmother, Rose Alvin née Biondi, was a teacher with a degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and he describes her as one of the most brilliant people he ever met. She was a devoted educator, a beautiful writer, a fierce supporter of her four sons, and she had a magnetic charisma that "lit up a room." She may have taken my grandfather's name, but she was undoubtedly the head of the family.

Then there was my maternal grandmother, Ann Prendeville, whom my father loved and respected very much. She met her husband, Philip Phillip (yes, really,) when they were both college students at the University of Detroit, and she was tough and whip-smart and a whole lot like my mom, who never fit squarely into the traditional gender role boxes either.

If women are struggling for equal numbers in the STEM fields today, you can imagine what those stats were like 40 years ago, when my mother was in school — but she still earned a master's degree in business education and used it to teach business math and accounting to high school students. A decade after getting her first bachelor's degree, she went back for a second in computer science, a mother of three learning how to write code. When the Internet won't work or the computer freezes or the cable goes out, you better believe it is not my dad who gets everything back in working order. She can man the grill just as handily as he can, and when a melancholy Tracy Chapman song comes on the radio, it's my dad who gets all weepy and my mom who gamely comforts him and rolls her eyes.

It is the legacy of these special women that has helped form my father and me into the feminists that we are today. And when I told my dad that I was writing an essay about how he was a feminist, and how his fierce respect for women was largely informed by these women in his life, he said "You are one of those women, too." I consider myself to be in excellent company.