The first time I ever talked to my father about feminism I was probably about 25 years old. I had never believed in feminism until that point. I had only heard my father laughingly quote Rush Limbaugh’s scornful phrase of “feminazis.” But something had been happening to me over the last month or two and I was excited to share it with him. Sharing was what we did. In the couple years prior to this conversation I had gone through several phases that I had shared with my father. When I got deeply interested in the emergent church movement, I went out and bought a bunch of books and my dad and I read them together and talked about it. When I fell into what seemed like an endless hole on Calvinism vs Arminianism I did the same. We didn’t really know how to talk about emotions and I had yet to find a way to get through to him about a number of things that were starting to really bother me but we could talk about ideas. It made me feel like there was a chance, like we were working towards something together. It was the only connection I had been able to find and, so far, it had been almost enough.
It’s hard to place where I started to really change. So much shifted in my life and at times it seemed incredibly fast but I do know that the thing that first began to unravel my political ball of yarn was feminism. Suddenly I began to accept this idea that perhaps women had a right to say no, perhaps I had a right to say no. I started to realize that the abuse that I had suffered at various points throughout my life was in many ways just part of a larger picture of what women in general were suffering. I was not alone in this. I was hesitantly embracing what was to me at the time, the completely radical notion that there might in fact not be a single thing that a woman could do to deserve being assaulted. I was obsessing over this film review by Roger Ebert of a movie called The Accused. You can read the whole thing here but his summation was what had pushed me into this conversation, it was what was ringing in my ears. I was sure no one could hear this, certainly not my father who loved me, and not feel the implications. “I wonder who will find the film more uncomfortable – men or women? Both will recoil from the brutality of the scenes of the assault. But for some men, the movie will reveal a truth that most women already know. It is that verbal sexual harassment, whether crudely in a saloon back room or subtly in an everyday situation, is a form of violence – one that leaves no visible marks but can make its victims feel unable to move freely and casually in society. It is a form of imprisonment.” It was like some part of my life had been opened up that even I had never been able to recognize before. It had been named, it had been spoken. I wanted him to know, I wanted him to understand so that he would want to fight this with me, so that he would be angry with me. It was a revelation and if I could just explain it, he would feel the same. Now I know feminism is about a lot more than sexual assault but that was where it started for me. It was slowly building on that, this recognition of inherent inequality, of a patriarchal society that was encouraging silence. A silence I had been raised in and also part of. It was a lightning bolt, the kind of realization that charges all your beliefs with something new. I wanted to share it with someone. I wanted to share it with my daddy.
See, I was so sure he would understand. I remember sitting there, feeling so certain, trying to explain to my dad that we had made a mistake. “Dad, we’ve missed it. The Republican party, the church, we’ve missed it. This isn’t a political football to play with, these are self-evident truths, these are people’s lives, don’t you see?” I was so excited. On some level I think I believed that this would be a defining moment for us, that my father would hear what I was saying, would be able to join me in this fight I had only just realized existed. He would stand up next to me and that would open the door to other conversations and maybe this would finally be what I was looking for. He would have to see, right? It was so obvious.
I was completely sincere. I did not take into account the possibility that the church, the Republican party or God forbid, my own father might have not seen these things for reasons of their own. I was still new to this idea of privilege. I still believed in the Republican party, I still believed that the church was a flawed but ultimately good organization. If we were on the opposite side of history on this then clearly we had just misunderstood, we had just missed it. After all, I had missed it for quite a while myself. Most importantly I still believed in my father. My strong, brilliant father, the man I had spent my entire life trying to impress, trying to prove myself to. Of course my daddy would understand, if only I found the right thing and the right way to say it. And I didn’t see why this couldn’t be it. I didn’t grow up with set gender roles, after all. My mother’s family is quite matriarchal in their way. I didn’t think of the idea of strong females as inherently threatening. Our family legacy in this is a lot more subtle than that. We have strong women who are unstable and unbalanced. Women who are distant and sometimes cruel, women who depend on men to handle them and men who depend on them to be crazy. The patterns were still a bit unclear to me. I didn’t know what it meant yet. I didn’t know that everything I was saying was an assault on the system, on my father, on everything he believed he could do for me.
I was right about one thing – it was a defining moment. It was the first time, although not the last, that my father was incapable of hearing me. I had gone too far off track, too far away from our accepted road. He tried to engage for a little while. The look on his face was mostly one of confusion, like he didn’t even know who I was. I think that was actually true. Looking back I realize he was afraid. Things had changed and I didn’t even know it yet. And then he did something that I had never seen before. He shut down and he walked away from me. I would realize over the next few years that this is what my father does when he has no idea what to say, is overwhelmed, is simply unable to cope with what is happening in front of him. But at the time I had never seen it before and I was stunned. We had never done anything but talk. That was our connection, we talked. And suddenly in that moment, he was just gone and there was nothing left to say. He walked out my door and I realized that he hadn’t missed anything. It wasn’t a misunderstanding, it was a choice. And I had made a different one.