Men have found a new way to make themselves the central figures in women’s fight for equality while congratulating themselves on their intellectual progressiveness. And, boy is it the worst. Policy makers and would-be opinion shapers eager to appeal to feminists and family values-ists alike have been imploring the public to “Think of your [mother/daughter/sister/wife/female relative you feel a sense of ownership over]” as proof that they value equality, would like to condemn abuse, and respect women and girls. What if this was your daughter?, the well-meaning man says. Even Barack Obama likes to do this. He frequently seems to be speaking to men about the women in their lives in an effort to convince the former that the latter have value—and in doing so, implying that this needs to be a compelling argument in order for the values he’s professing to be valid. Despite meaning well and facing the insurmountable unpopularity contest that is Saying Things While President, Obama has been deservedly critiqued for this kind of rhetoric, and that’s for the same reason others are: Respect rings a little hollow when it seems like women need male permission to receive it.
Take the Steubenville rape case, which among other things involved the mother of the victim and an unnamed male student reminding rape apologists and even the rapists themselves to consider the victim as “your daughter.” These sympathetic pleas—reasonable, in their own right—inspired a spate of thinkpieces that interrogated the implications of such reasoning. (Are orphans, only children, and male victims undeserving of sympathy? What about women as fully-realized people with sole ownership over their bodies? What about men having a capacity for empathy not contingent on shared genitalia?) At best, this amounted to an understandable attempt at emotional appeal in the face of an all-too-often overlooked issue. Even so, that sort of appeal is anecdotally ineffective in a narrow sense and guilty of setting the ambient culture back a few steps in a broader one. The argument being made here—If it was a woman you felt possessive over, it would matter, no?—is, in a word, bad.
There’s also a version of this argument that trots out the existence of female offspring as a form of inalienable feminist credential. It’s come up a lot lately. This is where you get Bill Simmons saying he was a chauvinist until he had a daughter, or Baylor’s new athletic director Mack Rhoades citing his daughters as motivation for addressing systematic suppression of rape accusations.
The opportunistic insincerity of these particular examples makes it seem like this use of a daughter as (more or less) a rhetorical black friend is even more reprehensible than the “rape victims matter because they have fathers” tactic. But for the sake of newly-woke fathers everywhere, it’s worth weighing the credence of such claims more broadly.
Does having a personal stake in the unique opportunities and obstacles encountered by females force a man to notice them more? Undoubtedly. People are selfish; empathy is not naturally equal. But there’s a difference between empathy and actions that are not just important, but literally the basis for civilized society.
It’s understandable for a man to have never seriously considered, say, the pressures put on girls to fit a certain beauty standard from an alarmingly young age before he’s witnessed it first hand. But things like rape or abuse or income inequality are explicitly wrong, and women who have been raped or abused or unfairly paid aren’t asking for some sort of special lady treatment, but for justice. It shouldn’t take having a daughter to treat women—presumably a large portion of the people you’ve encountered your entire life—with the same decency and respect as you would a man. That CEOs with daughters are fairer in their treatment of women is meaningful, but not a sign of progress. (There’s nothing inherently gendered about wages, at least not if you’re willing to raise them upon the birth of a daughter.)
But of course all of this is to assume that men are made more conscientious and more equitable towards women after finding themselves partially to blame for the creation of one—which isn’t exactly guaranteed. Bragging about your belated basic human decency is hardly inspiring; hiding retrograde beliefs behind the biological reality of having fathered a female is worse. (It remains to be seen how seriously Rhoades will take the Baylor situation, but his dismissive reference to his daughters as recruitment tools doesn’t bode especially well.)
To insist that people not be influenced by their personal interactions is not only unfair, but deluded. Having a daughter is (presumably) a beautiful experience that inevitably opens a man’s eyes to the pernicious, often institutionalized sexism that pervades the lives of women. But he doesn’t have to see this for himself to behave as if it were truly there; he just has to believe the many women who are willing and eager to tell him about it.