By Mike Adamick
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As a primary male role model in a girl’s life, a father influences his daughter in profound ways, from the way she defines her female identity to what she expects from men. In Raising Empowered Daughters, Mike Adamick offers a wise and witty handbook for dads, suggesting ways to raise girls who won’t settle for second-class-citizenship. Examining the extraordinary array of sexisms-both subtle and not-so-subtle-girls encounter, Adamick highlights not just the ways that girls and boys are treated differently but how the roles of moms and dads are shaped by society, too.
Full of eye-opening anecdotes and dad-relatable humor, this is a necessary guide for every father who wants to raise a confident daughter.
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THE PROBLEM NEVER lay buried. It was everywhere—a creeping haze, a fog, an atmospheric river atomized into breathable vapor.
You couldn’t avoid it.
A generation after the question, “Is this all?” it was still interrupting to offer the answer, ghostlike and haunting, a pervasive specter mumbling “Well, actually,” in the background for boys to overhear, boys through it all turning into men. We’re dads now, raising yet another generation today with the original problem still serving as the template.
It was what stirred us in the morning through boyhood, dream-dazed and groggy, suddenly aware of a new song thrumming from our older brother’s room.
“Oh, can’t you see,” it warbled, “you belong to me.”
It glared up at us from the morning paper, a black-and-white parade of dads and grandpas in the news section, all suits and ties, cigarette teeth, and sprayed hair. It popped out of the sports pages with the mullet heroes, and the business pages with the old mustached bores.
It arose in the morning flush of the suburbs, all created from some TV show template of clean-street, picket-fence patriotism. The white moms, with maybe one or two black moms out of a hundred homes—“Progress. See? Things are better now”—wove through streets named for famous men, Founding Fathers, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln or Lee, some slavers and some actual traitors—literally anyone but a woman. And the moms would all assemble at the school drop-off line, honking and griping, while all the dads went elsewhere, somewhere; they were very busy and important.
It blared out in the soundtrack of the everyday commute, the same pounding anthems that woke us played on the radio for everyone to hear. It resounded in songs about “girls” who “belonged” to someone, someone who watched them or followed them. They couldn’t escape: “Every move you make, every step you take.” It repeated in songs about how these “girls” were actually someone else’s, some guy named Jessie—but not if some other man altogether could help it. We’d sing along from the backseat, sweetly, proudly, learning about love. This is how adults did the romance. “I’ll be watching you.” The dads, meanwhile, when we sometimes rode with them, had their own soundtracks on talk radio, all those bloviating, angry men: “And another thing!”
It crept into the classrooms, where our teachers, mostly women, called on the “smart” boys and the “good” girls. No one pulled us from class, measured the length of our shorts or eyed the cut of our tank tops, but they pulled Penny out one day and sent her home, called her a “distraction,” and we got the message—we knew why everyone was there and that Penny, dirty, unclean, was somehow disrupting it all. Even in the hallways it was apparent: the teachers, the secretaries, the school nurse, and the lunch ladies—all women, while the tough jobs, the real jobs, the physical jobs like janitor, or PE teacher, or principal were all filled by men.
It enveloped us in the schoolyard nomenclature, the slurs, the language passed from schoolboy to schoolboy.
There were boys. Then there were “pussies”—a feminine class, a lower class, the very worst thing a real boy could be.
Oh, can’t you see?
No men ever followed us home after school, slowing their car to a crawl beside the sidewalk, whistling, yelling, gesturing. No men told us to smile or called us names, threatened us if we didn’t, and I’d wager good money that right now, if you thought about it, you probably never considered for a moment wearing a different blazer or tie for fear those slow-crawl, creepy whistlemen might consider your attire an invitation to rape you, knowing you’d probably get blamed for it anyway because, look at the cut of your suit, the polish on your shoe—everyone knew you were asking for it. Liar.
No boy ever called you a slut. They asked if you scored with one.
It seeped out of after-school sports: the moms on the sidelines, chatting, and the girls nearby doing cartwheels, perhaps picking flowers or even cheering, while the boys gathered in the dirt with men, communing in sport.
It bellowed from the evening news: images of kindly white grandpas speaking assuredly in voices that belied their horrific mythologies, mythologies that vaporized and then seeped into every home. “America,” one of them began, all sunny and warm and white, and then suddenly snarled and warned us about welfare queens. Everyone knew the code, even kids.
It oozed off the screen in the TV shows and the movies, the stories about funny men, about action men, about tough, violent, angry men—the real heroes, the men who fought. They fought aliens. They fought ghosts. They fought each other. Nowadays they fight robots, computers. But back then they just fought other men in fake suits. And, oh, how they fought, cramming down anything they might be feeling in order to “man up” for duty, for country, for all of mankind, by which they meant “everyone,” obviously, like the Constitution. And then they’d not only win but they’d somehow also win a “girl” in the process, a real prize. A trophy. No one ever called these men “boys,” unless they were not white.
It sloshed out of the cocktail parties and neighborhood picnics, the men drinking beer in stumbly groups and lowering their voices about “the problem with women” when you approached or just holding forth endlessly on anything—anything at all, people, even, and what they “should” be happy for, let me tell you—while the women cooked, and then cleaned up, and then packed all the kids off for home.
It came up in the late-night movies, the ones your parents didn’t know you watched—the soft-core porn ones a future president would feature in, the ones that hid behind a rainbow scramble on forbidden cable channels, but you could still hear them and make out just enough: an illicit glimpse of men spying on showering “girls” as if ogling some ripe fruit, or men bragging about “fucking” a “passed-out girl,” whatever that meant. She probably just belonged to him, like the songs said. Ah, that’s it. They were doing the romance again. All the men laughed, and if all the men were laughing, it was good.
There’s no rainbow channel scramble nowadays. It’s clear as day. It’s in your child’s pocket.
You belong to me.
Back then, it would all repeat itself the next morning, and if it wasn’t a school day, it was during Saturday morning cartoons in which even skunk boys chased and grabbed and kissed cat girls, who didn’t seem to like it. But you’d heard from adults that it was okay to hit girls if you liked them, so it was probably all fine because all the men, again, were laughing. Or it was at Sunday church and a gathering of robed men speaking of even higher, holier men, men who would charm you, bless you, save you, and, sometimes, begrudgingly, occasionally, the women, who, if they were really lucky, would be “given away,” passed from man to man to keep the home—unless, that is, they had sex before men ceremoniously sanctioned it, and then they could burn in hell or perhaps just keep having sex, but this time for money. It was all sort of confusing. Then they let you out for coffee and doughnuts.
Above all, these scattershot and seemingly disconnected fragments atomized and reconnected into a hazy American mythology, making you think all the preceding depictions were a shared experience, a natural, common bond among us all since the beginning—a white suburb, a straight mom, a straight dad, two kids, a commute, and some hijinks along the way—instead of what it really was: a relentless ad campaign, a campaign that played out from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to bed, a campaign that, unsurprisingly, was white and male.
It told all the stories, set the tone, embedded the code words. It never dwelled on segregated cities and neighborhoods; people with two jobs, three jobs, lower pay, and longer hours; people who got stopped on the way home: “Hey, boy, what are you doing here?” It never dwelled on those whose rights were on the table, up for a vote, or those whose love was forbidden, kept hidden out of fear, fear of loss, of violence—they were always “aunts” or “just good friends.” No one spoke much about the sidewalks, ramps, rails, lifts, who could access stores, basic needs, society; no one fought over bathrooms, who could use them and which ones, because so, so many were still hiding, terrified, afraid to let even family at long last see their real selves.
This is your inheritance; it repeated relentlessly. All of this. It shaped your views, it made you believe the entire world would be yours to pick apart, discuss, debate, and pass judgment on, just like in the newspapers or on the news or in the songs and movies and in the stumbly, drunken groups of men with very important things to say, while the women cleaned up after you.
No, the problem never lay buried.
It was everywhere, like molecules or cosmic rays landing on every surface.
It was the narrative.
The collective storyline passed down generation to generation across the sweep of Western civilization as if it were all perfectly natural instead of a created thing, an intentional thing, a thing men incubated and passed forward, gifting anew these wretched hierarchies that were as apparent to a 1980s schoolboy as they were to Telemachus when he told Penelope to go knit: speech is the business of men.
Girls and women may have still been asking, “Is this all?”
But boys and men already knew the answer.
We knew the code; we inhaled the vapor of it every waking moment.
We had the narrative at our backs. We had everything.
We still do.
GUYS, MEN, DADS: I’m glad you’re here. Welcome. We can do tremendous social good if we band together.
Our kids—our own daughters and sons, and our collective village of them—they need better allies.
They need us, in particular, to do better—not to play savior, mind you, but to finally act like the baseline decent human beings we always told ourselves we were.
They need us, in particular, to do better—not to play savior, mind you, but to finally act like the baseline decent human beings we always told ourselves we were.
The good news is you can do it right now. Today. At home. With your own family and amid your friend circles. You’ve already taken the first step, in fact.
Good on you.
“What dads can do to be better allies is to check in with your kids in the first place,” says Danica Roem, a Virginia state legislator who made history as one of our country’s first transgender representatives, “and just, on the one hand, get to know them, but, second, create an atmosphere and an environment that are inclusive and welcoming.”
As a parent, “It’s not, ‘I’m trying to live my life through you,’” she says. Instead, it’s about empowering your kids to be their own independent selves and guiding them in life while at the same time understanding that your role as a parent is to help them be the best version of themselves.
Easy enough, right?
Help our kids be the best versions of themselves?
It’s a good start.
We can create an inclusive, welcoming, equitable home life for our daughters and sons, and then we need only widen our circles to create similar environments among our friend groups and our work groups and our broader social networks until, one day, the circles overlap and we stop, as a society, putting basic humanity on the bargaining table. If you take nothing else from this book, take this: we men need to stop debating the worth, dignity, and equality of people as if humanity is a thing that can be voted on, discussed, or decided over coffee or keyboards.
Here’s the bottom line: when we learn we’re having a child, we do a good job of figuring out the essentials—the feeding, the changing, the burping, the raising, the caring. And yet I’m not sure we do a good job preparing our children for a world that still treats our daughters as second-class citizens and our sons as angry, entitled automatons. I’m not so sure we do a good enough job breaking down our inherited cultural mores and social institutions.
Their lives, quite literally, depend on us to do better—in raising them, yes, but also in calling each other out when one of us slips ever so easily into the comfortable idea that some are lesser because of their gender, race, ability, or any of the thousands of differences among us.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Let’s not sugarcoat it. America is no less enamored of sexist, racist storylines today than it was when we were children, when we were growing up under the subtle notions that girls and women were lesser and that society was built with us in mind.
We didn’t somehow, magically, stumble into the one generation liberated of this idea. At some point, we have to stop pretending persistent inequality is not our gross collective inheritance. We have to stop pretending that we were raised under a toxic cloud of sexism and racism but that everything’s suddenly fine now, like…
It all conveniently… vanished.
Hard truth here. We have to stop pretending that a nation founded in the genocide of women, a nation founded in the bondage and breeding of women like livestock, a nation that granted some the right to vote in 1920 and the rest forty-five years later, that only a generation ago trusted women with their own credit cards, that allowed marital rape until 1992, that still allows child marriage, that considers it normal—righteous, even—for men to gather in gilded rooms to cast votes on women’s health care, on trans rights, on gay rights is a nation undamaged at the roots in ways that perpetuate terrible systemic and everyday consequences for our kids today and millions just like them.
Girls and women make up more than 51 percent of the population, and yet they…
… hold roughly 20 percent of government positions at any level, from the nation’s capital to Main Street city hall.
… earn, depending on their skin color and number of children, anywhere from three-quarters to half of what a white man makes.
… are represented in films and media at fractions of the rate men are, and usually appear as silent eye candy or trophies for those men.
… are given just 4 percent of nationwide sports coverage, despite pulling in better ratings and putting up better performances (looking at you, shitty US men’s soccer team).
… hold roughly 20 percent of top management positions in business—only twenty-four CEO spots out of the top five hundred companies—and roughly 30 percent of tech jobs at major companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google.
… are sent home from school for wearing clothes that are “distracting” to boys, and then find fewer college scholarships available to them—even though they outpace boys in earning degrees despite this.
… are consistently threatened by men with rape and assault online, at school, at home, at work, and on the sidewalks in ways we men both perpetuate and can’t fathom, and then somehow have to deal with the audacity of us interrogating them about it, men and women alike asking what they were wearing, or drinking, or doing that made us do it.
What. Fresh. Hell.
Don’t think for a second these storylines aren’t doing a number on our boys as well. We are absolutely crippling the emotional lives of boys, putting them in what one masculinity expert calls the “man box” from infancy. We are telling them over and over, from all corners of society, that the very worst thing they could be is not boys at all… but girls.
It’s not a zero-sum game between boys and girls. Our struggle is linked, as is our freedom.
We are stopping boys from finding their full selves, and they, in turn, are growing up to face the consequences: fewer jobs, fewer friends, depression, suicide. And when they’re not killing themselves, they’re killing each other in ridiculous numbers, mind-boggling numbers—numbers that have some absurd veneer of cultural acceptance that starts with the first time they hear they just can’t be expected to help it, that “boys will be boys.” Make no mistake, when they’re not turning their bottled rage on themselves, they’re turning it on the people we’ve told them all along are property, objects, lesser: girls and women.
At some point, dads, we need to examine what role we play in these moral atrocities. Having grown up with these collective biases, we didn’t somehow reach adulthood without them.
THAT’S THIS BOOK in a nutshell.
It seeks to connect the atomized dots and to unravel these omnipresent storylines, to expose them so we might yet stamp them out—so that our boys and girls don’t have to suffer as we did and still do. As a stay-at-home dad and PTA president who knows full well what happens when men veer outside cultural expectations of what it means to be a “real man,” and as a father trying simply to bring up another decent child, I hope you might follow along on this de Tocqueville-esque journey through American parenting in the twenty-first century as we examine all the seemingly disconnected little biases that coalesce to rob boys and men of full emotional lives while robbing girls and women of opportunity, safety, and personal freedom.
Women have been telling us about it forever, like so many Cassandras, and it’s high time we had a talk among ourselves about it all instead of one more insipid debate that sidelines what’s happening before our very eyes.
Let me quickly break down how I see it play out.
Black babies are twice as likely to die as white babies today, a racial gap wider than it was in 1850—in slave times. On the one hand, there’s data we can point to and argue about or deny or whatever. But it’s the quieter stories behind the data we need to explore, the underlying, almost invisible cultural forces—in this case, the collision, or intersection, of racism and sexism—that lead to a sort of toxic racial stress that, again, is killing pregnant black women and their babies at rates higher than we saw when white people held them as slaves. (I feel like that needs repeating for the “all lives matter” folks in the back row: the survival rate gap between black and white babies is worse now than it was in slave times.)
“Something about growing up as a black woman in America today is bad for your babies,” says Linda Villarosa, the New York Times reporter who broke the story (which is featured in depth in the chapter “Black Girl Magic”).
So, one part is numbers we can hold in our heads and talk about. It’s easy to debate this study or that study, to coolly examine the numbers, perhaps hold someone’s life and dignity in the balance for the sake of an intellectual argument. It’s more difficult to suss out the narrative, to see how the combined cultural forces of everyday conversations, media depictions, social media arguments, white ladies who call for police interventions over picnics, utensils, and popsicle stands—to see how it all might at first seem disconnected, like frayed bits or separate droplets, but then to understand how it coalesces, becomes our cultural story, something that feels… normal. And the consequences of it all are horrific, a rank gruesomeness happening every day while we debate what I believe are largely disingenuous, sexist interpretations of data and research studies.
White men have been told for generations that everyone’s dignity, worth, equality are things we can debate, parse, weigh, and that it’s all a fun intellectual experiment.
Black women and their babies are dying.
Make no mistake: these things are connected.
The atmospheric dots of it all are key. They surround us. All of them—the sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, you name it—add up and form the cultural forces that quietly inform our opinions, our lifestyles, our career trajectories, our personal safety, and so much more, and they work insidiously under the radar to do the dirty work of perpetual oppression while seeming so disparate as to be innocuous, innocent pieces that form no whole.
“Sometimes when you’re raising a child, it’s like the universe is in a conspiracy against you,” writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in Vulture magazine in 2018 in regard to all the tiny sexisms and how they come from everywhere.
I told my friend Dave I was writing this book, and he threw up his hands in sudden rage. “Oh my god, the sexism is everywhere! It’s everywhere!”
Here’s the deal: we men don’t get to benefit from a sexist, racist society that exalts even the most unqualified among us and somehow also get to think that system, those traditions, don’t exist; or that they are lesser than they were a generation ago and therefore everything’s fine; or that we can’t do anything about it all; or that we all at once have most of the power and yet are powerless.
Like I said, I’m glad you’re here. Our children, our own and our village of them, will suffer from the weight of these biases, just as we suffer now, but we can make a change. Together. Right now. A Dad Wave of feminism that holds each other to account to change our circles for the better and to watch them spread: from our homes to our peer groups to our communities and beyond.
LET ME TELL you a few quick stories, lest you think I’m overstating things. I want you to take a step back and consider our current society and how we view women as a historian might in future years.
When top Hollywood moviemaker Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed in the #MeToo movement as a serial abuser and assaulter of women, he argued he came of age in a “different” time. “That was the culture then,” he said, as if that explained it all.
But the thing is, he came of age… when we did.
His culture is our culture. Hell, he personally helped write the script, providing us with pop culture entertainment while abusing women along the way.
So, what has changed between “then” and now? There has been no magical moment when Hollywood and America as a whole suddenly stopped being sexist hellscapes for girls and women. In the news, on the silver screen, in politics, in sports, online, and through every other outlet of our culture, we’re finding more and more that the guys who have been crafting our cultural realities have also been harassing and assaulting women, churning out copy of their everyday degradation. But we’d be making a mistake in thinking that although nearly all women have personal stories of abuse, somehow it’s only a tiny segment of men doing the abusing.
At some point, we need to realize that what was “then” is still very much now. And then ask: What role do we play in carrying it forward?
Consider the environment we raise children in today and the messages that creep into their everyday consciousness, just as the atomized messages crept into ours.
In 2017, the Republican Party put its full weight behind a Senate candidate who believed that gay people shouldn’t marry and that women shouldn’t hold public office and who was accused of sexually harassing and abusing multiple girls. Children. Numerous now-grown women accused him of being a child molester.
And people still voted for him. They called the women liars, or said it wasn’t so bad, said they just couldn’t possibly choose between him… and the candidate from the other political party.
Their votes declared a clear pattern of abuse over years was… acceptable. There were more important things.
It’s nearly impossible to capture this kind of thinking, the consistent ranking of girls and women as things that are less important, in quantifiable data. So, we have to follow the storyline, the stories we tell about each other.
In 2016, as you may recall, sixty-three million Americans voted to elect as president a man who called women pigs, bitches, and nasty, said they should be “treated like shit” and have dinner waiting for him when he gets home from work, assigned women numbers based on his beauty standards, bragged that he could use his celebrity status to sexually assault them, and then, surprise, surprise, had nearly two dozen women from across several decades attest to just that. These voters might not do or say such things themselves. Yet, surely, their votes showed that such things weren’t deal breakers.
And why not?
The endless pointillistic dots of sexism work quietly underneath it all to shape our views. He and his enablers excused his behavior as “locker room talk,” a phrase that somehow seemed to offer absolution because where one speaks of sexually assaulting women somehow makes it socially palatable, just a thing men do.
Consider that for a moment. We collectively consider men rape enthusiasts behind closed doors; it’s just a topic men talk about and think about during sports, and then we also publicly call women liars about it all—while still giving men unchecked power. In raising our kids in this world that claims it’s all perfectly normal, we have failed in a way that’s hard to comprehend. It’s like a moral rot in our times—which are, of course, no different from all the other times before.
Like I said, what was considered “back then” is still very much now.
So, what could have been so bad about the other candidate that this man who has exhibited literally decades of failed ventures, scams, grifts, lying, racism, and sexism was preferable?
When it came right down to it, it was either him or an overly qualified woman—a woman painted endlessly as a… wait for it… liar.
This is the environment we’re raising children in today. Oh, sure, we may have reasons for throwing girls and women under the bus.
But we still do it.
And make no mistake: they see us do it. They inhale the code we set anew for them.
SO THOSE ARE the big storylines of our times, the broad culture shapers. Feel free now to go about yelling “Grab ’em by the pussy!” In America, that’s a thing half the country is okay with.
But what of the littler pieces? The ones that form our every day?
That’s where the other stories come into play and shape entirely different realities for our girls and boys. The major thrust of this book is to shine a light on them for dads so that we might join forces and create waves large enough among ourselves to change the story. Pretty simple. But our task is at once daunting and necessary.
Last year, a friend of mine took her daughter and son along with a bevy of their friends to sell brochures at the Sun Bowl football game in Texas to raise money for scouting.
"[Raising Empowered Daughters is] a leap into the expanse of change, a free fall into courageous conversation."
—Mo Tester, host of Parenting is Political
- "Raising Empowered Daughters is a rollicking, irreverent, no-holds-barred introduction to sexism--and feminism--for dads. It's packed with practical advice, but make no mistake: This book isn't about how to make daughters stronger, it's about how to make fathers better. You'll be inspired to rise to the challenge."—Lisa Wade, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus
- "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem. Mike Adamick is using his privilege, platform, and endless talent for the former. Not only does Raising Empowered Daughters address the negative effects of gender bias and toxic masculinity with regard to girls, boys, and society as a whole, but it also suggests helpful, hopeful, and realistic tools for change and action. In Raising Empowered Daughters, Mike Adamick is helping society smash the patriarchy, one page at a time."—Whit Honea, author of The Parents' Phrase Book and co-founder of Dads 4 Change
- "Tips for dads to help their daughters resist the sexism and cultural oppression they face and to walk in confidence . . . straightforward, full of humor."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jun 4, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press