How Fathers Day is key in the battle for gender equality (yes, really)

We can stop pretending now, right?

It’s been a month so, confession time… who handed over a present for their dad/ father of their children a few weeks ago, that was a bit crap? Who, at the last minute, cajoled the kids into sitting down to scrawl daddy a card? Or perhaps you didn’t bother at all?

Trust me when I say that those scenarios are suggested without judgement as I too have spent the last four years cultivating a tendancy to casually chuck Father’s Day in the bargain bin, alongside the cut price roses and past their best pumpkins left over from those other fictional celebrations, Valentines Day and Halloween.

In the meantime I annually revel in the outpouring of adoration that accompanies Mother’s Day. I point to the fact that Mother’s Day is in the Bible as evidence of its superiority in a world where card and gift manufacturers compete to invent reasons to get us consuming (Black Friday, anyone??!)

But what if Dads, as parents, deserve to be celebrated too? And what if our reluctance to do a proper job of celebrating Father’s Day is a symptom of our failure to take dads seriously on every other day of the year?

It was after reading a piece by Steph Douglas about Father’s Day gifts that I started to question my own habit of thinking dads should be happy with whatever they get. She ventures to suggest that perhaps what dads want is actually pretty similar to what mums want – something to read, something to drink, something to eat, some alone time to do all three, and some socks to keep our feet warm while we do it.

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Steph Douglas – she talks sense does that one…

So what’s with the resistance; the resentment of them spending a few hours uninterrupted; what’s with the voice in our heads that says fathers don’t deserve this?

Could it be possible that, against our better intentions, against the feeling behind frustrated outbursts that They are HIS children! He is not BABY-SITTING!, and against our wishes for greater equality in the home as well as in the workplace, we are actually complicit in the continuation of the gendered norms we claim to want to dismiss?

Every time a BBC reporter asks a female tennis player how she juggles a tournament such as Wimbledon with motherhood, as happened to Victoria Azarenka, the assumption seems to be that her husband/ partner, the child’s father, must have something more important to do than look after his own child. The attitude is there is no way that he might be there in a supporting role – that her career might have taken priority – and oh how we bristle.

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Oh yes BBC, I see what you mean. The father of Victoria Azarenka’s child look completely inept. I mean look how he’s cuddling that baby and smiling

The spikiness is indicative of a wave of newly impassioned feminism that is sweeping popular thinking. We wonder incessantly why it seems such a stretch for a 36 year old woman to have what a 36 year old man doesn’t think twice about – a house, kids, and a kick-ass career – but maybe we are forgetting something.

Maybe the key to true gender equality lies in not only dismantling the entrenched gendered-norms that hold back women, but in challenging the toxic masculinity norms that suffocate men?

In some ways I understand our reluctance to give Father’s Day anything more than a sideways glance. In the jokes about dads being a bit crap, and our expressions of surprise or faux concern that the children are with dad while mum works, perhaps there is an element of us jealously guarding the only territory we have ever been bestowed.

While women occupy just 32% of the seats in Parliament; while it remains that female CEOs of FTSE 100 businesses are outnumbered by white men called John (not ignoring that the issue of gender diversity is even more problematic when taking race into account – 10000 words for another time…) perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to concede that men are just as good at being parents until we scrape together some ground that says we are just as good as them everywhere else.

The irony is that we are protecting society’s habit of elevating the mother to be the “better” parent when in fact this is exactly the “status” that holds us back. Because all gendered norms are toxic.

The damage done by the societal message given to boys – that to be a man you have to go out to work, provide for your family, never admit to vulnerability, and bury every emotion except anger – is as great as the harm done to women by the narrative around the sanctity of motherhood (amongst others).

And the only way we change this is if we all move towards the middle.

Even families where men and women want to fulfil traditional gendered norms. They are not precluded from this because it is in our minds that the greatest shift needs to happen. Mothers and fathers have to explain their choices with a simple This is what works for us, rather than buying into a narrative about what women, and men, mothers and fathers should do.

But of course this movement towards “someone has to look after the children” has to also happen in practical places – workplaces, businesses and homes.

So far in this country men have been reluctant to ask for flexible working while the newer Shared Parental Leave has also failed to gain much traction. Really this should not surprise us. Men have witnessed (and been complicit in) the treatment of the women who have paved that way before them. The eye-rolls, the questions about commitment, and the assumptions about productivity: men have seen this happen to their female contemporaries countless times, so why wouldn’t they be afraid?

And perhaps women also need to concede a little of their “territory” – the territory that almost automatically places them as primary care-givers when a family breaks down (I acknowledge this is an epic over-simplification – it’s just something we should consider if we’re serious about gender equality); the territory that assumes women will want twelve months maternity leave but does not ring-fence extended paternity leave for men (in Scandinavian countries with almost total uptake of extended paternity leave, this time is not transferable – if the father does not use it, the time is lost); the territory that finds many of my friends not wanting their menfolk to take on their share of the household duties because they don’t do it properly.

And while I don’t for a second imagine that thinking ahead to next year’s Father’s Day and planning a thoughtful gift is going to have much impact in the face of a ten thousand years of gender inequality, perhaps giving up that particular piece of turf would be a good place to start.

The Brilliance of Trump

I cried when I listened to Michelle Obama speak last week, and I know I wasn’t alone.

With her careful thought, her clear intelligence, her black-ness and her female-ness, this ordinary, extra-ordinary woman appeared in binary opposition to the man she so resolutely refused to name.

And what a name to be refused.

It is easy to imagine the flushed pride with which this name would be bestowed upon a woman, along with the considerable expectation that she be grateful and appreciative of her good fortune.

It is now even easier to imagine how this name carries such influence and power that women let you “do anything” to them.

And it is easy to imagine how, starved of this name and its associated wealth and status, such a man would be reduced to empty bombast and a desperate grasping claim to something that never should be his.

So Obama did not name him.

Until that moment, the tangle of disgust, anger, frustration at the apologists, and confusion about what exactly was so offensive had resisted my best efforts to unravel it.

The voice that told me this was politics on another continent and asked why should I feel so charged, competed with the one that shouted, This is so much more than that, and I struggled to find my true voice amongst all the noise.

But, as the minutes past rapt in the peaks, troughs, the ebb and flow of her masterful oratory, Obama spoke to me.

She told me that the disgust, the anger, the pointless shouting at the TV and the feelings of personal violation which had shocked me with their strength, came from a place where this man’s name is inconsequential.

With her words it finally felt like we were being given permission to be outraged because we all know this man. We’ve all met him.

I now understand that I feel outraged because I remember my sixteen-year-old self on a bus. The man who sat next to me leaned on me throughout the journey. Every time I edged away, he moved along too, forcing me to squeeze myself closer and closer to the window into a non-existent space where I could hide from his domineering presence. And when we reached my stop he stood up, but not aside, forcing me to squeeze past him. And his genitals. And he smirked.

I feel hurt because I remember the time I was out running and refused to respond to someone heckling me from his van window, so he threw a milkshake at me. It missed, but he threw it.

I feel violated because I remember the countless times on dancefloors that someone has made a fleeting grab for me as I’ve walked past them. Faceless hands on my bum, up my skirt, around my waist, on my hips – my presence enough it seems to convince them that they had that right.

These are all events that at some point I have told someone about only once I was able to achieve the dismissive, lowered tone of someone who isn’t bothered. Because that is the message we are given: it’s no big deal, take it as a compliment, don’t be so dramatic, it happens all the time.

And as I tell my stories to join with the chorus of voices saying this is not ok, it does not have to, should not, be this way, I am sad.

I am sad because why should we have to tell so many stories to prove this injustice true, as though we have to work our hardest to convince people that it really is bad, it really is important?

I am sad because I know it could have been so much worse and indeed is for too many women and girls.

And I am sad because when I first read the words I had written I had to edit them to replace “they” with “he”, as though the habit of somehow holding myself responsible is so ingrained that it makes me afraid to acknowledge the obvious. On each of these occasions of course it was a man – why am I so reluctant to point that out?

For the most part these kinds of stories are now in the past for me. I have developed a prickly “Don’t Fuck With Me” face that I can slap on at a second’s notice, and more often than not my presence on a dancefloor is accompanied by a man – sorry boys, I have been claimed – hands off…

Despite this though, their legacy remains. When it’s dark and I walk down a street I am ever vigilant, and I think about what I need to do so that should something happen, it would not be my fault.

When I pass a group of men, young, middle-aged, old, black, white, English-speakers or not, I tense. I mentally prepare myself to look the other way in case an unwanted comment finds its way to my ears. I prepare myself to pretend I have not heard.

Sometimes I use my children as a shield. I engage enthusiastically and loudly in conversation with them. Bloody hell, I even sing and always plaster on a smile like the world can just bounce off my bubble of happiness, so don’t even try to break through this with your cheap words.

But I don’t want to do these things because I am a woman, they are men, and that’s the way it has always been.

Instead, whenever I encounter this attitude, this strange and desperate maintenance of the status quo, it piques the special sweary place in my head that I reserve for such nonsense. And then I return to the safety and reassurance that if this were true then my mixed-race children, rather than being bringers of pride, would be a source of shame and perhaps would not exist at all.

I remind myself that pointing out injustice, loudly saying, “No. This is wrong. Here are the reasons why,” which is sometimes all we can do, is not pointless nor hopeless. It is where it begins.

So, there is hope.

Over a week on, since the damning video recordings were released, the tide has been seeming to turn. As this man embarrasses not only his political party, but other men, even those who we would really much rather not be “on our side” are running for the hills from the tsunami he is leaving in his wake.

We can not ignore that some of the men (finally) condemning this man for claiming proprietary rights over a woman’s body for the purpose of sexual gratification, still seek to legislate our bodies on the matter of reproduction, while others refuse to legislate on issues such as equal pay.

But, at least people are talking.

And this is The (amusingly unintentional) Brilliance of Trump.

What this man has achieved, that no amount of story telling could ever have matched, is to bring into the stark, full-beam glare of the media spotlight, just what women are dealing with.

Of course it is tempting to find frustration that it has taken one man’s miserable misogyny to attract the attention this issue deserves on its own merits, but let’s not drown in that bitter sea. Instead, let us ride this wave and make sure it washes up on hitherto unreachable shores.

Let’s harness this man’s words and the global horror they have evoked, in every classroom so that our boys know what high standards we will hold them to, and our girls know what low standards they should never accept.

Let’s keep the conversation going, and see just who we can get to join in.

Don’t tell me there is a long way to go, as though this should serve to quieten my storm and quench my fire. The length and difficulty of the journey we have to undertake makes the conversation more important, not less.

So let’s exploit this man’s repulsive words and actions to shamelessly and unapologetically raise the agenda that does not ask for more, but asks for the same.

This is how we will be heard.