When I was a sophomore in high school, I won a national award for a short story I’d written in my English class. My parents were proud of me and wanted to share the news with their own parents. My dad’s parents had come for a visit, and we were all sitting in the living room—I was on the small sofa with my dad, diagonally across from my grandparents. My dad said, “Hey—we wanted to tell you. Liz just won a big award at school!”
My grandfather replied, “What’d she win it for? Putting on lipstick?”
Before I had a chance to absorb the impact of his words, before they’d even fully settled in my brain, my dad stood up. “No, dad,” he said. “It was a national writing award. Liz is a very good writer; we are proud of her, and you are being extremely rude and disrespectful. “
I don’t remember much else about the incident, like what my grandfather said or when my dad sat down or who changed the subject and how quickly. Truthfully, I didn’t think much of it at the time—I wasn’t close to my grandfather, and his words hadn’t had a chance to sting.
But I now realize that that was an extremely significant moment in my life.
What if my dad hadn’t been in the room? Sure, my mom would have defended me—but my grandfather wouldn’t have respected her defense much, and on some level I would have known that.
Or worse—what if my dad hadn’t said anything at all? What if he’d brushed the comment off? If he’d handled it differently—say, by letting the comment slide but later telling me that my grandfather was way off base—the message would have been less powerful. I might have learned that, while I shouldn’t take sexism to heart, I shouldn’t make waves about it either.
My dad handled that moment beautifully.
Before that day, I knew my dad loved me. I knew he would protect me. I knew he was interested in me as a person, and thought I had a sharp mind. After that day, I knew it was not okay for someone—anyone—to imply that I am less than my whole self simply because I’m a woman. To have my dad defend me against sexism from his own father in such a direct, forthright way showed me how to defend myself against it. His defense meant that sexism is unacceptable, and I live in a plane far above it.
What if every girl was able to learn that lesson from her father? Or from another male role model—someone she looked up to and trusted?
Imagine the impact.
Because each of us girls eventually has a moment of sexism to face. Disrespect takes many forms, and you never know when or where it will show up. At a family reunion, at a bar, in your office, on the treadmill, getting coffee, in a courtroom, in a delivery room, at a garage—or, as we have seen in the case of Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh, while taking a public stand on a health issue important to women.
One way or another, sexism is going to show up in a personal, rather than cultural, way for just about every woman out there. When sexism is as culturally tolerated as it currently is (in toys, all forms of media, clothing, public discourse, and politics—so, pretty much everywhere), it can be difficult for girls and women to understand that not only is sexism wrong, not only should we refuse to take it to heart—we should stand against it.
And guess who we need to teach us this lesson?
That’s right—dads. And other men.
Of course it matters if moms and other women teach us to take a stand against sexism; my mom taught me this lesson too, and I listened. Her words and deeds when it came to dealing with sexism in her own life, and how I should best deal with it in mine, are a very big part of why I advocate for myself and others today.
But if dads and other men teach us this lesson, men we love and trust are telling us to stand up to the bullying behavior of sexist men. Which helps us differentiate between acceptable male behavior and unacceptable male behavior, and shows us that a real man respects women. In fact, men teaching both girls and boys that sexism is not to be tolerated changes the cultural definition of masculinity.
My grandfather wasn’t pulling the idea that women are only for decoration out of a hat—he’d been taught that men, to be masculine, must make sure that women know their place. And that message is still everywhere in our culture—in fact, media has heightened and sexualized the message to a degree never before possible. While there are many men who advocate for women and who help us fight sexism, unfortunately sexism is winning out—in our public discourse and in our cultural definition of manhood.
Unless and until we redefine masculinity so that my father’s view of women—rather than my grandfather’s—is an integral part of becoming a man, there are going to be an awful lot of girls growing up who don’t understand that sexism has nothing to do with who they are. And an awful lot of boys invested in making sure they don’t.