Feminism & the absent father

Feminism & the absent father

A remarkable fact about feminism is that many of its leading figures suffered from absent fathers. To name but a few:

Germaine Greer: wrote a book titled Daddy We Hardly Knew You.

Kate Millett: her father abandoned the family to live with a nineteen-year-old.

Eva Cox: her father left the family to pursue a relationship with a pianist “leaving an embittered wife and a bewildered and rebellious daughter”.

Jill Johnston: her father left when she was a baby. She wrote a book titled: Mother Bound: Autobiography in Search of a Father.

Gloria Steinem: she said of her father that he “was living in California. He didn’t ring up but I would get letters from him and saw him maybe twice a year”.

Rebecca West: her father left when she was three, both she and her two sisters became radical feminists.

There was another second wave feminist, Gloria Jean Watkins (but better known by her pen name “bell hooks”) who acknowledged the impact that an absence of father love had made on the feminist movement (her own father did not abandon the family but he was an emotionally distant, authoritarian figure).

In the opening pages of her influential book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, published in 2004, Gloria Jean Watkins connects an absence of masculine love with female rage:

Every female wants to be loved by a male…she wants to feel the love of father, grandfather, uncle, brother or male friend. We live in a culture where emotionally deprived females are desperately seeking male love. Our collective hunger is so intense it rends us…The male bashing that was so intense when contemporary feminism first surfaced more than thirty years ago was in part the rageful cover-up of the shame women felt not because men refused to share their power but because we could not seduce, cajole or entice men to share their emotions – to love us.

She describes the effect that a loss of father love has on a child:

No one hungers for male love more than the little girl or boy who rightfully needs and seeks love from Dad. He may be absent, dead, present in body yet emotionally not there, but the boy or girl hungers to be acknowledged, recognized, respected, cared for…No wonder then that these boys and girls grow up angry with men, angry that they have been denied the love they need to feel whole, worthy, accepted.

She believes that girls who miss out on paternal love often,

make romantic bonds the place where they quest to find and know male love. But that quest is rarely satisfied. Usually rage, grief and unrelenting disappointment lead women…to close off the part of themselves that was hoping to be touched and healed by male love.

Finally, she gives voice to her own personal experience:

As a child I hungered for the love of my dad. I wanted him to notice me, to give me his attention and affections. When I could not get him to notice me by being good and dutiful, I was willing to risk punishment to be bad enough to catch his gaze, to hold it, and to bear the weight of his heavy hand. I longed for those hands to hold, shelter and protect me, to touch me with tenderness and care, but I accepted that this would never be.  

The lesson of all this is that fathers do matter. Men should understand that the quality of the relationship they have with their children has a profound effect. Fathers have to negotiate having a dual responsibility toward the child: on the one hand, needing to socialise and discipline, but on the other hand needing to be a source of reassuring paternal love, care and protection.

And if this is absent? Then, as Gloria Jean Watkins noted, you will sometimes get the kind of lifelong rage that consumes third wave feminist Sophie Lewis. Sophie Lewis had a troubled relationship with her father and used the following quote (from Katherine Angel) to describe the subsequent emotional fallout:

The anger and rage we might feel towards a father…is not something we can expel, once and for all, and nor does it yield a clear solution. Rage has instead to be folded into everything else we may simultaneously feel; it does not simply burn itself out.

You might too get the women with “daddy issues” who are too emotionally damaged to successfully pair bond with men in marriage. 

At a larger level, the rage against the absent father can translate into political rebellion (as we have seen with the feminist leaders). Mary Eberstadt believes that those deprived of a father are prone to a form of ressentiment:

…these disinherited young are beyond furious. Like Edmund, too, they resent and envy their fellows born to an ordered paternity, those with secure attachments to family and faith and country.

For Lawrence Auster the father represents a principle of structure:

Symbolically, the father is the structuring source of our existence, whether we are speaking of male authority, of the law, of right and wrong, of our nation, of our heritage, of our civilization, of our biological nature, of our God. All these structuring principles of human life, in their different ways, are symbolically the father. The rebellion we’ve discussed is…a rebellion against the father. The belief that the universe is structured, intelligible, and fundamentally good, and that one can participate in this universe – this is the experience of having a father, which is the opposite of the experience of alienation that drives contemporary culture.

Modern society cannot recognise any of this because it is committed to the view that any type of family arrangement is as good as another. The danger is that men might internalise this false view and come to believe that their presence in family life does not matter. It is important that we reject the modern view: it is an approach that will leave many young women angry, unable to pair bond and prone to rebellion not only against family but against the higher, structuring principles of existence.

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