Sitting in a conference a few years ago, alongside hundreds of other women, I listened to a high-profile male chief executive talk about his work as a champion for gender equality.
“What do you think has driven your commitment to women?” the interviewer asked. I immediately felt a collective intake of breath. Along with every other woman in the room, I was hoping that just this once, he didn’t go there. But, predictably, he did.
“As a father, I want to make sure my daughters have the same opportunities as my sons.” Cue an audience groan at a frequency perhaps only perceptible to women.
For many men, there may be genuine confusion at why being a father shouldn’t be an excellent reason to commit to gender equality. But women know the fact of whether a man is a father or a husband is most definitely not a predictor of whether a man will abuse women, stand up for women or commit to gender equality. And nor should it be. Men should respect women because it is the right thing to do.
But it is surprising how many men still use their qualifications as a father as a reason for good behaviour – or as a shield. Let’s fast forward from that conference room to the steps of the US Capitol last week where Republican Congressman Ted Yoho had called his fellow Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “f–king bitch”.
After being called out, Yoho made what he appeared to consider an apology for his “abrupt manner”. Especially galling was Yoho’s statement denying that he swore: “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognisant of language.”
The following day, Ocasio-Cortez. a Democrat, gave a powerful response on the floor of the Congress – reminiscent of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech in the way it spoke to women. After explaining that she was not expecting nor seeking an apology from Yoho, she said “what I do have issue with is using women, our wives and daughters, as shields and excuses for poor behaviour. Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters … I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too.”
Every woman I know, myself included, has experienced derogatory language, snide remarks, patronising comments, abusive name calling. And in almost all cases that abuse came from men. Men who are fathers, sons, brothers. It’s a myth that fatherhood is relevant to whether a man abuses women.
Ocasio-Cortez went on to say in her speech “I want to thank [Yoho] for showing the world that you can be a powerful man and accost women. You can have daughters and accost women without remorse. You can be married and accost women. You can take photos and project an image to the world of being a family man and accost women without remorse and with a sense of impunity.”
That a man is a father or husband is not a prophylactic against them being an abuser of women. It doesn’t even guarantee they will respect women. Ocasio-Cortez’s speech was a masterclass in why we should reject this myth. It would make life a lot easier for women if it were.
I join Ocasio-Cortez in reminding men – fathers or not – that when you abuse women you are giving permission to other men to do the same. You are letting me know that this is behaviour you would accept if directed towards a woman you know or love.
We are all someone’s daughter. But men, you do not need to be someone’s father to understand.
Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 July 2020.