By Jennifer Friedlin
Sunday, June 16, 2002
Women's rights authors and activists lovingly recall the fathers that helped them grow, and to believe they could and should change the world.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Dallas in the 1950s may have been a testosterone-driven city where men took care of business while the women took care of the kids. But the man who had the most influence in Ann Crittenden's childhood played a big role in shaping her career ambitions and helping her to break free of any constraints that her surroundings imposed. Unlike many dads of his generation, Crittenden's architect father, Norman, encouraged his daughter's intellectual curiosity and applauded her decision to move to New York and pursue a career in journalism.
"He wasn't a very typical Texas backslapping male," recalled Crittenden, who went on to become a New York Times reporter and author most recently of "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued."
"He was comfortable with strong women and he was always proud of my accomplishments," Crittenden added.
Like Crittenden, many successful women attribute their drive, or at least part of it, to fathers who supported their interest in building their careers. In celebration of Father's Day, several female activists, writers and students shared their thoughts about how their relationships with their dads shaped their lives and their work.
Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc., recalls as well a close relationship with a father who had high expectations for her. Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., she had completed a Fulbright fellowship for a year's study abroad and was a semester away from a master's degree at the University of Minnesota when she informed her father that she was ready to marry. Leonard Andrew Scruggs Sr., however, was strongly opposed to the idea since she had not completed the work for her advanced degree.
"He told me, 'I don't want you to ever have to depend on anyone for your identity.'"
He relented, Scruggs-Leftwich recalled, only when she was able to convince him that she would complete her education. She went on to obtain her doctorate.
Describing her father as "gender blind," Barbara Seaman, an author and expert on women's health issues, said that it never occurred to her father to treat her differently than he would have treated a son.
"There was nothing he thought I couldn't do that a boy could do," said Seaman.
Having grown up in a family of four boys and three girls, Seaman's father, Henry Rosner, also experienced first-hand the limitations sexism imposed on women. Because Rosner's family was big and resources were scarce, the girls had to drop out of school to help put the boys through college. For Seaman's father, who had a twin sister, Sally, this was an outrage.
"My father used to say, 'If your aunt Sally had been a boy she would be president of the Eagle Pencil company and not just the executive secretary,'" Seaman, 67, recounted.
But beyond supporting Seaman's ambitions, Henry Rosner also helped to shape his daughter's political beliefs. As a fiscal officer for the welfare department in New York from the Depression to 1980, Rosner was committed to helping feed and house the city's indigent. He also served as research director to Norman Thomas, who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket six times beginning in 1928.
In fact, Rosner's connection to socialism was so strong that Seaman was one of a limited number of people who could protest during the McCarthy era without fear of being labeled a communist.
"We were called the pink diaper babies and we were able to demonstrate and have sit-ins in the early 1950s," Seaman said.
For Alix Kates Shulman, who grew up in Cleveland in the 1930s and 40s, feminism was not a part of the landscape. So, if it had not been for her father's influence, her life might have turned out differently.
"It was my father treating me with high expectations and a lot of attention that made me feel as if I could possibly escape the role the we were destined for," said Shulman, whose book "A Good Enough Daughter" explores her relationship with her parents at the end of their lives.
Shulman's mother wanted to be a writer, but did not pursue a professional career. From a young age, Shulman remembers mimicking her lawyer-father, using legal pads and spacing her lines, just like her dad.
"If I was to be taken seriously in the world, it was through him that I had to identify," she said.
The stories Crittenden, Scruggs-Leftwich, Seaman and Shulman shared about their dads suggest that fathers played an instrumental behind-the-scenes role in the women's rights movement, allowing women who had been treated as equals in the home to ask the same of society.
But some younger feminists took the equation a step further, suggesting that feminism has also helped dads to evolve.
Jennifer Baumgardner, a 31-year-old activist and co-author of "MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future," said that while support from her dad was unconditional, as a result of feminism he was also able to relate to her on a more emotional level.
"To me what's new is the intimate relationship women are able to have with their dads," Baumgardner said. "These relationships can have emotional contours."
By virtue of marrying a feminist and raising three daughters, Baumgardner said her father had become a "de facto" feminist who also grew more willing to share his emotional life with his children. When Baumgardner suffered from depression at the age of 26, she spoke to her dad, who had previously overcome a bout of the illness. The conversations represented a turning point in Baumgardner's relationship with her father.
"My grandfather took his disappointments to the grave, but my dad realized he could also be supported by me," Baumgardner said.
Although society has a way to go before men and women are truly equal, feminism has helped to expand the options for mothers and fathers both in the workplace and at a home, experts say. As a result, some dads have been able to shape their careers in ways that allowed them to be very involved in their children's day-to-day lives.
Alyson Hildrath, a 19-year-old junior at Hampshire College, recalled how her mom went to the office each morning while her dad worked from home. Each morning, Hildrath's dad took her to school and was there to greet her when she returned.
"He was constantly present," said Hildrath, who is interning this summer at the feminist Third Wave Foundation.
During their time together, Hildrath's dad taught her to play the guitar and shared his ideas about politics and education. She says that in many ways he helped her to develop her interests, her values and her political beliefs.
But besides just investing emotionally in their relationship, Hidrath's father also let the world know he was proud of his daughter. When it came time to name his construction contracting business, he didn't shy away from giving Alyson a place on the signpost.
The name of his business? Hildrath and Daughter.
Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance writer based in New York.
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