Men and their daughters: on forming a wider movement

Every April, on Take Our Daughters to Work Day, we are reminded to connect work and home. After years of attack by conservatives afraid of gender equality, this day has become a fixture across the country - and, along the way, has helped recast the principles of the women's movement into the mainstream, where they belong.

But by no means has this day, taking place for the ninth time tomorrow, fully reinvigorated the women's movement or solved its public relations problems. What it has done is made it more acceptable for mothers and fathers to advocate for and expect equal opportunities for all their children.

In Kansas City, Mo., Hallmark Cards encourages its employees to participate. This year, as he's done for the past four, Frank Masterson Jr., an operations-capacity resource manager, is bringing his 14-year-old daughter Maggie to work. He says he enjoys hearing her opinions about his job, and talking about her own career aspirations. For now, Maggie says she wants to be a doctor, like her mom, a former naval officer.

"I want Maggie to go wherever she wants to go, to be appropriately paid and recognized," says Mr. Masterson, one of the growing number of fathers who make up 44 percent of adults participating. "My wife is a wonderful example. She went to medical school after the age of 40, and she's in residency now.... It's important for daughters to see their parents going after their own dreams, no matter what age."

Masterson's devotion to his daughter and wife is not unusual. Over the last two decades, more men have grown more willing to support the women and girls in their lives. They have become more involved in the quest for family-friendly employment policies, working to end men's violence against women, and calling for improvements in healthcare and public education. This stronger alliance is a refreshing change from the past century's feud between the sexes. It also signals an emerging attitude gap that veteran women's rights activists need to examine more closely.

The generation born in the '60s and '70s, in particular, was raised in a world already changed. We watched with wide eyes as our mothers headed off to work, observing them as they shared financial burdens with our fathers or shouldered them alone as single mothers. Thanks to them, we enjoy a broader spectrum of life choices. We grew up openly discussing birth control, abortion, HIV/AIDS. Through Title IX, we played sports together. We didn't blink twice when women became astronauts or soldiers or secretary of State. Perhaps more than any previous generation, these experiences have prepared us to be flexible and tolerant partners, friends, and colleagues.

There is no question that rifts remain between the sexes. The majority of American women still assume more child-care and household duties than do men. But this, too, is slowly changing. Information released this month by the Census Bureau indicates that close to 2 million children are living in homes headed by single fathers. Surveys from 1994 revealed that 20 percent of preschoolers whose mothers worked were cared for by their fathers.

While men are slowly stepping into the formerly forbidden zones of nurturing and caretaking, women are learning to surrender control over territories they've been trained to protect. If girls and boys are repeatedly taught that women take better care of children and men take better care of the world, is it any wonder that as adults we are less trusting of our partners to fulfill or share nontraditional responsibilities?

In America, many men are turning their backs on gender codes that demand allegiance to age-old manly behaviors, such as domination or the waging of war. The Marine Corps, one of the world's most hyper-masculine institutions, now runs a gender-violence prevention program. When disturbed adolescent males turn their murderous rage on others, men appear on TV discussing the need to reexamine the links between violence and exhausted notions of manhood.

While these trends should be heralded as a changing of the guard, they may appear inconsequential to those helping women gain economic independence or refuge from violence. Others may think that a women's movement that integrates men into its base will forfeit control. Women's organizations, after all, grew out of the need for women to isolate themselves so that men would not take over, as so often happened during the civil rights and antiwar movements. From a historical perspective, having women lead the movement for gender equality has been essential. The question is whether this strategy is still pragmatic, or whether it is time to enlist more men under a broader humanistic mantle.

It could be that after 30 years of hard work, women have actually succeeded in branding principles of gender fairness into America's psyche. The work is hardly over, but given these possibilities, it is likely that if asked, men like Frank Masterson Jr. would eagerly join a larger coalition dedicated to removing barriers that impede all individuals' potential.

Miriam H. Zoll is a journalist and consultant to public policy and international development institutions. She is founding co-producer of the annual Take Our Daughters To Work program.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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