Occasionally, I get emails from disgruntled boyfriends or husbands who have been asked to read The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck by their girlfriends/wives, sometimes as explanation for why they're walking out the door. They are men who need to be angry at someone, and can't quite bring themselves to express that anger to the woman who directed them to the piece (or can't because all avenues to express that anger to her have been blocked), and so they express that anger at me.
I understand why they do it: It's certainly more satisfying than directing it at the intangible, diaphanous abstraction of a culture that has socialized them with the reflexive arrogance of privilege that impedes empathy and inhibits intimacy.
Nonetheless, I don't engage with them, if for no other reason than because most of them have been asked to read it by a woman expressing a desire their partner engage with her, and I refuse to provide an easier alternative to that invitation. I read the emails, and then I hit delete.
Many of them are funny, in an unintentional way. Some of them are a little scary. And some of them are deeply sad.
But none break my heart the way the ones I get from fathers do.
Now, partly that's because I have a fraught relationship with my own father, particularly around the areas of gender and politics. But, mostly, it's because the emails I get from fathers are so determined to defend themselves against the accusation they are somehow certain I made that they don't love their daughters—even as they explain to me in exacting detail why it is, precisely, that they don't have to respect them.
"I don't think of myself as anti-feminist, although I have become exasperated at the unwillingness of many women, including my daughter, who won't cut men any slack," wrote one father to me recently. "When I dare say that men and women aren't equal, but they are equals, she can go crazy."
"Just telling jokes about females being inferior doesn't make me a woman-hater," wrote another. "I am being ironic. If I really hated women, I wouldn't tell those jokes in front of females."
"If I didn't love my daughter, why would I pay for her education?" asked another, following his question with the bitter complaint: "But now that's not good enough, unless I agree with those premises that she's entitled to be superior to men."
And so forth.
It is terrible—terrible—to be a woman in a relationship with a man who does not reflexively and uncompromisingly respect your inherent worth as his equal. It is terrible, too, to be the sister or friend or coworker of such a man. But there is something uniquely painful about hearing one's own father communicate you are less than.
There is something uniquely demeaning about being told by a man who brought you into this world, and/or brought you up in it, that it is not a world to which you deserve equal opportunity, equal access, your fair share, but a world in which you deserve less.
Less respect. Less dignity. Less agency. Less autonomy. Less opportunity. Less voice. Less ownership of self. Less of your humanity, because humanness is a zero sum game, and a little of yours must be given to him.
That feels like something less than love to a daughter.
Occasionally, these fathers copy their daughters on their emails to me. I think that's probably worse than never knowing your father embarrassed himself by raging in the inbox of the stranger who happened to give voice to your private pain.
I don't correspond with those daughters, either—unless they email me individually, which happens sometimes, usually to (needlessly) apologize.
But I do think about them. And I want them to know, even if their fathers never tell them, they are not less than. They deserve to be listened to, and respected, and loved without the condition they obligingly participate in their own marginalization, without being coerced to tacitly concede their own inferiority with silence to which the only alternative is tension and quarrel.
You may never get it, my sisters, but you deserve it all the same.