Dad setting daughter free.

It always catches me off guard when people are surprised when men label themselves feminists.

For some reason, there are people who believe that only women can be feminists. That is far from true.

My very first feminist was actually my father. He taught me the importance of being my authentic self as first a girl then a woman. And he taught me to never settle for being second-best.

A Dad Ahead of His Time

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my household was not like the others. My parents both worked in education. My Dad was the only male in the house. He was outnumbered by my mom, my sister and me.

For a long time, my Dad was the one who was home first. That meant that he had to get dinner on the table for all of us. He made the best oven-fried chicken, and his crockpot stew with dumplings is still the best I’ve ever had. While my mom would often come home and mow the lawn, Dad could be found sewing or ironing, some of his favorite pastimes.

From my earliest days, I always recall my Dad instilling in me the idea that I could be whatever I wanted to be. There was no lectures about remembering to be a lady at all times, or constricting me to only so-called “girlie” activities. I was encouraged to explore whatever interested me. That meant lots of books about dinosaurs, Russia, and Greek mythology. Sure I had dolls and some typical female interests, but my Dad was always trying to expand our horizons and teach us more.

Family vacations were always to historical locations. I read about the presidents and the first ladies, so that meant we needed to visit places like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and President Eisenhower’s farm in Pennsylvania, near the Gettysburg battlefield. My Dad made sure we learned about all aspects of history, which included touring the slave quarters on plantations, and learning about Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes who fought for the right to vote.

When the 1980 Winter Olympics were on, we watched all the competitions, with the luge being our favorite. My dad actually helped us build our very own luge in our yard, complete with an iced track. We practiced laying down in our sleds like the luge teams and racing to the bottom. We even sent our dog Maggie down the luge. To this day, I think it’s one of my Dad’s proudest achievements and one of my favorite memories.

Many of my friends had moms who stayed at home, with dads who were gone much of the time at their jobs. They didn’t have the same experiences that I had. Some of my friends even thought my family was weird. When they found out my dad cooked dinner and did the sewing, it was always met with shock and wondering if my family was normal.

I didn’t care if my family was normal. It all felt right to me.

Childhood Lessons of Equality Shape Adulthood

These childhood stories show how my dad instilled in me the belief that I was equal. I wasn’t just a girl. He wanted my sister and I to have experiences that went beyond learning to cook or look pretty. He taught me that I was a person who was capable of anything that I wanted to chase and achieve.

Over the years, I watched as my parents interacted as a couple. They had a partnership, presenting a united front that was unbreakable. I don’t have images of my mom frantically preparing our home or meals to meet the expectations of my dad. Their relationship was and still is based on a shared responsibility of child-rearing, household chores, and collaborative decision-making.

Having a male role model that sees girls and women as equals matters. Growing up and watching how my parents interacted with each other helped me to develop an awareness about boys and men. Seeing the way my father treated my mother showed me how men should treat women. I have been with my husband for 33 years now, married to a man who is also a feminist. I know my relationship has lasted all these years because of the example set by my parents, but especially my father.

In the 21st century, my dad is still fighting for women. He helped to campaign for a female state senate candidate, sending letters and even appearing in promotional material to show support. As a member of the Catholic Church, he is advocating for women to be allowed to be priests and lead Mass. He votes for candidates that support reproductive rights.

He is the best grandfather to my daughter. He taught her to play baseball and the rules of football. He attends every one of her school events and dance recitals. When he does activities with my nephews, he includes her as an equal not an other.

Every father’s day, I try to find a card that really expresses my feelings about my dad, and the important standard he set for embracing feminism. I always fail in finding that card, so instead, I write him letters. In each of those letters, I make sure he knows that he was more than a great father. He was a feminist, fighting for my rights long before I understood what he was doing on my behalf.

I am a feminist today because of him.