In the awful, wearying months in which Harvey Weinstein’s ritualistic mistreatment of women was being recounted daily in the media, I found myself, like so many others, wondering and talking about the men in my life: ex-boyfriends, ex-stalkers, ex-harassers, ex-gropers. My friends and I looked back, fitfully, in agitation, at the things we had endured, the things we had kept silent about, and we looked around at the things that were bothering us now. Throughout the autumn and winter, we told and re-told stories, seeing them in a new light, gently mentioning things we knew about one another’s lives, murky memories, events we had not mentioned for years. We talked with a renewed anger and frankness, a renewed sense of permission in so doing – and perhaps, too, a renewed sense of simplicity. We were questioning all the men in our lives, all the forms of patriarchal power. But we rarely spoke about our fathers. Soon after the allegations against him were published, Weinstein’s wife Georgina Chapman announced she was leaving him. I kept thinking: what about his children? You can, at least in principle, leave a husband, but you can’t leave a father.
In her poem ‘Sunday Night’, Sharon Olds describes her father, during family meals in restaurants, putting
his hand up a waitress’s
skirt if he could – hand, wrist,
Olds notes that she never warned the young women.
Wooop! he would go, as if we were
She fantasises sticking a fork in his arm, hearing ‘the squeak of muscle’, feeling ‘the skid on bone.’
I imagine my way back into the skirts
of the women my father hurt, those
twilight, those sacred tented woods.
I want to sweep, tidy, stack –
whatever I can do, clean the stable
of my father’s mind.
Sharon Olds’ project is reparative; she wants to heal the wounds her father has inflicted – she wants to use language to restore dignity and pleasure. Can words rewind time, undo harms? We might wish they could. But who are we when we make this attempt? Who are we writing as?
In her memoir Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick writes with horror of feeling consumed by her mother. She evokes familial intimacy as contamination, as infection:
My skin crawled with her . . . Her influence clung, membrane-like, to my nostrils, my eyelids, my open mouth. I drew her into me with every breath I took. I drowsed in her etherizing atmosphere.
Here, closeness is interpenetration of a dangerous kind; intimacy is drugging, threatening to consciousness, wakefulness, alertness. Boundaries are broken, or never established, and merging ensues. We inhabit, become, and reproduce our parents. They are in us; we are made of them, for good and for ill.
Sharon Olds, like Gornick, has written plentifully from her own life – about her parents, her husband, her children, her divorce – and has spent years navigating the agitated responses to such writing. It’s generally assumed, and insisted upon, that writing from one’s own life is the definition of exposure and of vulnerability. In some ways that is true, not least because the politics of speech and sexuality for women do make them vulnerable to judgement, to shaming, and to violence. But something else is sidelined by this insistence on the vulnerability of first-person writing, which is that writing isn’t simply exposure: it is also protection. Writing is a spell; it conjures a person anew, and erects a protective wall. It can create a clear and ferocious distinction between self and other. It can enable the finding of a way ‘to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.’
This is how psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described the experience of ‘feeling real’ – an experience dependent on positive early parenting, on ‘good-enough’ mothering. (His language reflects the fact that it has usually been mothers who do the bulk of early parenting, though he underlined that the role of the good-enough mother can be fulfilled by others.) For Winnicott, this good-enough experience involved the mother’s absorption in the infant; her flexible management of the infant’s frustration and disappointment in her; and her ability to tolerate and survive the infant’s aggression towards her. She must be able both to mirror the child back to itself, and to withstand its destructive impulses; be able to let him pursue a ‘ruthless relation’ to her, a ‘benign exploitation’ of her.
The formidable challenge of parenting is to nurture an environment which is, as Adam Phillips put it in his book on Winnicott, ‘sufficiently resilient and responsive to withstand the full blast of the primitive love impulse’ – and the full blast of aggression. ‘Shall I say’, wrote Winnicott, ‘that, for a child to be brought up so that he can discover the deepest part of his nature, someone has to be defied, and even at times hated . . . without there being a danger of a complete break in the relationship?’
Feminism and fathers have long been entangled, often in antagonism. Denouncing the patriarchal family has resonated for white, middle-class feminists in particular – women historically trapped in the bourgeois home, longing for emancipation from the family into the world of work. In 1938, Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas made powerful use of the figure of the father versus the figure of work. Her long essay is about the ‘daughters of educated men’ entering the professions, and it mulls on the effects of the 1919 Act that unbarred women from doing so: ‘The door of the private house was thrown open’.
Woolf herself was no stranger to tyrannical, possessive fathers; her father Leslie Stephen formed the basis of her depiction of Victorian fathers in her fiction – in The Years, in Night and Day, in To the Lighthouse. Leslie Stephen enacted a suffocating domination of his daughters, particularly his stepdaughter Stella Duckworth, and all the more so after the death of their mother Julia Stephen.
Hermione Lee writes that, after Julia’s untimely death, Leslie Stephen ‘completely appropriated Stella as a substitute and she had allowed him to do it.’ Woolf herself, in ‘Reminiscences’, written between 1907 and 1908, said that
I do not think that Stella lost consciousness for a single moment during all those months of his immediate need. . . Sometimes at night she spent a long time alone in his study with him, hearing again and again the bitter story of his loneliness, his love and his remorse.
Stella was the audience for Leslie Stephen’s grief, though she too was grieving; she was also expected to take on the work of looking after her half-sisters Virginia and Vanessa. Leslie, moreover, punished Stella for trying to leave the family home once she was to be married; her marriage was delayed by months due to his anguish. In 1939, in a piece entitled ‘Memoir’, looking back at this time as she periodically did, Woolf wrote:
How the family system tortures and exacerbates. . . I feel that if father could have been induced to say ‘I am jealous’, not ‘You are selfish’, the whole family atmosphere would have been cleared and brightened.
No wonder Woolf held out hope for the world of work as the antidote to the stifling father. This was, in part, the argument of A Room of One’s Own – it is money and independence from the family that enables women to write.
But it is the argument, too, of Three Guineas, in which she writes that if women are to wield influence, an influence apart from the vulnerable, dependent influence wielded within the patriarchal family, that influence will lie in being able to ‘hold in their hands this new weapon, our only weapon, the weapon of independent opinion based upon independent income’.
This hierarchy of the public over the private – of the freedoms of professional life over the constraints of family – is entangled with social privilege, however. As bell hooks put it in 1984, ‘Many black women were saying “we want to have more time to share with our family, we want to leave the world of alienated work.” ’ And the workplace to which less privileged women have always been tied may not hold out the same alluring promise of freedom.
Yet Woolf has no illusions about either realm. The daughters of educated men are, she writes, ‘between the devil and the deep sea. Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity . . . its servility.’ And then, tantalisingly but disappointingly, ‘Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed’ – all words that could be applied to Leslie Stephen. Public and private alike are rotten for women.
Three Guineas charts the resistance of men to women’s incursions into public life. Woolf was, while writing the essay, ruminating, with her familiar mixture of curiosity and ambivalence when assessing other writers’ works, on the ideas of Freud that were garnering interest in England at this time. She describes fathers as ‘massed together in societies, in professions’, and reluctant to let their daughters out to work. ‘Society it seems’, she wrote, ‘was a father, and afflicted with the infantile fixation too.’
Work, however, has not been the refuge it was hoped to be. In ‘Revolutionary Parenting’, bell hooks writes, ‘The women’s liberationists who wanted to enter the work force did not see this world as a world of alienated work. They do now.’ In recent years, public scrutiny of sexual harassment in the workplace has intensified, with good reason, though it has focused largely on the film and music industries, on the media and political classes – on Woolf’s professions. Can this renewed scrutiny be usefully read as, among other things, a story of white, middle-class disillusion with the emancipatory promise of work?
Patriarchy – meaning the rule of men more generally, rather than simply the rule of fathers – was once a staple of feminist discourse, its cornerstone even. As an organising concept, however, it fell into some disrepute, due to the wishful universalism that characterised much of its invocation, the way that, in diagnosing such a simple problem, it seemed to hope for a simple solution. Just as the term ‘woman’ was queried, and feminists of colour in particular pointed out its frequent equation with white, middle-class womanhood, so too the other monoliths of feminism – such as patriarchy – were progressively destabilised.
Post-feminism further dented the ubiquity of patriarchy as a concept. The nineties – decade of girl power, and of an insistence on women’s economic and social freedom, on the condition that women themselves abandon a critique of gender relations – gave invocations of patriarchy, as it gave feminism, a fusty feel, an old-fashioned whiff, conjuring all the age-old stereotypes of feminism: joylessness, sexlessness, uptightness.
Contemporary feminism has, however, re-embraced thinking about the big ideas – capitalism, work, care – and the concept of patriarchy is having a resurgence. In the waves of marches after Donald Trump’s inauguration, it has featured heavily on banners; it circulates widely in highly instagrammable commodities, on t-shirts, on mugs, on tote bags. It is rolling around the mouths of pundits, commentators, and politicians. It’s made a public comeback.
But for all the talk of patriarchy, has feminism forgotten about fathers? Fathers, and the heterosexual family more widely, are held in thrall. The relentless mawkishness of corporate advertising, whether for washing-up liquid or mortgages, features often childlike, cartoonish family figures dazedly embracing the requisite familial milestones: marriage, fond exasperation with muddy children, the family car, signing on the dotted line. And the cult of the family has extended beyond the heterosexual, not least because the right to a family life has been so cruelly forbidden to so many. The fight for equal marriage and equal parenting rights – the fight for equality in citizenship – has been, and still is, necessary and urgent. Yet, as Garth Greenwell has put it, fighting for these rights of citizenship comes with a risk – the risk that queer lives are translated into value that can be understood and approved of ‘by people who hate queers’.
The push for equality, moreover, is utterly compatible with a vacuum of political thinking about the family; after all, it was David Cameron in the UK who made the push for equal marriage. In fact, the Tory party has long indulged in a bit of pinkwashing – a theatrical friendliness to kinship systems other than the heterosexual – in order to emphasise its political liberalism, all the while churning out punitive policies under the veil of ‘austerity’. Cuts to legal aid for family work have left many women trapped in abusive marriages; the ‘bedroom tax’ has hit vulnerable individuals, such as those with disabilities, especially hard; and the two-child limit for tax credits, along with its cruel ‘rape clause’ requiring the disclosure of violence to qualify for exemptions, reveal just how routine it is for the veneration of family to go hand-in-hand with a blundering ignorance about the risks to individuals within the family itself. In 2018, Tory minister James Brokenshire denied that austerity policies have contributed to the shocking rise in homelessness since 2010, citing instead (among other causes) ‘young people, because of their sexuality, being thrown out of home’ – a strategic critique of homophobia used to defend the brutal social policies of a party with a historic, and enthusiastic, hostility to LGBT rights.
These days, sentimental dads get a lot of cultural cachet. New fathers, misty-eyed, proclaim their feminism when they first hold their newborn baby daughter. Overnight, they are transformed into heroic defenders of women’s rights – though it’s a defence that blurs into a defence of their daughters’ purity; it relies, in other words, on an identification with a predatory masculinity that a father knows but now disavows; he sees into the dark soul of masculinity, now that he loves a creature he realises is vulnerable to its violence. And the adulation a father receives when he does the mundane, relentless work of parenting – when he ‘helps’ with the children, or ‘babysits’ them – reveals how ordinary acts of parental work and care add a glow of sanctity to a father, while passing unnoticed, because expected, in a mother. A ‘hands-on’ mother is a mother – the statement is a tautology – while a ‘hands-on’ father is a saint. We love a good Daddy.
Our contemporary concern about men – the men who perpetrate, enable, or turn a blind eye to violence against women – tends to hone in on men in our lives other than our fathers: our partners, friends, colleagues, bosses. Many, perhaps most, of these men are fathers too. Discontent with fathers has increasingly been privatised within feminist discourse; Daddy Issues have been relegated to the realm of personal problems. Yet fathers wield troubling power, whether they like it or not, and whether they claim or disown the patriarchal role history has given them. Valerie Solanas, in her SCUM Manifesto of 1967, wrote that ‘the old- fashioned ranting, raving brute is preferable’ to the ‘modern, “civilized” father’, as the brute is ‘so ridiculous he can be easily despised’. Many men, perhaps aided by the saccharine cadences of advertising, and buoyed by the admiring compliments of strangers, are learning how to be better Daddies. But if we really want to think through the perpetuation of violence towards women, and towards all those deemed inferior in the hierarchy of masculine power, then we have to honour Solanas’ thought. We need to keep the modern, civilised father on the hook.
Photograph © NASA/Bill Ingalls