Since the election over two weeks ago, the nation’s opinion pages have been alive with articles written in despair, often from men lamenting what it all means for their daughters. Slate and The Guardian weighed in, and no less than The New Yorker had a piece on how to handle the news. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin penned a widely-shared article in which he predicted Trump would commit “an impeachable crime” within the year.
One of the clear (albeit unspoken) story lines here is that our daughters need an explanation, as if on one level they weren’t already aware that it didn’t matter whether Trump was elected or not. To be sure, the kids know more than we give them credit for—they are, after all, females in America— and it makes me further wonder whether we men have really chosen this opportunity to make ourselves feel better, as if we just realized that “locker room talk” has material consequences, when all we had to do was ask.
Presumably, some of these same men would go so far as to say that there is a difference between what gets said in private and how women are treated in public. Few of them, I wager, think their precious daughters will ever have to cope with the likes of a Trump in school or in the workplace. He’s not like the rest of us, after all.
But girls aren’t naïve. They can’t afford to be.
They already understand that men don’t get it. From an early age, girls are harassed at school and on the street for what they look like, how they dress, and the way they talk. Why don’t you smile, honey? But here’s the interesting part. They come home to fathers and brothers who, presumably, are different. But are they?
I am guessing right now that there are a lot of girls and young women who are wondering about their fathers and brothers. They must be asking themselves whether the men they live with are all that different from those who make them feel unwelcome in their classrooms and on the street. What happens when their fathers and brothers leave the house? Do they become different people? Their mothers already know the answer.
I therefore write this letter not to my two daughters, both of whom followed the election closely and who were in tears on election morning before school. They get it. Girls always have. Rather, I suggest that men stop worrying about their fragile daughters and men like Donald Trump. Stop worrying about the girls in your life.
Instead, we should take a collective look in the mirror.
I teach college freshmen and sophomores at the University of Hartford. My students are almost universally likeable, open-minded, and liberal in their politics (though they would call themselves independent). To their credit, when they recognize injustice they are quick to denounce it. That is, until it comes to women.
In a recent discussion with these students I learned (from many of the men) that women are weak, emotional. That they dress provocatively in order to get attention from men. I learned that they shouldn’t complain when they receive that attention. I learned that even though sexual assault is a terrible thing—we can all agree!—it’s sometimes a woman’s fault. I also learned from these young men that if they have daughters in the future they intend to treat them like “princesses.” I learned that in the minds of these young men their mothers and their sisters and their future daughters were somehow different from all the other women in the world.
As a man, I wasn’t the least surprised. But it was disconcerting at the very least to see the open and public declaration of a sexist ethic, if only because it was so brazenly banal, so much a given. And yet, I know exactly how some of these young men felt, having once been asleep myself.
It’s time to acknowledge to our daughters and our sisters and our wives that we’re the problem. So I write to the fathers in America, especially to those who have daughters. Quite trying to figure out how to protect them. You already have the answer: If our daughters and sisters need protection, it’s protection from us.
Tell that to your sons.
William Major, Ph.D., is a Professor of English at Hillyer College, University of Hartford.