Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan has finally spoken on the ongoing wave of public revelations about high-profile men committing sexual harassment and assault. And for him, the impact of this cultural moment is personal. He told NPR, “We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country … I want my daughter to grow up in a country — she’s 15 years old — where she is empowered and respected. Wherever she goes, wherever she works, and whatever she does. “
It’s a familiar refrain. “As the father of daughters,” it usually begins. The end of the sentence is some variation of the notion that men should not sexually abuse women. We’ve heard it recently from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Matt Damon, from Mitch McConnell and Geraldo Rivera last year, from enough people before that to generate this nearly perfect piece of satire.
The idea, apparently, is that once a man holds a tiny, vulnerable human being now under his care, a switch magically flips, and he suddenly understands that women are actually three-dimensional people worthy of respect and care.
But there are several problems with this.
First, of course, there are many men in the world — men who are not parents to children of any gender — capable of understanding that women exist for functions beyond their own personal sexual interest. There are legions of men who value women’s intellects, talents, gifts and contributions to the world in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with themselves. The capacity to engage women in the fullness of their humanity is not limited only to fathers of daughters, it turns out.
And second, well, Harvey Weinstein has daughters. Bill Cosby has daughters. Roman Polanski has a daughter. R. Kelly has a daughter. Woody Allen. Mike Tyson. Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor. Donald Trump. As it turns out, the magical switch doesn’t always flip.
In fact, Ryan’s treatment of women who are not his daughter — even in the years since her birth — indicate that his great respect for women does not actually extend very far. To take only a few examples, he voted for a bill referred to as the “Let Women Die Bill” because it would have denied pregnant women lifesaving emergency care; he voted against several bills to ensure women equal pay for equal work, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act; and, of course, he has a long history of trying to strip women of access to reproductive health care.
Are women human beings worthy of autonomy and selfhood? Are we deserving of equitable pay, of lifesaving care? And if not, why not?
There’s a widespread cultural trope underlying the language of “as the father of daughters,” and the reason the phrase is so easy to reach for as a metaphor also gives away the problems with it. It’s the dad coming to meet his daughter’s date with a shotgun. It’s the father giving away his daughter at her wedding. It’s in purity balls and chastity pledges. Fathers, here, are protectors. Of their daughters. Of their honor.
Of, ultimately, their virginity.
Whether she is the Madonna who never needs an abortion in Ryan’s patriarchal dystopia or the whore so many powerful serial abusers appear to be seeking, a woman in this vision is not seen as fully human. She is not regarded as a three-dimensional person with as much choice and volition as a man. The focus is ever on her body parts, used or unused, available or protected. Ryan’s paternalism involves as much objectification of women as does the abuse by the men he claims to be condemning.
I only wish that these many fathers of daughters — as well as the men who are fathers of sons or not fathers at all — would instead extend themselves to regard women in their full humanity, as complex, messy, created in God’s image and deserving of respect and rights.
Perhaps if they could, then this moment would actually become the defining one around the treatment of women in this country that Ryan claims to so badly desire.