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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Daddy Confusion

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Talk about daughters and power, and the discussion inevitably wends its way to fathers. Fathers give girls confidence. Fathers set the bar in expectations about how to be treated by men. Fathers prepare girls for the world.

While the power of fathers in shaping the lives of girls is beyond argument, it also lacks dimension. It implies that young girls are powerless in the transaction -- simply paint-by-number projects. Good father, the spaces are filled in correctly. Bad father, they are filled in destructively. Absent father, they are filled in by others.

It fact, young girls are active and able participants in the lessons in power they absorb, and the power they exert within the family. Today, however, the triangle formed by fathers and daughters and power is experiencing tremendous change in it's lines and internal angles.

Daughters actively challenging or circumventing dad's dominion carries through to virtually every family sitcom. Daughter outmaneuvers hapless dad, lessons are learned, hugs all around at the end.

Consider The Simpsons. While it might be dubious to draw deep social significance from a cartoon, if the archetype fits, wear it. Homer is a dolt; Marge is passive; Bart is a sociopath and the baby is an accessory. Daughter Lisa is the brains of the outfit; and clearly the family's moral center.

Consider the economics.

Women make over 85 percent of consumer purchases, and they have direct influence over 95 percent of total goods and services. Their consumer spending power is $3.7 trillion. Women also buy 50 percent of the traditional 'man' items -- cars, PCs and consumer electronics.

Except at the very top, women have largely achieved workplace equality. A woman now commands the police force in the tough streets of Washington D.C. A woman now commands the helicopter that ferries the President of the United States. Certainly, there are still gains to be made; inequalities to address. But, considering where we started, they are mop-up actions in the wake of a victorious battle.

In a world where female power is both accessible and self-defined, what does that say about the lessons of power a girl learns from her father? Does it make those lessons more important than ever, or increasingly irrelevant?

Recent events complicate the answer.

In a reverse on the improving economic status of women, there is also the stress of changing economics for dads.

In my studies of women and families over the years, I have seen something totally new in family dynamics -- daughters who are far more successful than their fathers. I have talked to many women struggling to process the fact their own achievements have taken them to places their fathers will never go.

For some, there is embarrassment about out-achieving the man who taught them how to ride a bike. For others, there are questions. Said one young entrepreneur I interviewed: "I always wonder why my dad didn't do more with his life. And I feel horrible thinking that way, because he spent his life supporting his family."

The recession isn't helping. It has hit men much harder than women, with job losses highest in construction, manufacturing and other industries dominated by males. Even the former collapse on Wall Street has disproportionately bloodied the white collars of men.

Fathers and daughters will always share a special -- even primal -- bond; the only two members of one of nature's most exclusive clubs. A daughter's sense of self will continue to be shaped by the object lessons her father shares about how men treat women. Her sense of confidence as a woman will be shaped by how he reacts to her as a man.

The lessons daughters are learning about power from their fathers -- who has it, how to get it, how to use it, and what gender has to do with it -- is yet another critical piece in the creation of an new generation of women.

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