THE BLOG

Dads and Daughters Endure

06/20/2011 12:10 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

The last few decades have had their way with gender relationships of the past. Men and women both are operating on a whole new set of rules.

Given the depth of the change, we might expect a dramatic altering of one of the most fundamental man-woman relationships: the one between father and daughter.

Change, certainly, has come to dads and daughters. But in my research into the lives of some 75 high-achieving, clearly independent women, the power of a father is -- confusingly to some of them -- very much a part of their lives, and in surprisingly traditional ways.

When I started my journey into the lives of fathers and daughters, I expected to find a powerful connection between women and the first men in their lives. Virtually any study will confirm it.

What I didn't expect was how deep the bond ran in the lives of successful women, how powerful it remains through a woman's life, and how resilient it can be -- even when a father has caused it grievous harm.

Of course, there is the force of history here. Through time, it has been the father's job to protect the daughter until she was ready to be handed off to the protection of another man. Time has softened that transaction -- for one thing, women have long had a say in the matter. But the concept remained the same.

History has run headlong into tremendous changes on both sides of the bond.

One is the paradigm-rattling change in female possibility. The numbers of women in the halls of virtually all professional schools are equal to, or surpassing, the numbers of men. New Census figures show that working women are, on the whole, better educated than working men. New female managers are being hired at the same rate as males.

In families with children, more than 70 percent depend on two incomes. Some 40 percent of mothers work full time. In one in three couples, the wife brings home more than the husband. Women are starting their own businesses at twice the rate of men.

In all of this, females are the factor in motion. Men are the constant and, given the lopsided impact of the recession on men, their family financial power is in decline.

We're witnessing a change in a power structure that has held since women gathered and men hunted. Today, however, the job of bringing home the day's kill and protecting the home front from that nasty clan down the creek -- including its modern variations -- is an artifact.

Out of those changes might come an assumption that daughters would exert the same independence that they have in other areas of relationships.

I found the opposite.

It didn't matter how successful their careers, how happy their marriages, how fulfilling their lives, women told me that their happiness passed through a filter of their fathers' reactions. Many told me that they tried to remove the filter and -- much to their surprise -- failed.

Logic and numerous studies consistently reinforce the importance of fatherly support in daughters' development and choices. Surprising, however, was how consistently I found the same hunger for approval in women whose father's had done little or nothing to deserve it.

Women wanted a relationship warmed by approval, even with fathers whose behavior -- from neglect to abuse -- did not deserve any relationship at all.

Part of that, certainly takes form early in life -- when the father is a portal to the world of men. In the book I call fathers a girl's GPS -- gender positioning system. It's how women begin to orient themselves in a confusing and, lately, fluid landscape of gender expectations.

One of the common themes I encountered is that, absent that GPS that a father provides, the landscape can remain confusing and conflicting throughout their lives. Mallory, a 34-year-old chiropractor who described a cold and disinterested father, still has trouble dealing with the attention she gets from men. She said "I don't feel I know how to flirt very well or engage with men very well." Would that be different if her relationship with her father were different? She thinks so.

In a time when non-traditional families are everywhere from sitcoms to next door, I was also surprised to find that even when those families are successful in every respect, the absence (literally or otherwise) of a father in a girl's life still resonated into adulthood -- even as women have good men in their lives and are raising families of their own.

Abigail is a good example. A young first-time mother, she remembers her disturbed physician father as prone to severe mood swings and frightening behavior: as a statement while separating with her mother, he dragged furniture to the front lawn and set it on fire. He told her at age eight that the only reason he married in the first place was because her mother was pregnant with Abigail -- and that he never really wanted her. Yet, she remembers loving him even as she feared him, and credits him with her determination, athleticism and love of the outdoors

Good father, bad father, indifferent father, absent father: in my work with the women whose stories are the heart of my book, I encountered them all. The stories are as different as the women themselves. But one thing I saw time and again: our fathers are a potent and enduring part of ourselves.

Portions of this first appeared in a Wall Street Journal article entitled "Daughters and Dads Approval."

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a gender scholar, research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May, 2011). Follow Peggy on www.peggydrexler.com, Twitter and Facebook.