06/28/2011 07:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2011

Our Fathers Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family

As gender roles have evolved over the last few decades, so too has the complex dynamic between fathers and daughters. In Our Fathers, Ourselves, I trace this specific relationship back to its core and examine how fathers and daughters have adapted with the changing times. Here's an excerpt.

CHAPTER 1, Fathers and Daughters: What's Changed, and What Hasn't

I embarked on my quest with several hundred hours' worth of conversations careering around in my head, ricocheting off the nuggets of wisdom I had gleaned from decades of working with families. I have spent my career studying men and women, boys and girls -- who they are, what they want, how they act, and how they are changing. I'm an ardent student of how children are shaped by their relationships with the men and women in their families, and how these early forces affect their life choices: what work they do, who they love, how they behave, and how they manage their emotional and physical health.

As I reviewed the interview transcripts, my mind was clamoring with questions. Foremost among them were, how are today's fathers serving as models of strength and assertiveness for their daughters? How much of this example are their daughters observing, absorbing, and deploying in their lives? If a father imbues his daughter with faith in her ability to fend for herself, how much of a difference does it make in her life? And, if a daughter does successfully fend for herself, how does that affect her relationship with her dad?

We know all about the cataclysmic transformation the feminist movement hath wrought in the lives of girls and women over the last forty years, and about the ways it has upended traditional (and often oppressive) notions of sex and gender roles in the family, at work, and in society. Today, nearly fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, women continue to be the change they wish to see in the world. With dogged persistence, women have gone from infiltrating to in some cases dominating institutions and professions that used to exclude them. During the 2003-2004 academic year, 49.6 percent of first-year medical students were women -- an all-time high -- compared to 28.7 percent in 1980-1981 and 11 percent in 1970-1971. (In 2009-2010, the percentage of female first-year medical students was 47.9.)

The law profession's gender balance has also shifted wildly. Sarah Weddington, who with Linda Coffey successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the US Supreme Court in the early 1970s, graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1967; when she started, there were 5 women in her class of 250 -- a whopping 2 percent. Today, nearly half of all law school applicants are women.

And it isn't just white-collar professionals who have risen in the ranks; their camouflage-clothed sisters are joining them in force. In September 2009, the United States Army Command named Sergeant Major Teresa L. King commandant of its sole drill sergeant school, located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. She is the first woman ever to run an army drill sergeant school. This is no small thing: Sergeant Major King, along with seventy-eight instructors whom she commands, supervises drill sergeant training for the entire US Army. Her achievement is even more impressive when you consider that even though women comprise 13 percent of army personnel, only 8 percent of the army's sergeants major and command sergeants major -- the highest-ranking enlisted soldiers -- are women. Sergeant Major King, who was forty-eight at the time of her appointment, said that as a young girl, she declined her mother's offer to teach her how to cook, preferring to play basketball and drive her father's tractor. When one of her brothers or sisters got in hot water with their parents, she presented herself as a substitute spanking object (don't underestimate her fearlessness -- she was one of twelve kids). "When I look in the mirror, I don't see a female. I see a soldier," Sergeant Major King said.

Not to be outdone by the army, the US Navy made some history of its own in April 2010 when it reversed its long-standing policy against allowing women to serve on submarines. Only three months later, it toppled another barrier when it appointed as commander of Carrier Strike Group Two Rear Admiral Nora Tyson, the first woman in history to be granted such a command. Rear Admiral Tyson's strike group consists of the USS George H.W. Bush, which is the navy's newest aircraft carrier, four guided-missile cruisers, six guided-missile destroyers, two frigates, and eight squadrons of aircraft. In talking with reporters after the change-of-command ceremony, Rear Admiral Tyson said, "As far as the trailblazing piece, I understand I am the first woman on the job... But I'm a professional just like my fellow officers are, and my fellow strike group commanders." It is notable if not surprising that both she and Sergeant Major King downplayed their identification as females, emphasizing instead their identities as professional military personnel.

The ascension of women to military positions formerly restricted to men indicated to me that some daughters had decided that walking in their fathers' shoes felt more fitting, more comfortable, more right than walking in their mothers'. Now, with statistics galore, about 120 hours of interviews echoing in my head, and 1,600 pages of transcriptions shuffling through my fingers, I sat down to analyze what I'd heard and learned.

It was exactly as I thought it would be, except when it wasn't.

Daughters Never Stop Needing Their Dads and Almost Always Forgive Them

In keeping with their much-trumpeted advances at work and at home, I thought the women I spoke to would celebrate the vast professional and personal opportunities available to them, and they did. They spoke of six-figure salaries, budding medical careers, happy marriages and harmonious domestic partnerships, worldwide travels, and ambitions to accomplish great and noble goals. But they also expressed something that made me sit up and take notice: No matter how successful they were or how much they had achieved, and no matter how content they were in their own marriages and the families they had formed, they still wanted and in some cases hungered for their fathers' love and approval.

Excerpt first appeared on

Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family by Dr. Peggy Drexler. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Rodale.