15 September 2015

Why I Love My Misogynistic Dad

My father wrote something once. And he had me read it.

I could have gone without that experience. It was supposed to be about sailing, but he started it out with a scene where you could have replaced the woman with a coffee pot and lost nothing. She was just a mute receptacle.

Of course, that's not why I'm calling him a misogynist. I have a lifetime of observations to build that conclusion on.

For example...

My father has often enjoyed silencing his wife by raising a stern hand whenever she attempts to express opinions. She dutifully obeys. And he has explained to me many times women's role in this man's world. Woman are to shut up and serve men as his wife would demonstrate.

The women in my Feminist Philosophy course at university would have had me force him to change. I was supposed to put them first and never turn a blind eye to the oppressive acts of the more privileged gender even if it meant I had to distance myself from my own father. At the time, I knew they had it all wrong, but it wasn't until after many years of reflection I could explain why.

My dad started his life speaking an indigenous language, had a turbulent childhood with common absences of his mother and was in rehab when he should have been in high school. He was discharged from the Navy before he was eighteen. He married a white college student while he was bumming around in another state, but she left with his two young children when all he had done was bring a girlfriend from another reservation up to teach her how to act like a proper woman. His words not mine.

I used to argue with him for hours. He had no natural gift for logic and his only authority on every subject was his own opinion, but he could weave a conversation into a big basket of irritating crazy no matter how diligently I worked to untangle it.

And while he might sound like a nightmare, I have many reasons to love and respect the man. All of them would be his actions. Certainly, not what he said.

Whenever I needed someone to listen, he was there. If he had something to give, it was mine. If I was hurt, it was his pain, too. Every few months since I was quite young, he'd post twelve page letters to me explaining his life and why he wasn't there. But, when I was old enough to visit him, he never once prioritized anything else.

One time during college, I remember describing to him how frustrated I was with my classmates and how I was going to go and set the record straight on a very minute aspect of some theory that he didn't understand, but I assured him they all had all wrong. My dad said, "So, my daughter is a warrior. I always wanted a son." His parental pride was nearly as grand as his arrogance in that moment.

Gender is not viewed as a choice in Western thought, but my father wasn't bothered with how other people saw gender. In his mind, the roles were significantly more rigid, but there was no reason you couldn't pick whatever side suited you best.

He saw the woman as controller of the kitchen, the heart of the home. His wife would never allow him near it. Offering to do the dishes after a meal was an offense. You were infringing upon her responsibility and her authority over the home and its management. We would never think to approach an architect or a lawyer and offer to do their job. And running the home, for them, was the same. Too important.

My father believed he had to keep his wife happy if he wanted to stay in the home. What he earned, he surrendered, because she was the primary provider and the center of his little world.

But, my father was an often broken man.

His second wife put up with his insecurity and variability for thirty years before leaving to remarry her first husband and care for him while he was dying of cancer. A year and many girlfriends later, my father asked if he should go back to her and when they reunited, there was no loss of love between them.

They resumed their life and their crafts. She worked with seed beads and he worked with leather and wood to make things that had significance for themselves, for others and for sale. They lacked the education and income my mother and step-father enjoyed, but they were much happier just being together. He kept a traditional calendar that marked the years with either lines or pictures of significant events. I remember the little indian woman with the squiggly line that meant she was gone and the same squiggly line with the little indian woman that meant she was back.

Later on in my life, when I was getting married, my dad invited my now ex-husband to view his gun collection. He was so happy you would have thought Custer had come back to life and could be killed again. And he resumed his lectures on being a proper woman as if I had changed sides on the war between the sexes without missing a beat.

I've never blamed my mother for leaving him.

All her relationships had a clear winner and loser or they ended. Rules were to appear fair and be obeyed. People did not move within spheres of personality authority. The person with more status was the obvious authority wherever they went. In the kitchen. Outside. It was all the same.

Housework was to be delegated from the people who were more important to the people who were less important. The work of the home was not important. In fact, it is easy to say that mother and stepfather coveted the same role as undisputed leader of the family. They divided housework up as chores for children and spent their free time fighting each other on every major decision.

Is it so strange that I should prefer the peace and warmth of a home where the responsibilities of cleaning and cooking are guarded privileges? I still remember how honored I felt when I was asked to help prepare food in my stepmother's kitchen.

Although it is hard to explain away how my father spoke about women, the words he used were perhaps not what mattered most. In those times my dad silenced his wife by raising his hand, he was looking away from her amused smirk. For them, it was a choice to be together and an endless game of balancing power between them. If she tired of his demonstration, she spoke when and as she wanted whether or not he raised his hand. And he accepted that quietly without objection.

I don't know if its fair to call my father a misogynist or not. He was full of pretense while secretly committed to balancing power in his calm, affectionate relationship with his second wife.

Sometimes his actions spoke louder than his words.

And other times, I wish they hadn't hurt so much.

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