I remember one time, my parents and I were travelling in the car on the way home from somewhere. I remember travelling in the car with them a lot, when I was young. We lived on a farm, so even going to the local town meant a good 45 minutes in the car. So obviously, to pass the time, we often talked together. One of the interesting things about my memories of these conversations is how many of them were about ideas. We didn’t really talk about what was happening on the farm or at school. We talked about more abstract concepts.
On this particular occasion, Dad was talking about church, and mentioned something he’d said in a sermon. ‘Could I give sermons when I grow up?’ I asked him. ‘Could I be a priest?’
It was the mid-80s. We were Anglican Church-goers, and the idea of women in the priesthood was not new, but it was by no means widely accepted, especially not in our small West Australian diocese. My father was a deacon by then, having assisted as a lay person during services for some time. But even though women did help in the service occasionally, and were involved in other areas of the church family, they were not in leading roles.
Yet my father didn’t go into any of this. He simply told me that if I wanted to be a priest, then I could. By the time I was grown up, he suggested, there might be lots of women who were priests.
Obviously, by that stage, the church and I had parted ways entirely. But that wasn’t really the point–it was that he was demonstrating that he believed that women could be priests, in a culture where that wasn’t necessarily advocated.
And when I think back over my child- and young-person-hood, there were several incidents, where my father reinforced this notion. He was passionate about education–he still is. It was expected that my sister and I would go to university, and that we would have careers before we had children. The world was our oyster. We could do whatever we set our minds to. When he was travelling a lot, involved in agripolitics, Dad needed a farmhand to take care of the farm while he was away. He hired the daughter of a local family, and she worked for us for a couple of years. See? I felt like he was saying to me, to everyone around us. Of course women can do anything. Even farming.
My father has always enjoyed talking with women. I remember sitting in the kitchen with him, and my mother and a female family friend, while we discussed international politics, economics, history. I think he enjoyed talking to anyone, really, but most of my friends’ fathers didn’t seem to sit in the kitchen talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Especially not with women.
And once he had showed me that the world could certainly use more strong women, and that I could be one of them, he would turn this around on me. I’d bring home a report, I’d do well in a competition, and he would shrug, then say, eyes twinkling, ‘Yeah, it’s alright I guess. FOR A GIRL.‘
Because he could throw that line at me now, knowing that I got the joke. It’s not that others had moved beyond that attitude, that prejudice. It still existed. It still does. But it was his way of pushing me, and of praising me without having to say the words.
Of course, my mother was an important role model, and I don’t want to diminish her involvement in raising children who questioned authority and the status quo. It’s just that often, when I’ve thought about feminism in terms of how I want to parent my own children, I’ve focussed very much on showing them how strong women can be. How women and men are multifaceted, how we can choose our own directions, regardless of what our culture has to say about how we should behave. But it’s not just up to me. It’s not just up to the mothers to show their sons and daughters where the potholes lie along the landscape, and to teach them how to look out for them, when they’re out on their own. It’s up to fathers, too. Because if only the mother is doing this, if only the mother is insisting that women should be treated with respect, that the housework and the out-of-housework can be the responsibilities of everyone, that women can go to university or get a trade, that women can have valid opinions, and become leaders of nations or companies–or churches–then how believable is it, when the men are not, so to speak, singing from the same hymn book?
My father showed me that he believed that women could be whatever they wanted. He and my mother supported me to travel overseas, to go to university, to choose a career I wanted, rather than one which was dictated by any traditional interpretations of what women should or shouldn’t do. In their day, women often felt that their only choices in life were to be teachers or nurses, or to begin a family and stay home with the children. My sister and I grew up knowing we could be anything.
So… I became a teacher who now stays at home looking after her children.
Does this make a mockery of my entire upbringing? Of course not. Because I’m a teacher who did a double degree in German and Philosophy, and who worked in retail and volunteered at the soup kitchen. I’m a parent who wrote a thesis on German Green politics, and travelled on her own around Europe, and waited tables and edited a friend’s autobiography. Thanks to my childhood, I bring to my current position a wealth of other experiences, upon which I call everyday, whether I’m working in my home or out if it. And if I had wanted to, I could have been a priest or a farmer, and I still could. The gift my father gave me was one of potential, and I’m excited that both the Handsome Sidekick and I get to pass it on to our daughters, and our sons.