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These Days, Even Conservative Dads Want Daughters to Lean In

Appeals court judges who have daughters are more likely to make liberal or “feminist” decisions in gender-related cases than are judges who only have sons.  And it is the decisions of Republican-appointed male judges, typically conservatives, which make this pattern most visible.  This fascinating bit of political science research was reported in the New York Times a couple of days ago.


Photo credit: Brian Turner//flickr

This study’s findings are mainly about how judges voted on employment discrimination cases, which made up 92% of the relevant cases in the years under study.  These cases are about protecting women from gender-based discrimination at work, including when they are pregnant and become mothers.

What explains this Daughter Effect?  In the full paper, political science professors Maya Sen and Adam Glynn carefully distinguish amongst several possibilities.  They ask whether judges with daughters could be simply feeling protective and paternalistic.  But no, this doesn’t appear to be the case, because then we would expect these judges to come down harder on rapists and other sex-based assaults, and they don’t.  The Daughter Effect is limited to civil cases.  Similarly, it doesn’t appear to be a simple matter of self-interest, (wanting to protect relatives’ jobs) because the effect is no stronger with multiple daughters, and it does not appear to apply to judges who are the mothers of daughters.  They persuasively argue that this Daughter Effect is in fact the result of fathers vicariously experiencing what it means to grow up female.

The way Sen and Glynn describe it, “By having a daughter—and interacting with her and her peers—judges may learn about these issues [of sexual harassment, maternity leave and family medical leave], and this additional knowledge in turn informs their opinions.”  But I suspect it is something stronger than this, and more specific to our current moment.  I think these are fathers who not just understand their daughters’ struggles, but fathers who have supported their daughters’ ambitions, no differently than their sons’.  These professional men attended their daughters’ soccer games and debate matches, sent them to the best colleges, and cheered them on as they chose rigorous professions.  They saw them as children in their own image.  It didn’t matter that they were female.

And this was a real change.  These conservative professionals are different from their fathers.  They are not the generation that sent daughters to college for their “Mrs” Degree.  And, at least among well-educated men, they are by-and-large not the generation that expected their daughters to pick up their sons’ dirty laundry and make the dinner just because they were girls.  No, they expected their daughters to study for math tests and ace their SATs and be the first-chair cellist in the orchestra.  And when those girls did, their dads expected them to be justly rewarded.

The point is, in every generation fathers witnessed their daughters’ struggles.  But in this generation, they are finally outraged by them.  It is not simply a matter of fathers empathizing with their daughters; they envision a future for their daughters as fully-developed individuals, on par with men.

I find this very heartening.  Not so much because privileged men are able to sustain their families’ economic and social position whether or not they have sons, but because the legal decisions they make will potentially affect all American women.  If the pride and ambition these fathers feel on behalf of their daughters translates into equal protection at work and sensible, supportive maternity policies, we all benefit.

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