The night after my younger daughter was born, while we were still in the hospital, I began reading to her from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.” It had been a gift from my wife, and, much like Juniper, whom I held in my arms for the first time that night, I cherished this small book instantly, while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by the weight of its call to action.
Yes. I believe my daughters are capable of great things, of changing the world one day. But then I think about the way we so often celebrate the men who make terrible choices in this world, and I start to feel overwhelmed, to feel a fissure of fear.
Our older daughter EJ turned 3 in June. We’ve already started teaching her that her body belongs to her and no one else, and that she has the right to say “no” when someone tries to touch her. If someone tries to force a hug upon her, even if that someone is a relative — yes, even a pure of heart, well-intentioned grandparent — she knows she can say “no thank you” and offer a high-five instead. But, of course, this is far, far easier said than done. Especially when strangers are involved.
We used to live in Hong Kong. Once, at a playground there, a little boy, who had been tagging along after EJ as she ran around, walked up and got really close to her face. He looked at her for a long time. I could tell from her furrowed brow that she didn’t like him being that close, and I was just walking up to them, saying, “Okay, give her some space,” when he grabbed at her and tried to kiss her. She rocked back on her heels, looking terrified.
As I pulled EJ away from the boy and asked her if she was okay, she said nothing. She just stared and stared at him. I wheeled around and told the boy that he couldn’t just do that to someone, feeling all the more frustrated because I couldn’t speak his native Cantonese and he couldn’t speak English and the woman who appeared to be his guardian had her face buried in her phone.
He tried to kiss her. She froze. Some people might say this was a harmless, perhaps even funny exchange, just a little boy exploring different ways of showing affection. But was it? I know one thing for certain: I will never forget the confused hurt in my daughter’s eyes as I pulled her away from that boy. Why? her dark eyes seemed to say. Why in the world would he do that?
Harvey Weinstein. Larry Nassar. Bill Cosby. These men — who have been accused of using their power to sexually abuse young girls and women — were children once. They were little boys. Once upon a time, they were on a playground, exploring different ways of showing affection. Who was looking after them then? Who allowed them to kiss little girls without asking them? Who celebrated them for doing so? Who told them, via encouragement or silence or both, that it was okay for them to just take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it?
It can be hard to speak up for yourself, to stand up for what you believe in, no matter who you are and how old you are. My daughter is a 3-year-old, half-Filipina girl. I’m a 38-year-old white male. She’s still learning how to wash her hands properly after using the toilet, so she gets a pass when it comes to learning how to stand up for herself in the face of handsy little boys on the playground. I’m in a position of privilege and experience. I should know how to stand up for what I believe in. And yet, there have been times when I have failed to do so.
I was once working behind the bar at a restaurant, making drinks. It was nearing the end of my shift when our bar manager, a man, told another bartender, a woman, that she needed to “pull her shirt down a little bit” so they could make some good tips that night. “I got bills to pay!” he said with a laugh.
She laughed, too.
Did that make it okay? I don’t think so, because any number of things could have been coded inside her laughter: fear, exhaustion or a simple desire not to rock the boat at the place she relies on to pay her bills. But I can’t speak for her, because I didn’t ask her how she felt. Nor did I stick up for her. In the face of a man in a position of power abusing that power and thinking he was doing nothing wrong, I kept my head down and I stirred the cocktail in my mixing glass. I didn’t want to rock the boat, either. I was new, and I wanted people to like me. When my shift ended, I grabbed my things and left.
A few weeks after this incident, I walked into the prep room to hear the executive chef going on and on about feminism. “Feminists,” he said. “You can’t ever please them. They’ll never be happy.”
There were two other cooks in the room, one a man and the other a woman. The chef made eye contact with me. “Jason knows what I’m talking about. Right?”
I hesitated for a second, trying to plan my response. Juniper had just been born, and I had just read Adichie’s book. The moment seemed ready-made for me saying something poignant. “I have two daughters, man,” I said to him. “It’s all feminism to me.”
Chef gestured to his crotch and said something I will not repeat here. On the other side of the prep table, the male cook was smiling. The female cook was not. She chopped vegetables in silence, a bright green pile of Brussels sprouts rising in front of her.
I’m a feminist. You know that, right?
Why couldn’t I just say that?
About a month later, I gave my notice. I didn’t quit solely because of these two exchanges — I had been working crazy hours and I needed to be at home more, to help my wife take care of a newborn and a toddler as she recovered from a C-section — but they made my decision far easier in the end.
Adichie defines a feminist as “a man or a woman who says yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.” I didn’t say it out loud when I quit, but I’m saying it now. Dear Chef, Dear Producer, Dear CEO, Dear Mr. President: There’s a problem with gender in our workplaces. The daily rhetoric of off-handed sexism has to stop. I’m telling you this because I have two daughters who will grow up to change the world, and I owe it to them to do my part.
What is my part, though? What am I doing? I’m still wrestling with that question. I can say this at least: When I’m outside, away from the safe space of our home where it’s easy to be a strong role model for our girls — and at my next place of work especially — I will be less afraid of powerful men with loud voices. Because I’m one of them. And I need to use that voice for good.
Jason Basa Nemec is a freelance writer who happens to be pretty decent at making cocktails. He and his family live in Portland, Ore., mainly because of the food trucks.