This is a Story About My Father
But not entirely. You’ll see.
My childhood home was like Sweden. My family is less than a ¼ Swedish, and the home we lived in, or apartment rather, was located in São Paulo, Brazil. My childhood home was Sweden not because of its geographical location, or because the Swedish language was spoken with any level of proficiency, but because it housed a common language that normalized gender equality. Sweden is the one country I know that has mastered this skill. It just is equal, no questions.
I grew up in a home of 4 women and 1 man. I can imagine that you’re now second-guessing my words in the above paragraph because 4 against 1 doesn’t seem like an equal balance of male versus female. But equality is not a quantity of people, it’s a frame of mind. And even if you disagree with that, then you’ll agree that there’s equality in the fact that my father grew up in a house of 5 men and 1 woman. He had it coming.
You’d think my father would have ended up more traditional. And knowing that the word traditional is easily misinterpreted, I’ll define my intended meaning: “a corrupted state of mind which believes that women live to serve the needs of men, and nothing more.” I mention this because I imagine that being under the influence of a male-domineering household, that my father wouldn’t have been able to emerge with any other mindset.
When I was a little girl, I told my father I wanted to go to the moon because I knew in that moment that I was going to make a life-changing scientific discovery that would alter the fate of mankind. We know these things when we’re children. Doubts don’t cripple us until we’re smacked with criticism for the first time. I remember doing tests in my kitchen to find loopholes in the force of gravity. I’ve always been an incredibly abstract thinker so I can imagine that the formulas I was creating were more philosophical than measurable. But I was making a new use of the kitchen anyway. My father agreed. Years later, when I determined that I was going to be an archaeologist because there were artifacts waiting for me to find them, my father encouraged my explorations. Every Saturday morning, I would find him reading his Bible in the living room, and I’d sit with him, and he’d answer my impatient questions. Eventually, he booked us a trip for two to Cairo so that I could touch the ancient relics with my own hands. My dreams were given leeway to grow.
My dad was a pastor, still is. I grew up observing his excellent communication skills. He knew I possessed the same charisma to be a public speaker and so he always encouraged me to take the stage. He’d give me public speaking tips, refining my skills. Harsh at times, but I became a great communicator as I alternated between watching his preaching and standing up to the microphone myself. There were never questions about me being too young to speak, or too much of a woman.
I watched my father encourage my mother to be the senior pastor of a church, my oldest sister to pursue leadership roles in politics, later in the film industry, my middle sister to find her role as a preacher, teacher, and leader within her church. We were all born leaders, the whole lot of us, and the accessibility of these positions seemed natural, obvious.
It wasn’t until university that I came in contact with the unsettling anguish layered in the word feminism. Its raw quality, its anger, its ambition. It felt foreign to me. I couldn’t understand its place, and being a passionate person, I couldn’t see why I was incapable of getting behind the word. What was I missing? Of course I agreed that women should receive equal pay as men. Of course I agreed that women should access equal rights. Of course I agreed that women should be handed leadership roles. Those truths seemed obvious to me. Having been exposed to a wide diversity of cultures and walks of life, I felt a sudden naivety. Why couldn’t I understand the need for this form of anger?
Today I recognize my point of privilege. Before the #HeForShe movement even began, I had already been exposed to the extraordinary impact of having a he fight for the rights of a she. My father normalized gender equality for me. He created a home where I didn’t have to question my gender. I just was Alyssa. And I could be any form of her that I wanted to explore.
Last week on International Women's Day, I was adjudicating for a Speech Arts Festival in Vancouver, and at one point, I swapped out for a round so that I could take a break. When I stepped down, there were three men who took on the adjudicating roles, zero women. This was not intentional, but I sat in silence for a moment, thinking about what it would be like to be forced to remain in the sidelines, to have my voice be ignored. I couldn’t begin to fathom the anger I would feel, the protests I would instigate. How privileged am I, I thought, that I don’t question my own limitations.
When we learn a second language, we become immediately aware of grammatical rules that must be followed in order to communicate with clarity, but we can rarely explain the intricacies of our mother tongue. It simply is, because it always has been. I have never fully understood feminism because I have always been a feminist. To me, the mindset just is, no questions.
Thank you, dad, for being my #HeForShe.