My Father, the Feminist

My Father, the Feminist

By Anna Nordberg


Because you don’t have to be a woman to care about women’s issues.

By Anna Nordberg

As an early Christmas present, I gave my dad and stepmom the DVD box set of Breaking Bad. When they finished — we’ll gloss over the fact that they skipped Season 4 by mistake and plowed right into Season 5, a narrative leap that even David Lynch couldn’t dream up — my dad called me to talk about the show. I asked who his favorite character was. “Skyler,” he said immediately.

No one ever says Skyler. As Walter White/meth king Heisenberg’s wife, she’s a great character played by a great actress, but on a show like this one, there’s just too much competition. So when I asked my dad why, he replied: “She’s strong and tough and I like how smart she is. Nothing gets by her.” Bottom line: She doesn’t take any of Walter’s crap.

Take a moment to google “Skyler White,” and you get pulled into a vortex of fan hatred, the majority of it sexist and scary in the worst, woman-hating way. Basically, people hate Skyler for standing in the way of Walt’s murderous, meth lord ambitions, as a strong woman who won’t swallow any more of Walt’s lies.

The kind of marriage he and my mother had, where they greatly respected each other’s ambitions and intellect, was probably the single greatest influence on my brother and me growing up.

My dad likes her for these exact reasons. Given all the debate now on feminism and reproductive rights, leaning in or leaning out, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about role models in my own life.

My mother, who died when I was 17, looms largest, as a determined supporter of women’s rights who entered the field of population sciences in the ‘60s, when it was a total boy’s club. But what I’ve come to realize is that there’s another feminist in my life who’s just as important: my father.

My dad grew up in the rural town of Millbrook, New Jersey, in the ’50s and went to work on Wall Street after college — not exactly the bio of a feminist pioneer. When he moved to Manhattan, the city was in full Mad Men-style swing, and my dad insists that nothing from the show — not the booze or the affairs or the casual sexism — is exaggerated.

So how did someone who was a NYC bachelor for a decade during the swinging ’60s get the way he is? Well, I asked him.

He credits his family first. Growing up as part of an enormous Scandinavian clan, filled with strong, take-charge matriarchs who shared fully in the responsibilities of life, as my dad put it, gave him perspective. Then he moved to New York, where that perspective was put to the test: “I lived through both the Mad Men and the Wolf of Wall Street periods in my work, when the sexist attitudes and three-martini lunch were alive and well,” he says. “For the most part in the industry, the ’60s feminist movement was derided. There were these pretty wild-looking people lobbying for women to be treated seriously as professionals. But that all seemed realistic to me. Even so, sexual harassment was totally condoned, and women were priced below men for equivalent skills.”

He married two strong, independent women (my mother and then, after she died, my stepmother, Janet) because he has a thing for strong, independent women. “I wouldn’t be near the person I am today without the learning experience I’ve had from both of them,” he says. “I was drawn to their independent spirit and their ability to create different things — for Janet [a jewelry designer], things of physical beauty, and for your mom, her ability to communicate through the written word.”

And in the ’80s, long before anyone was talking about work/life balance, he turned down what was arguably the biggest break of his career — a chance to work for George Soros. He knew it meant he would never see his family. While some colleagues were shocked by his decision, he says, “I was happy in what I was doing already; reasonably successful; and I wanted to be able to have a fuller life with you and Sam and your mom, not be on call seven days a week.”

But the truth is, even after interviewing my dad for this piece, I still don’t really know why he is the way he is. My theory would be that growing up in a big, loving, industrious family gave him the kind of confidence that is inclusive — he welcomes the chance to work with anyone who has talent and drive — rather than exclusive. But I do know that the kind of marriage he and my mother had, where they greatly respected each other’s ambitions and intellect, was probably the single greatest influence on my brother and me growing up. We both realized that to be happy, you need to be with someone who believes in you and who you can grow with.

As for my dad, well, he feels optimistic about how the country is evolving socially. “The fact that GM now has a woman as a CEO, well that’s says even more about how America is changing than Meg Whitman creating eBay,” he says. “When I followed the auto business back in the ’60s and would visit GM in Detroit, it was like going to the Vatican. There was no bigger icon of male domination and male power. Its demise tells you a lot about the inability of those kinds of values to survive.”

We are at a moment now when, thanks to people like Sheryl Sandberg (and characters like Skyler, played by the fearless Anna Gunn), girl power is having a comeback. And while I think it’s wonderful that we have Lean In circles and support groups like 85 Broads, the global women’s network, there’s one thing missing: men. They can be really valuable feminist role models, too. Let’s invite them to the table.