The first time I ever picked up To Kill A Mockingbird, I was six years old and going through my mother's schoolbag. She was getting her Bachelor's degree at a Utah university and raising three young children entirely on her own. I looked at the soft lavender cover and asked her, confused, "Why are you reading a book about how to kill a mockingbird?" She laughed, corrected me, and set it back down.
A few years later I watched the book's film adaption. Aside from Scout waddling awkwardly in an amorphous ham costume, I remember one scene that, even as a young girl, would stay with me in ways that I'm only just beginning to understand:
Atticus, a single father defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, is confronted by a group of local bigots. His young son sits in the car, watching in horror as a man spits in his father's face for defending the man. I expected a quick and powerful punch to come next, a scuffle or some other kind of physical response in which Atticus -- The Good Guy -- would be a hero. Instead, Atticus slowly wipes the spit from his face with a handkerchief and joins his son in the car to drive home.
It's a remarkable scene. It was even more remarkable to me given the male role models I had at that point in my life. As a Navy SEAL, my biological father's profession was the pinnacle of masculine ideals: guns, aggression, military savvy. Later, my stepdad would regale me and my siblings with stories about growing up in the sage brush of northern Nevada, where conflict was most frequently responded to with a balled fist against a row of teeth. While they made for good conversation, the identities of the two men who were integral to my upbringing seemed foreign and, frankly, intimidating.
And so when I saw Atticus take a deep breath and turn his back to the potentially violent situation, I learned a lesson: I don't have to cheer on violence. I don't have to cheer on aggression. And other men don't have to, either.
In Atticus, Harper Lee created a new "masculine," and through that character (and the other male role models in my life), I found feminism. Atticus instilled the idea of compassionate masculinity and compassionate courage in me. He raised his son and daughter as equals regardless of their genders, and throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, he led by empathetic example. He was a revelation for his insistence on nonviolent response, at one point telling his fiery daughter:
You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let 'em get your goat. Try fightin' with your head for a change.
Atticus helped me to see past aggression, and beyond the limits of traditional masculinity -- something the feminist movement encourages and embraces. Freeing men of "macho" expectations is an integral aspect of women's empowerment. Watching and reading Atticus parent made me appreciate that the men in my life were so much more than their grit, and the different kind of "grit" that it takes to be a father.
And now I like to think that I have three fathers, all of whom are responsible for my growing up feminist: one northern Nevada escapee who raised me to read all the books so, like Scout, I could fight with my head; one devoting his post-military retirement to a charity for military service dogs, who taught me the singular beauty of self-forgiveness; and one who lives on forever through literature, fighting the good fight in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.
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