ON A FRIGID WINTER'S NIGHT in the novelist George Eliot's Silas Marner, a newly orphaned golden-haired girl toddles into an old miser's hut. The man Silas has long been excised from human communion; his hut is far removed from those of his fellows, and he is so withered and embittered as to be permanently hunched over like a "crooked tube." Over the course of days and then years, the girl transforms him into a loving father. Recent endocrine studies suggest that Eliot was aware of a timeless alchemy. To put it in reductive terms, babies and young children can operate as hormonal flytraps, rigging some adult males — not all, of course — to engage in care-giving: even into becoming besotted dads rather than, say, cads. Eliot's novel is about that emotional syncopation. The girl draws the prospective father back into the social web — into that array of emotionally expansive pro-social behaviors that enable their mutual flourishing.
The girlish power to redeem men has a long tradition — we need only think of the variants of the children's story Heidi, for instance. Whether girls are generally better at this sort of alchemy than boys is an open question. What is not an open question is this: the bar on committed or "good-enough" fatherhood has risen radically in recent years, and especially so with respect to girls. Fathers are no longer expected to just pay for the prom dress, but to be involved in choosing it or at least in making deftly-appropriate comments. Indeed, it could be said that a nebulous set of relational skills (those of the reformed Silas Marner perhaps) is increasingly at stake. Peggy Drexler, a social psychologist at Cornell Medical School, is interested in the evolution of the new fathers — not so much in how daughters shape their fathers (though, to be sure, that constitutes an enormous part of the equation, as George Eliot understood so well), but in how they shape their daughters, and, especially, how they shape their daughters' ambition.
Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Dads and the Changing American Family focuses on the generations that came of age after the 1970s, when power was, in a sense, being transferred from fathers to daughters. Daughters gradually emerged as the, on average, more tractable sex in school and in other settings that mattered to post-industrial skill acquisition. Our Fathers, Ourselves implies — and it should be said here that it is an implication lying at the edges of her book rather than a fleshed-out argument — that a generation and more of enabling fathers may have incited their daughters to this success. The end result has been as dramatic as it has been unexpected: the daughters are now out-professionalizing, out-earning, and academically outperforming their brothers in the competitive races of this century.