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Author: Judith Roof
Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Fatherhood is the state of being a father. That state can be defined as a biological function, a legal classification, an emotional connection, a social role, a symbol of authority, or even a philosophical position. Fathers in all those guises have constituted a central part of the social, cultural, and religious life of most cultures. Many societies are patriarchies, organized around the father as the dominant figure in an extended family. The roles of fathers have changed in the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. The familial roles of individual fathers have become more nurturing at the same time that biological science has made the identities of fathers more certain.


Biologically, a father is the male individual who has contributed to half of a child's genetic material. The father's genes may be contributed in several ways. Males may inseminate females through sexual intercourse or may contribute sperm to a sperm bank. The father may be married to the woman he impregnates and continue to live with her and their child as a nuclear family. The father may have contributed genetic material as a part of a more casual sexual encounter and have either no relationship or only a legal relationship with his child. Women may be inseminated with sperm from a sperm-donor bank so that the identity of the father is unknown. Occasionally males contribute sperm to women who wish to have children but to whom they are not married.

Only recently has it become possible to determine with certainty the identity of a biological father. Before scientists developed the ability to sequence and read DNA, the identity of a biological father could be presumed only through circumstances. Blood typing, which was invented in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, could indicate with any certainty only males who could not possibly be the father of a child. The need to guarantee that a husband was the father of his wife's children produced many legal and social constraints on the activities of women. Endowing the wife's offspring with the name of her husband—the patronym—constituted an attempt to make the father's link to his wife's children more certain. Because in many societies a family's wealth was passed through male children, it was important to try to assure that those children were indeed from the father's bloodline. Even in an era when it is possible to discern who a child's father is with overwhelming probability through DNA tests, the law still presumes that the husband of a woman who bears a child is the child's father unless circumstances suggest otherwise.

Before the advent of DNA technologies, many laws were passed to protect the assumption of paternity and the rights of fathers, though it also was presumed that mothers had more responsibility and greater capabilities with younger children. If a married couple wished to divorce, the law presumed that the mother had a stronger claim to the custody of younger children (the tender-age presumption). At the same time it was much more difficult for unmarried males to claim paternity or for unmarried women to prove that a specific man was the father of her child. More recently family law has acknowledged that fathers have more than legal ties to their children and has begun to even out the rights of both parents in relation to their children. More unmarried fathers take, or are forced to take, legal responsibility for their offspring because their relationship to children can be proved.


Over the generations, fatherhood has become a more emotional, caring, nurturing relationship. Fathers often share child-care responsibilities, bonding with their children as caretakers and contributing members of the family unit. In the traditional European and North American bourgeois nuclear family, the father was understood as the source of authority, rule making, financial security, and discipline, mostly because he tended to be the parent who worked and had only limited responsibilities in caring for the children. In cultures in which both parents work or the mother is a major source of family income, fathers have become more involved with their children's Page 523  |  Top of Articledaily care. They thus have become more intimately involved in their children's emotional lives and development. There are many cultures in which fathers still are patriarchal authority figures governing the family. However in many European and North American cultures, fathers have become coparents, sharing decision making and having more multifaceted and enriched relations with their children.

Many nuclear families include fathers who are not the biological fathers of the children. Second marriages and stepchildren point to a more social function for fathers. Fathers need not have a biological relation to children. They may have important legal and social relations with them as stepfathers or adoptive parents or in other relationships in which males take the role of protector and nurturer.

One result of changes in the family has been a growing fathers' rights movement. This movement attempts to balance family laws that favor the mother and make it difficult for fathers to have rights in relation to their children, especially when they are no longer or never have been married to the children's mothers.


The role of the father as authority figure in and protector of the traditional patriarchal nuclear family has long served as a model for a more figurative understanding of the father as a powerful person who oversees the welfare of a group of people. In societies organized around the prohibitive powers of males, the father becomes symbolic. The father is one who has the power to prohibit certain desires and activities, not as an individual prohibition, but as a social rule. In this sense all governments act as figurative fathers when they pass and enforce legislation. The symbol of the powerful but beneficent father is employed as a metaphor to characterize important cultural figures. The founders of nations, such as George Washington in the United States, are the fathers of the country. Inventors become the metaphorical fathers of entire technologies. Henry Ford is the father of the modern assembly line, and Alexander Graham Bell is the father of modern communications. The heads of religious groups, such as priests, often are referred to as Father. Deities have paternal attributes.

In the end the notion of fatherhood is a philosophical position in which an individual assumes an ethical responsibility for the care of a group. People's comprehension of this position is premised on the image of the father as the powerful one in whose name they live but whose prohibitions also foment desires and rebellions. A central myth of European and North American culture, the myth of Oedipus, is centered on respect for and defiance of the fathers' prohibitions. The figure of the ethical presence of the father governing people's lives penetrates many religions, social organizations, literary traditions, and psychoanalytic conceptions of the ways in which people become conscious individuals.


Biaggi, Cristina, ed. 2006. The Rule of Mars: Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy. Manchester, CT: Knowledge, Ideas & Trends.

Coltrane, Scott. 1997. Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dowd, Nancy E. 2000. Redefining Fatherhood. New York: New York University Press.

Gavanas, Anna. 2004. Fatherhood Politics in the United States: Masculinity, Sexuality, Race and Marriage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. 2004. The Evolution of Fatherhood: A Celebration of Animal and Human Families. New York: Ballantine.

                                                   Judith Roof

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896200225