Harper Collins
June 19, 2015 3:09 PM EDT
Lemmon is the author of three New York Times best sellers, including The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. She is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When it comes to raising fierce young women determined to test their own limits and dare big things, dads can make a difference.

“I always taught my daughters to do everything their brother could,” Bob White, father to 1st Lt. Ashley White told me one evening in his Ohio living room. Every summer from the time they were aged 11 or 12, White took Ashley and her two siblings, twin sister Brittany and older brother Josh, to work on the factory floor at his family-owned small business. His daughters worked the assembly line like everyone else—mostly men—around them. When people would ask him why they didn’t work in the office, away from the grime and the dirt of the factory floor, he would look at them quizzically. They were perfectly capable of working the line, as capable as their brother was, and he wanted them to know the demands, the rigors and the value of that kind of work, not protect them from it.

White was hardly the exception. I spent two years interviewing more than two dozen young women who volunteered in 2011 (when the combat ban for women was still in place) to be part of a U.S. Army Special Operations pilot program to put the fittest, finest and most capable women soldiers on the battlefield alongside tested special operations fighters. The hard-charging dad who encouraged his daughter to test every limit became part of nearly every story I heard from women who answered their country’s call to join the kinds of combat missions seen by less than 5% of the U.S. military.

These dads aren’t an anomaly: A report last year from the University of British Columbia noted that fathers with egalitarian ideas about gender “have daughters with higher workplace ambitions.”

Cassie Spaulding (name changed because at time of the book’s writing she was in a working role related to the special operations community) was a Florida native who joined the Army after being a ROTC cadet, women’s studies minor and a sorority sister while in college. Growing up, she watched the news and read the Wall Street Journal with her dad each evening. In our conversations, she would refer to him as her best friend and closest confidante. When she served her first deployment in Iraq, as a military police officer, he sent her care packages with crossword puzzles and books. And when she told him not too long after she returned home that she planned to try out to be part of this new, all-women special ops team, he encouraged her to try for it. After the physically and mentally grueling week-long selection process (known as “100 Hours of Hell”) had finished, Cassie’s dad was the first person she texted to tell him she had made it. He texted her right back to say he never had any doubt.

Kate Raimann and Tristan Marsden (names also changed), both West Point graduates, had a similar story. Both had military dads who instilled in them the importance of service. Kate’s dad shared his stories of being an Army pilot, and while he didn’t push his daughter to go to West Point, he was proud that she did. By the time Tristan was 5, her dad had taught her and her younger sister all the words to the U.S. Marines’ Hymn. When Tristan wrote a “just in case” letter to her family from Afghanistan to be read in the event she did not return home, she wrote to her dad:

All of these dads showed their daughters through their examples and their words that they had one standard for their children: to be their best and to do their best, wherever that took them. And to test all the barriers before them not to prove a point, but to fulfill their purpose. At a recent book signing a well-dressed man approached me to introduce himself. “I’m Cassie’s best friend,” he said, referring to the description of him in the book. “And I couldn’t be more proud.”

Watch the TED Talk on the first women to fight on the front lines of an American war.

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