The Immense Impact Of Eldest Daughter Feminism

There's no shortage of eldest daughter stories in popular culture.

Woman looking at her younger self, eldest daughter cottonbro studio, Cup of Couple | Canva

The eldest daughters are having a moment. For the past few weeks and months, in the popular press and social media platforms, we have seen eldest daughters speak out about their significant role in keeping things together for those around them. 

After reading and watching this, I was particularly drawn to the stories of numerous women and girls who boldly stand up for themselves and set boundaries with people. As the eldest daughter myself, it’s about time.


Despite the attempts to define this “eldest daughter syndrome,” all eldest daughters are not the same. In my research and writing, I have noticed distinct variations or manifestations of “eldest daughter syndrome,” with some daughters exhibiting codependency and people-pleasing tendencies while others display hyper-independence and rigidity. 


However, in both cases, the eldest daughter is often the child who takes on a parental role, providing support without receiving it. Or, as I have written before, “Being the oldest child, you get all of the responsibility of being a co-parent but none of the recognition.”

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Women’s History Month and the widespread discussions about labor inequality within households have bolstered discussions of eldest daughter syndrome. Consequently, I've found that familial dynamics and values play a big role in how the eldest daughter syndrome develops throughout life. 


While some daughters are raised traditionally and are expected to help around the house, others are considered “Daddy’s girls” and are greatly influenced by their relationship with their fathers. This leads me to believe that a daughter’s upbringing is heavily influenced by the parent who impacts her most. Therefore, I have been exploring the concept of “daughtering” and how the experience of being a daughter can differ depending on family circumstances.

“If we had a daughter, I’d watch and could not save her / The emotional torture, from the head of your high table” — Paris Paloma, LABOUR.

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I was inspired to explore the topic even further after receiving an email introducing a new workshop by Black Feminist scholar and writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs. The seminar “Daughter Rhymes With” is focused on the radical potential of “daughtering,” which made me think deeply about how the concept of eldest daughter syndrome can be applied to understand gender and relationship dynamics. 


The Disney-ification of eldest siblings, or the difference between firstborn sons and daughters

Although “eldest daughter syndrome” may seem new, we have seen stereotypical depictions of eldest daughters in media for decades.  When I started researching representations of eldest daughters, I was immediately reminded of several Disney films, such as the 1950 version of Cinderella, the 1998 film Mulan, and the more recent film Encanto (2021). In these films and the folktales they are often based on, we see different depictions of eldest daughters burdened with caring for their households at their own expense.

In the story of Cinderella, the main character is the oldest daughter who has lost her father and is forced to live with her stepmother and step-sisters. However, instead of living a comfortable life like her sisters, Cinderella is made to do all the household chores for their benefit. 

Mulan’s story is even more heartbreaking, as she takes on the responsibility of going to war in place of her elderly father because there are no sons in her family. And we can’t forget Luisa’s character in Encanto, who sings the powerful anthem “Surface Pressure” about the immense pressure she feels as the eldest daughter in the family.


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In 2002, Disney released Lilo & Stitch, a movie that focuses on the story of two orphaned siblings. The elder sister, Nani, faces the constant threat of losing her younger sister if she fails to take up the responsibility of raising her. 

Hence, the depiction of eldest daughters in this and other animated films is noteworthy because it is uncommon to see such realism in animation. Rather than portraying a positive storyline, the narratives often carry a sad undertone consistent across all eldest daughter stories. Even when the ending is meant to be hopeful, a sense of suffering and hardship remains difficult to ignore.


In contrast, Disney often portrays the first son as Prince Charmings, whose family responsibilities are weighty but not depicted as a burden. Yet, eldest daughters are often burdened with familial responsibilities that go unrecognized or are simply expected due to gender norms. Men are supported and applauded for their work as sons, husbands, or fathers, while daughters, who often become wives and mothers, are trained to accept that feminine or domestic labor is their birthright. This is the difference between eldest daughter syndrome and the usual responsibility that comes with being the first child in the family.

Consequently, eldest daughter syndrome is a condition that affects many eldest daughters. It is characterized by feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and stress, often caused by the responsibilities and expectations placed upon them as the eldest sibling. Eldest daughters are expected to give both within the household and outside of it, leading to a Type A personality that values achievement and perfectionism. This desire for success can be driven by a need to prove themselves and a passion for everything that feminism has taught girls they can have.

Rage Against The Machine: On girl-dads, girl-boss feminism, and healing from patriarchy

This point about perfectionism and achievement has made me think quite a bit about the role of feminism and fatherhood in constructing the eldest-daughter syndrome. Despite not believing in a binary, I have noticed that the media often portrays two types of daughters: those who want to find a partner like their father and those who aspire to be the father. This reflects the pervasive influence of patriarchal values on our society. 


On the one hand, some women, such as TradWives, who are active on social media, embrace these values and strive to uphold them. On the other hand, some women seek to challenge and dismantle patriarchal systems and are determined to shatter the glass ceiling. 

In this era of gender equality, little girls are encouraged to pursue their dreams and aspirations, and many eldest daughters are taught to be skilled second parents and independent providers. Although I was often told that marriage and kids should be in my plans, I was constantly encouraged to take advantage of education, travel, and financial opportunities. However, many eldest daughters feel compelled to achieve because of the relationships they see around them. 

Growing up in households with strong father figures or facing patriarchal oppression, we often view achievement as a means of ensuring that we do not have to deal with the same issues as previous generations.

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This often means that eldest daughters align themselves with patriarchal values that prize work over family in an attempt to avoid the realities of gendered oppression. However, I was reminded of a famous quote:

“Often father and daughter look down on mother (woman) together. They exchange meaningful glances when she misses a point. They agree that she is not as bright as they are, and cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother’s fate.” ― Bonnie Burstow, Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence

Eldest daughters often work harder than others to achieve success, but they still face sexism and inequality in their careers and relationships. This can lead to feelings of anger and a desire to upend the patriarchal system that oppresses them. 

For me, my issues with anger and drive to succeed are typical of the eldest daughter syndrome and reflect my relationship with my father and my role as a daughter.


Daughter Lessons: Deconstructing Faith(e), fatherhood, and fear of failure

Growing up in a very modern blended family, I had many mothers and fathers, but I always enjoyed spending time with my dad. This was mainly because we had similar temperaments, which vacillated between spending time locked away working on projects and socializing with the community. 

From my child’s eyes, my father could fix anything and spend hours researching and teaching about his mechanical and musical interests. As the first daughter (and his only child for most of my childhood), I was his little sidekick and listening ear.

As a funny guy who wrote rhymes in his free time, my father’s words held a lot of weight. But, he often communicated through ridicule and judgment. Even when you were not under his critical eye, there was always a commentary about someone else, from how the waitress set the table to how a stranger walked down the street. 


Consequently, my siblings and I were held to high standards and had no room for failure. Whether the failure was as small as spilling your juice at breakfast or as big as getting in trouble at school, he always watched and waited to express cruelty and control through his communication.

“You’re a spineless, pale, pathetic lot / And you haven’t got a clue / Somehow I’ll make a man out of you” — “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” Disney’s Mulan

As a teetotaler, my father would imbibe anger like some men consumed whiskey or cigars. And no one was allowed to hide when he was on the rampage. But more than anything, you were not allowed to cry or crumble because either would only worsen the vitriol. Instead, you would be forced to wait until he was done before being dismissed. 

Consequently, the rule of the house was “Don’t Tell Dad”. Unless you had done something great or promising that he would be proud of, you must keep it hidden to avoid triggering a tirade. This meant that there was no fear worse than failure and not one achievement that could sustain his praise.


But he wasn’t always like that. My father was the best when you had something good to tell him. As the popular PTA dad, he loved bragging about his children. Even as an adult, my father kept a drawer full of my childhood artwork because I was always “good at that type of thing.” As I spent less time at home, every time I came back, every stranger I met could tell me all the good things I had done because my father had already told them. Although my family barely spoke to each other, we could always speak the language of accomplishments.

In this sense, while my father knew all of my accomplishments, he knew nothing about me. Over time, I realized that by constantly bringing up my achievements, everything good about me was attributed to him because he had to be a great father if he had such a wonderful daughter. But, when you are pedestaled as perfect, there is no room to express pain. And so the resentment built. 

Subconsciously, I began to construct a version of myself that wasn’t so accomplished. Over time, I learned to keep my personality’s more rebellious and activist-oriented aspects hidden from my father until things came to a head.


Growing up, I often heard the phrase, “Daughters marry their fathers,” so I was set on doing everything I could to avoid facing that fate. While I found many ways to avoid men like my father, I could not avoid the same level of anger and rage that simmered and exploded inside of him. 

As I got older, I was tired of not talking about my feelings to my family, so I exploded and expressed my pent-up eldest daughter’s rage. It wasn’t pretty, and I quickly went from Luisa Madrigal to Bruno.

As the eldest daughter, I realize I have a high tolerance for hardship and pain. While this can be a great thing in endurance training or long-term goals, it often takes me a long time to realize when I feel hurt or when someone is hurting me (even if that someone is myself). 


However, I have learned over the years that holding in anger and resentment only hurts you in the end, and there is great healing that can come from letting go of the past. Even more, I have learned that there are many ways to transmute that anger into more productive endeavors, and I think that many eldest daughters are drawn to feminism for this reason.

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Faithe J. Day, PhD is a writer, creator, and educator whose research has been published in various journals and digital publications such as Transformative Works and Culture, Cosmopolitan, and ZORA.