What is feminism? Who is a feminist?
I think it’s fair to say a man can be pro-feminist, and I think he would be able to sufficiently defend this nomenclature in any context. The academic definition of feminism, many are quick to tell you, is the support of gender equity, and that this title can be carried by anyone. Hold on just a second – a million pedants cry out in terror – then why isn’t the movement and philosophy called ‘humanism’? Why mention gender at all?
To many, a feminist is simply anyone who works to advance gender equity, and by this definition, a person, regardless of their gender identity, fits underneath that umbrella. I’ve never been comfortable applying this title to myself, and I have avoided writing about this topic for a long time. To reject the title of a cause I genuinely support and whose goals I share feels cowardly, but to wear the uniform without earning the stripes seems even worse. To use the word would be to trivialize it, in my view, and I am convinced that you have to taste the blood in your mouth before you can say you were truly struck. More to that point, I don’t think those who have been struck could ever look at those who haven’t as true peers.
True, I’ve spoken to several women who were uncomfortable with the title of ‘feminist’ to begin with, and preferred that of a secular humanist. Fair enough, I suppose, but I have to wonder if the word itself hadn’t already been poisoned by sexist men unwilling to let their power and influence go without a fight.
“A lot of people don’t understand what feminism is. They think it is about advance and success for women, but it’s not that at all. It is about power for the female left. And they have this, I think, ridiculous idea that American women are oppressed by the patriarchy and we need laws and government to solve our problems for us. They have made their close alliance with the Obama administration. And they’re always crying around about things like the differences between men and women are just a social construct. So they’re really in a fight with human nature. I would not want to be called a feminist. The feminists don’t believe in success for women and, of course, I believe that American women are the most fortunate people who ever lived on the face of the earth, can do anything they make up their minds to do.” [Phyllis Schlafly]
Ms.Schlafly was a vain and nasty hypocrite, content to enjoy all of the benefits of an unfettered professional life herself while spending every waking hour campaigning to press other women back into domestic servitude. This image of gender treachery was precisely the sort of cognitive dissonance I was seeking to understand, especially after the election of Donald Trump. What motivates women to undermine their own collective progress? Is it as simple as a lack of empathy? Do women like Schlafly fail to understand that their individual destiny is inextricably bound to the success of movements like these? Where’s the disconnect?
“When asked directly, Schlafly would scoff at the idea that she was held back by her gender, usually blaming liberals or the Democratic district in which she ran for Congress. There is one notable exception, though, when she ran for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1967. The NFRW was riven by the same force dividing the rest of the GOP in the post-Goldwater years: moderates trying to wrest their party back and conservatives like Schlafly trying to hang on to control. In the end, moderate forces controlled the convention and Schlafly lost. Schlafly lashed out at the NFRW in her 1967 book Safe—Not Sorry. And curiously for a fight between women activists, this was the moment Schlafly chose to make the charge of sex discrimination. “The Republican Party is carried on the shoulders of the women who do the work in the precincts, ringing doorbells, distributing literature, and doing all the tiresome, repetitious campaign tasks,” Schlafly wrote. “Many men in the Party frankly want to keep the women doing the menial work.” And that, she concluded, is why they had arrayed themselves against her—because she would not keep to the prescribed role of women in politics. It was a decidedly feminist argument being made just as the forces of second-wave feminism were gathering strength.” [Politico]
Humans cannot be perfectly impartial or objective, and we all have blind spots, but I continue to return to the central idea that most humans have a mechanism that interferes with their basic ability to think rationally. Schlafly’s is on display here in a plain fashion. Sam Harris has the best argument on this dynamic I’ve read to date:
“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.” [Sam Harris]
In Harris’ example, a man can think critically and reach a reasonably objective conclusion about the infidelity of his wife or the powers of frozen yogurt, but when the topic shifts to the supernatural, it disappears. This type of thinking – where the ability to reason is alive in one aspect, but dead in another – is what I’m attempting to highlight.
Schlafly had no use for feminism until it impacted her in a manner that defeated her own cognitive interference. She isn’t alone in this regard – growing up in Missouri, I have seen many friends and acquaintances start out as steadfast Republicans and end up as true and blue, union-loving Democrats because their personal prosperity begins to inform their political sympathies. We’re all pretty damn selfish if we’re being honest, and this isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, in a representative democracy, this is the way things ought to function. We compare our situations, raise grievances, and have them addressed in the order of importance.
All these explanations still don’t provide me with comfort – I can’t quite square the circle when it comes to feminism-hating women. I understand the motivation of men in opposition, who have something to lose in the fight. In every single expression of female subjugation, you will find a rigorous defense of its practice from women. The hijab is a perfect example of this principle in action. This issue, divisive in the extreme, to the extent that France starting writing laws that legislated beachwear, if you can believe the absurdity, illustrates the conflict plainly. Women should be free to wear whatever they want, and a dedicated citizenry would respond to this sort of religious discrimination by showing up en masse to the beach in hijabs. If you want to punish those who wear the hijab, well, today, we’re all wearing the hijab. This is how it ought to function, and a genuine republic beholden to the concept of secular pluralism wouldn’t attempt to infringe upon the free practice of religion, and a citizenry committed to its defense would rise up against any threat uniformly.
That said, the French have keyed in on an underlining and uncomfortable truth, however oafish and inappropriate their response might be. The hijab is rejection of French values. The hijab is rejection of gender equality. 400 years of French democracy have ingrained a respect and equity for women, and the fight hijab-proponents are picking with the nation invariably and inevitably leads back to the dark ages. It is an overt attempt to percolate a counterculture underneath a tolerant and representative one, biting the hand that feeds it. The society they rebel against was bought and paid for with the blood and sinew of patriots that died to preserve it against fascist campaigns to overthrow it, and it is altogether worth defending. The logic of the women who stab themselves in the back is obnoxious and reprehensible:
Hitchens was quite right to cast shame on a woman who espouses the veil, with her head uncovered, from the safety of London, while her sisters in Riyadh and Tehran have the hijab forced upon them. Many are surprised to discover (lest I am accused of being Islamophobic) that coverings for women are common across the globe. Orthodox Jewish women cover their heads, and even proto-Korean culture had hanbok dresses that were quite similar to the hijab, without the influences of any Abrahamic religion:
“It is easy to forget when you’re in Seoul and see schoolgirls wearing thigh-high tartan skirts that just a century ago respectable Korean women wore full-body coverings that would rival anything required by the Taliban…Isabella Bird Bishop wrote of seeing women in a village north of Pyongyang in 1897 wearing burqa-like contraptions that she described as ‘monstrous hats like our wicker garden sentry-boxes, but without bottoms. These extraordinary coverings are 7 feet long, 5 broad and 3 deep, and shroud the figure from head to toe.’ Women of the upper and middle classes were not permitted to leave the family compound except for specially designated times when the streets were cleared of men.” [Barbara Demick]
Men controlling the bodies, actions, and appearances of women is a universal feature of misogyny, regardless of religion or geography. For this reason, I find the defense or acceptance of these types of restrictive dress completely incompatible with gender equality, and you should too.
On sexist men
The primary problem, to be blunt, is not sexist women. The primary problem is us, men. We abuse the women in our lives, we put them in hospitals with our violence, we sexually assault them in brutal and cowardly fashions, and we smirk with incredulity when these facts are said plainly. Evil men are the cause of many of our problems as a species, and as man who is learning how to be a better man to all of the women in his life, I can only apologize for my gender and hang my head in shame. It shouldn’t be this way, and shame on us for making it this way.
After the tapes of President-Elect Trump boasting of sexually assaulting a woman surfaced, he issued a stilted half-apology and dismissed the chatter as ‘locker room talk’. Mrs. Obama would later call this remark ‘an insult to decent men everywhere’, and she is perfectly correct. Twenty years of my life have been spent in locker rooms, and our manly discussions, it may surprise you, do not often veer into this level of depravity. There is cursing, profanity, insults, and bullshitting, but generally it is good-natured and rarely devolves into anything resembling what Mr.Trump said.
Of course, there were times when it did. I remember sitting in a stunned silence as a backup goaltender described to me how he would use ‘a free ride home’ as a way of coercing sexual favors out of women. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face as he spoke, and I wish I would have had something good to say in response. I regret staying quiet to this day, even if he was lying. Complicity and silence are the best friends of evil men everywhere.
The principle of a ‘ratio’ applies here – most men are not violent towards women, most men do not treat women poorly, and most men do not actively try to oppose the progress of the women in their lives. ‘Most’ is the operative word, not all. Academic research into sexting provides the clearest example of this ratio in action. Most people in my generation or younger are quite familiar and comfortable with sexting, it’s a normal aspect of modern dating, and virtually everyone on the planet has sent and received those kinds of messages. Nearly all of us would act responsibly with that sensitive data, and wouldn’t dream of using it for any other reason than the message was intended by the sender – but this study found that anywhere from 25-30% of people had admitted they had sent an explicit message from their partner to a third party. This is an illustration – in a smaller and limited scale – of the percentage of men that I believe would mistreat a woman, or could be sensitive to sexist ideologies. ‘Most’ of us are fine, but a lot of us are not. The conflict for gender equality will not quietly disappear over the next century – as we draw nearer to a victory, the battles will length in time and escalate in viciousness. The emergence, in the era of the digitally connected millennial who can fact check anything in milliseconds – of a brain-dead, neo-fascist movement that despises women is an alarming development, and stunning evidence of how far we have yet to go.
How should the 75% of us act, then? I think the best answer comes from a poignant article from Patrick Stewart about his own experience with hatred towards women:
“I witnessed terrible things, which I knew were wrong, but there was nowhere to go for help. Worse, there were those who condoned the abuse. I heard police or ambulancemen, standing in our house, say, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.” They had no idea. The truth is my mother did nothing to deserve the violence she endured. She did not provoke my father, and even if she had, violence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict. Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it. No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting – and lasting. No one came, but everyone knew. Our small houses were close together. Every Monday morning I walked to school with my head down, praying that I would not encounter a neighbour or school friend who had heard the weekend’s rows. I felt ashamed.” [Patrick Stewart]
I believe the answer is made abundantly clear by Mr.Stewart here – do not be silent, do not be complicit, do not be afraid to intrude, because the 25% are depending on your non-interference. You must speak up, and you must intercede when you can, however you can.
I think, men, we should also face up to the stamp of our lowly origin. We evolved as aggressive beings who take things with force. Over the course of millions of years of development, we have been rewarded for this type of behavior, and now that we have emerged from the swamp, it is high time we left those predispositions behind. We are not yet accustomed to seeing women as peers in the fullest sense of the word. Whether it is on account of our religion, or our culture, or the laws of our homeland, we have not completely accepted their right to equality in our own minds, and we can feel the indignation rising in our chests when we feel challenged or maligned by a woman.
I can only speak for my own kind (‘male, middle class and white’ as Ben Folds Five so accurately put it), but you would be hard-pressed to find a white man who would openly admit to being sexist or racist. Even when confronted of evidence of them actually being sexist or racist, they duck and dodge. President Elect Trump made it clear that his pussy-grabbing proclivities ‘didn’t represent him’ and I suppose the words that I say don’t represent me either if I get to live in his fairy-tale land too.
The problem, as I see it, is that the words ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ are too toxic, and are avoided out of pride and self-preservation. I don’t see the shame in admitting that I have been sexist before, and I have been racist before, and that I am working on not being this way in the future. Some of my own predispositions are volitional – I make choices that are sexist or racist – and others are ingrained and instinctual, created by my own upbringing and exist in an unconscious manner. I discovered some of my own pre-existing prejudices hiding in my own language when I started to edit my novel.
I described a character that had a Spanish inflection to his speech, but changed it suddenly during the course of a conversion with a native English speaking American. ‘He returned to a normal accent’ – I wrote – and I thought nothing of it until I started to proofread. Normal? In my personal history, within my own life, sure, ‘normal’ to me was white men and women speaking without an accent or inflection. To anyone else of a different nationality or ethnic background, it would not have been normal, and you can begin to see how these types of beliefs can exist underneath someone’s honest ability to detect them.
Was my error in the same universe as joining the Klu Klux Klan or harassing a woman in the workplace? Of course not, but those bigger actions have smaller origins, and they start out as uncontested thought. Was I solely responsible for the conditions that caused me to write something insensitive? Well, no, not entirely. I didn’t choose to grow up in Foristell, Missouri, and I didn’t choose to grow up in a religious family that believed men were ‘the head of the household’, but these are merely influences that an intellectually mature adult can easily learn to outgrow.
I lose patience with my fellow white men who are so eager to explain to women and minorities about what constitutes discrimination and what doesn’t – as if they would know, as if they could understand, as if they didn’t carry about with them the same tremendous privilege that rests in my pocket each and every day of my own life. They might be able to fool you, but they can’t fool me. I know how good I have it, and I know how wrong it all really is.
I lived in Florissant with my wife for five years. It’s about a ten or fifteen minute drive away from Ferguson, and it gave me a unique bit of perspective about my own privilege. Two years ago, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer during altercation that originated because Mr. Brown was walking in the street. That aspect of the incident is unchallenged – he was jaywalking, and the officer wanted him to move.
I rented an apartment that was just a few blocks away from my employer. When it was warm, I would walk to work in about five or six minutes, depending on the traffic. On average, I would probably jaywalk at least twice a day across an incredibly busy artery of traffic. Often times, I’d jaywalk in front of an actual police cruiser, since the Florissant PD station was just an intersection away. Ask me how many times a police officer has bothered to tell me to get out of the street. Ask me how many times a police officer has grabbed me from a moving vehicle while I was walking. Zero, and zero, if you must know, and if that isn’t a privilege, tell me what is? Michael Brown, unquestionably, was not afforded the same slack I received on a daily basis, without exaggeration, for five whole years.
It must be said plainly – I benefit from being a white man on a daily basis. I have never feared for my life during a traffic stop. I have never been told to ‘smile more’ while at work. I have never been sexually harassed while I was trying to do my job. I take perks like these for granted, and to pretend that much of the rest of the world does not have it this easy would be heartless and ignorant.
I’m opening the comments section for this article, and I’ll tell you why:
I don’t know how to use this privilege to advance equality for everyone. Genuinely, I don’t. It isn’t my struggle, I don’t know what it feels like, and I won’t callously pretend to understand your perspective, but I do know where to start – I’m willing to listen. I’m willing to put my empathy above my own fears and insecurities. I’m willing to be humble, and I’m willing let you lead, and I know you’re all tired of being told how you ought to speak, how you ought to act, and how you ought to live, and it’s time white men started to listen in earnest.