Friday, September 21, 2012

Owning up to our own feminism

This started as a comment on a friend's blog.  The friend was writing about something private, moderately heavy, and directly related to her identity as a woman.  She felt compelled to add, at the end, that
"I mean, you guys know that I'm not like an extreme feminist or anything, and right now I don't even feel anger toward the male race in general..."
I'm not writing this to call her out.  This isn't about her, which is why I'm staying away from not only her identity but the topic of her post (which is not mine to share).  This is about that attitude.  The need women feel to make that kind of apology.  Because that's not the first time I've heard a woman add that kind of caveat.  Or the second.  Or even the 100th.  I've heard it so many times that it almost seems normal.

Except it shouldn't be normal for women to say things like that.

I am acquainted with a lot of women who self-identify as feminists.  I have fairly regularly attended social gatherings at which everyone present self-identifies as a feminist.  Not in any official capacity, but because most of my close personal friends are feminists, as are most of their social circles.  (Which isn't to say I don't also have some friends who are uncomfortable with feminism at one level or another, because I certainly do.  But they're a minority.)  The point is, I've heard a lot of feminists speak unguardedly, in private.  If the majority--or even a sizable minority--of feminists actually hated men, or anything like that, I'd be in a pretty good position to know.

But those people aren't there.  There just aren't.  Sure, there are a few small pockets of extreme feminists who maybe do actually believe in anti-men rhetoric, et cetera.  If you find a population big enough--the US certainly counts--you can find small groups of people who believe pretty much anything.  But the vast majority of feminists are incredibly uncomfortable with such views, and would not support them.  The whole "man-hating feminazi" meme is mostly a myth--a bogeyman.

The whole point of pretending that feminists hate men and want to oppress them is to delegitimize feminists, and to keep people (both men and women) from listening to their actual arguments.  To keep us from acknowledging to ourselves that this is real, that the disempowerment of women is systemic, that it is often institutional, that it is deeply ingrained in our cultures.  To keep women from listening long enough to realize that they're not alone, and to keep men from recognizing that the status quo may not actually be good for everyone.  Because if we're afraid of being called "man-haters" or "feminazis" and being branded as shrill and sexually undesirable because we dare to speak out, to talk with each other long enough to realize that our experiences are not unusual or individual but part of a pattern that is broad, deep, and millenia old...

I don't want to subdue or subjugate men in any way.  I just want a world on equal footing.  A place where I'm not heaped with extra expectations about how my body should look, or what I should wear, or how much effort I should make with my hair, make up, and jewelry.  A world where I exist as a whole person, not primarily as a sexual object, or if I succeed in escaping that then as a completely asexual object (which tends to happen in academic and professional settings).  That's better, but it's still not equal.  Not when the men I see around me get to keep both their professional and sexual identities at once--a privilege that, like all privilege, is often invisible to those who carry it.  The license to let my passion show without worrying that I need to dampen it in order to be taken seriously, because heaven forfend a woman demonstrating feelings!  The right to walk through public places and ride on public transportation without worrying about having my ass groped.  I'd like to live in a world where I know that I'm kind to the people around me because I choose it for its own moral worth, without the cynical awareness that as a woman I must be nice in professional settings, whether or not I wish to be so for its own sake.

That's what most feminists want.  Nothing I've written there is new.  This is not earth-shattering.  It is not rocket science.  It's an elusive ideal of equality--one dimension of it, at least.  Nothing more, and nothing less.

Funny thing is, that's what most other women want, too.  Even the ones who shrink away from the feminist label.  Because we've told ourselves--we've allowed ourselves to be convinced--that wanting that is not at the heart of feminism.  That feminism is all about grabbing power for women and taking it away from men.

Which is what it looks like, if you take a hierarchical view of the world in which one gender must have more power than the other.  That's also what it looks like if you don't recognize your own privilege.  Because asking for equality means asking men to give up societally-granted privileges over women.  And when you don't recognize your own rights as privileges, it's easy to misinterpret the removal of that privilege as loss of power.  In a zero-sum sense, loss of privilege is a loss of power--and maybe we should be more open about acknowledging that.  But I'm an economist, and a woman of faith, and both of those disparate trainings have taught me that the world is not zero-sum.

There's a popular saying in the marriage equality movement, formulated in various ways.  The gist of it is this: you're not being discriminated against when others gain access to rights that you've always had.  It's a strong statement, with a lot of truth to it.  It works so well in the marriage equality movement--and that movement itself has been so successful--partly because marriage (and its legal benefits) are so tangible.

The flip side of that is what's so hard about feminism: at this point, most of it is not tangible.  The inequities and the goals are so closely tied to cultural and societal expectations that are often subjective, and difficult to quantify.  We can point to some of the results of inequality: higher rates of rape and sexual harassment among women (though men and especially boys are not exempt), the dearth of women at the very highest professional ranks, the inordinate pressure on women to choose between work and family (and the uneven distribution of household work and child-rearing duties in households headed by male-female couples)... But it's hard to get perfectly accurate data for much of that, and those issues leave out both the root cause and many of the smaller issues.

I don't want to oversimplify any of this.  There are lots of kinds of privilege out there in the world: privileges of race, of class, of education, of material wealth.  And there is huge variation in awareness of privilege.  In the case of feminism, it is not all men who seek to maintain the old hierarchies of privilege.  Nor is it only men who seek to do so.  The sexism of other women is just as toxic as the sexism of men.  The worst sexism is that which we perpetuate on ourselves--and I am by no means exempt from that.

Painting the vast majority of feminists as far more radical than we actually are does us all a great disservice.  It's a way of serving and maintaining privilege, often expressed by people who have no desire to maintain male privilege, but are too scared--or more often, too exhausted by it all--to see the totality of the picture.

We have to deny that narrative.  It's an uphill battle.  Both to protect the rights we have won, and to make a more equal world.  It is hard work.  It is exhausting, fatiguing, draining work.  But it needs doing.

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