My mother is a feminist.
Has been pretty much since she was introduced to the idea. When I was, oh, maybe a year or two old, my mom met up with an old friend from college. Old friend asked what she was up to. Mom, smiling, explained that she was married and had a little girl, and was staying home to take care of me.
Old friend, with an expression more appropriate to news of the sudden death of a loved one, replied, “Oh, and we had such high hopes for you!”
My mother almost punched her in the face.
My mother’s friend, as far as I can tell, subscribed to the idea that women needed to be brought equal to men, especially in the workforce, as soon as possible, and therefore it was important for every woman to get out there and make her presence known and be a strong voice and take on a man’s world. The fact that my mother had abandoned that for a “traditional” feminine role seemed, to her, like a defeat.
To my mom, however, feminism really was “the radical concept that women are people,” and that women should be allowed to decide for themselves what they wanted out of life, without fear or pressure (or at least no more than men in similar situations face). She had a degree. She was married to a wonderful man, who would (and in later years, did) support her wholeheartedly and enthusiastically if she’d wanted to enter the workforce, or stay in academia, or go into politics or start a non-profit or do missionary work in Africa or whatever. She thought about her options. She considered them carefully. And she decided that what she really wanted to do, right then, was to be the primary caregiver for her children – and, happily, we were financially in a position where she could do just that. And now someone she thought understood the importance of free choice and self-determination was giving her shit about it. It felt like betrayal. Once again, someone was trying to dictate to her how she should live her life – only this time it wasn’t coming from the patriarchy, it was coming from her own people.
When I was pregnant, Spouse-Man had an odd and rather morbid conversation with his mother and grandmother. One of them – I don’t know who – raised the terrible and painful question: what if the labor went wrong? What if (gods forbid) the awful choice had to be made: save me, or save the baby?
My mother-in-law was adamant: this was something we both needed to discuss, ahead of time, and decide together about. It was my life, after all – the main voice in the decision should be mine. My grandmother-in-law was equally adamant: under no circumstances was any option other than “save the woman” acceptable. I should NOT be consulted, as it would only upset me, and hormones could cause irrationality in any case. If it came up, he should choose to save me, and I would appreciate it later.
Both of these ladies identified as feminist.
In his grandmother’s generation, feminists were fighting for basic rights – the kind we take for granted now. In her day, it wasn’t even a choice. Doctors would save the baby and let the woman die, every time. That was one of their battleground issues, in fact – the right to choose not to die in childbirth. To her, sacrificing the woman for the child was unthinkable.
In his mother’s generation, the fight was for women’s voices to be heard. No one was routinely letting women die anymore, but they were certainly talking over them and making choices for them. The right to determine your own fate, to have your opinion matter as much as a man’s (or more, if the issue was your own body and health), was a battleground issue. To her, treating a woman as a doll to be protected, rather than a fully-functioning being with the right to choose to sacrifice herself or not, was unthinkable.
I am a feminist.
Possibly not a very good one, but I am one.
I bring up these two stories to illustrate the point that feminism is not a monolithic movement, and “feminist” is not a one-size-fits-all term.
NicoleandMaggie have caught some flack for their post describing the various schools of feminism, but I like it. It helps clarify a great deal – such as why I can call myself feminist, yet run into other self-described feminists who are, to my mind, just awful.
For the most part, I consider myself a blend of liberal feminism and post-modern feminism. I do think the ultimate goal is for men and women to be treated equally; I also understand that society is structured in such a way as to make that very, very difficult, and that patriarchy is kinda insidious. I have a touch of cultural feminism – that is, while I don’t think the traits and roles traditionally described as “feminine” are exclusive to women, nor that all women hold them, I do think that “feminine” traits and behaviors are as important to society as “masculine” ones, and I long for the day when raising children to adulthood is considered as valuable and respectable as being CEO of a corporation, and when favoring diplomacy, empathy, and gentleness is not considered “weaker” than being aggressive, straightforward, and bold. I don’t know enough about “marxist feminism” to have an opinion.
And then there’s radical feminism.
Which I do not get. I don’t. I don’t know about the theoretical stated goals of radical feminism, but the actions/words of many radical feminists seem to be more focused on “getting back” at men rather than fixing the damn problem.
“Who cares what men feel about this?” Um. Me. Not because I think men are more important or that their voices should dominate, but many of these men are my friends, so yeah, I kinda care about them. Also, they are human beings, and I do try not to hurt other human beings if I can reasonably avoid it. Also-also engaging in the same behaviors we’re fighting against is kinda not cool.
This all came up because of a series of posts I read about whether men can/should identify as feminists. One camp says no. Loudly and often. Another camp says sure, why not. Yet another says definitively, yes, please do – more wishy-washy terms like “pro-feminist” and “feminist ally” only serve to enhance the idea that what you can do and who you can be is determined by your gender, which is, uh… something we’re against. Remember?
I found it kinda fascinating. Yes, yes, a true feminist shouldn’t be spending so much time thinking about men and what men think and feel. But I’m sorry, I can’t help which issues make my curiosity go ping, and this one did. Because I’m a word geek. Words matter, dammit. Definitions matter.
Some of the issues I saw raised:
* Men haven’t had the same experiences women have
That’s true. Men do not have to deal with the constant, low-level sexism that women are taught to accept as normal from society. Men were never raised to constantly doubt and second-guess themselves the way women are, nor to hold themselves and their own bodies up to physically impossible ideals. Men are not socialized to police their thoughts and words and to silence their own voices to make way for others. Men do not have to automatically run every new acquaintance through the filter of “is this person likely to rape me?”
I freely grant all of this.
However. Not all women’s experiences are the same either. I do not know what it is like to be a victim of a violent or forcible rape, or to be considered a sex object or called slutty because of my clothes. Those are things that have never happened to me. However, I am capable of listening and learning, and so I know that these things do happen, and I can and do stand up for women who have experienced such things and fight for a world where it doesn’t happen and isn’t accepted. If we were to judge feminism credentials on what types of oppression one has personally suffered, I’m afraid I would fall sadly short. And yet I can claim the title of feminist and not be challenged.
Furthermore, men do also suffer when patriarchy has free rein. A man who is deemed insufficiently manly – who is androgynous in appearance, perhaps, or who prefers “feminine” pursuits or values – is very likely to be the subject of harassment or even violence from other men. No, it’s not the same as the sexism experienced by women, but it still means that they have a dog in the fight. As long as the patriarchy is in place, men have their own defined gender roles that they break away from at their own risk. Yes, those roles come with privilege, but as others have pointed out, a gilded cage is still a cage. Any man who has an interest in defining himself by his own terms rather than those the patriarchy prescribes for him has a personal investment in the goals of feminism.
I would also like to point out that empathy and imagination do count for something, as does care for loved ones. I don’t have to be LGBTQ, for instance, to care about my friends who fall into that category. When I hear of someone being hurt for who they are, I immediately think “what if that were (person X)??” When I read about racially-motivated crimes, such as the Trayvon Martin case, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think “what if that were my child?” It’s not the same as living it yourself, but it’s not nothing. Given that most of the men I hang around with put themselves into the shoes of a werewolf or a half-human faerie refugee or a 19th-century scientist or an illiterate barbarian warrior on a regular basis (and actually put some real thought into it), I give them credit for the ability to step into my shoes and come away with, if not a perfect understanding, than at least enough to allow them to move forward towards my goals.
* Men shouldn’t expect cookies just for being decent human beings
However. There is a world of difference between giving someone cookies and refraining from giving them a steaming pile of shit.
Man says: “I am a feminist.”
“Oh my god, you’re a man who’s a feminist??!? That’s so incredibly brave of you! Please, come to our next event and talk to us about how hard it was for you to make this step!” = cookies.
“*shrug* Cool. So, what did you think about [feminist issue du jour]?” = neutral
“Oh wow, thanks for being our White Knight. Did you want to mansplain to us how we’re doing it wrong while you’re at it? Look, you’re not a feminist, you’ll never be a feminist, stop trying to claim a title you have no right to.” = steaming pile of shit.
Do you see the difference?
Look, to me, a man who claims to be a feminist is trying, hard, to align himself with me, my causes, my interests, and my voice. I appreciate that. If he’s doing it wrong, believe me, I will tell him so, but honestly I appreciate the support. You don’t get a special place for it, and it doesn’t net you a pass if you do something horribly wrong, but I don’t believe it’s politically or ethically sound to kick someone in the shins for the sin of publicly declaring they support you and your cause.
* By calling yourself feminist even though women have told you not to, you’re demonstrating your lack of concern for female voices and opinions
Ok. Look. I am female. I am a feminist. And I am saying, out loud and on purpose and for posterity, that not only am I ok with men identifying as feminist, I actively prefer it.
Look, feminism has a bad rap these days. And I think that’s bullshit. I want people to identify as feminists. I want people to own it. When someone starts talking shit about feminism, referring to “feminazis” and similar bullshit and presenting strawman arguments, I want everyone present, male or female or genderqueer, to go “Uh, yo, I’m totally a feminist. When you say that shit you’re talking about me.” That would make me feel all warm and squishy inside.
Further, as hinted at before, I think barring men from the feminist title just smacks of gender prescription – “you cannot be this thing because of how you were born.” And since that’s pretty much what feminism is against, I feel engaging in it – or using language that supports that mindset – is pretty damn hypocritical.
And doesn’t my opinion count too? Why should exclusive voices matter more than inclusive ones? Should your desire to exclude men trump my equally strong desire to include them? Am I not equally a woman, equally a feminist?
* Men can ally themselves with the cause, but they shouldn’t take on an oppressed identity that isn’t theirs
…they’re not identifying as female, they’re identifying as feminist. One is a state of being. The other is an ideology/movement. Words=important. There are no gender prerequisites to join an ideology or a movement. Moving on.
* It is impossible for women to oppress men, as men have all the privilege
Oh, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
Yes, men as a whole have more privilege than women. But nothing exists in a vacuum, and there are no absolutes. In some settings, in some spaces, some women will have more power and more privilege than some men. Even if, outside that space, the man belongs to the privileged group – then and there, it is possible for a woman to have the power and privilege. And if she chooses to use that power and privilege to exclude and silence a man, simply because of his gender, then yeah – she’s engaging in the same oppression and abuse of power that the patriarchy is.
Yes, men do it all the time. That doesn’t make it right. Yes, being excluded for no reason other than his gender gives the man in question a tiny taste of what it feels like to be a woman. That doesn’t make it right.
Does this mean I’m expecting women to hold themselves to a higher standard than men hold themselves to? Well, yes. Because ethics and morals are not an us-vs-them game. Just coming out ahead of the other team doesn’t mean we’re winning. We have to be willing to play by our own rules – to practice inclusion and listening and all those other good fuzzy virtues, to treat people on their own merits regardless of their gender. Otherwise we all lose, even if we “win.” I can’t make the other team behave, but I can certainly tell my own team to do so.
We create the world we want to live in by acting as if it’s already here.
* There are far too many men who call themselves feminist, then go on to mansplain feminism to women, white-knight for us, and otherwise try to make their voices, not ours, the primary voices for the movement
You are so right. This happens, often. And it is awful. Those men should be called out, and if necessary, appropriately demonized.
But not all men do this.
Again, this is a case of (some) feminists doing the same thing we call men out for – in this case, judging the group on the actions of a few. We admonish men from judging all women based on (for instance) the actions of that one terrible ex-girlfriend, right? So why judge all male feminists because some who claim that title turn out to be glory-hogging asshats?
I have a few friends (one of whom, I feel certain, is reading this) who are both a) male, and b) feminist. These guys would never try to pre-empt female voices or put themselves forward as experts on the topic, but they claim the title and claim it proudly, and I’m glad they do. I wish more men did. I wish more women did.
And… I’m tired of the in-fighting. I’m tired of the politics. I’m tired of people acting like “feminist” is some rarified title that you have to work hard to earn, instead of what it is – an acknowledgement that you pass the bare minimum test to qualify as a human being. Because I’ll be honest, if you don’t consider yourself – at least in the privacy of your own mind – a feminist, then I lose some respect for you. I want you to want men and women to be equal. I want you to recognize that we’re not there yet. And I want you to be willing to make some effort – whether it’s something as big as starting your own charity, or something as small as speaking up the next time your guy friend makes a sexist comment – to rectify that situation. I want to be able to assume that any halfway decent person I encounter is likely to consider themselves a feminist. The fact that we’re not there yet means that there is a problem, and it’s not a problem we’re going to fix by attacking those people who are willing to don that mantle.
And I know there are feminists who disagree. I disagree with them. And I’m not willing to shut up and let them define the movement. My version of feminism, my understanding of its ideals, are every bit as valid as theirs, goddammit, and I will not let my identity be co-opted by those who want to use it to exclude anyone. My feminism judges based on your words and actions, not on your gender, and I’m willing to fight to make that the version that most people know.