Recently I was having a conversation with an acquaintance and colleague (the kind of acquaintance and colleague that I sure hope will soon become and honest to goodness friend) about television. It was the middle of the day and I was suddenly sleepy and this person was asking a lot of “have you watched x?” type questions. I got to talk about how stubborn I can be. It was really fun! And then I brought up Sady Doyle.
Actually, I didn’t say “oh yeah that’s true because Sady Doyle blah blah blah blah blah,” what I said was “But I only finally started watching 30Rock after this feminist writer that I really like wrote about it quite a lot. Eventually, I wanted to know what she was talking about.”
My chatting companion visibly froze. He (this was a male acquaintance, though I get similar responses from women when an f-bomb drops) looked nervous and said “now, when you say feminist, do you mean pro-equality, or pro-women?”
Bam. He was just asking a simple and honest question, which actually led to a very productive and positive conversation. However, wrapped up in that question were all of the reasons I didn’t call myself a feminist when I was fifteen, all of the reasons my mother doesn’t call herself a feminist now because “I’m for equality for everyone, not just women.” The raised eyebrows I was met with when I actually did start calling myself a feminist, the way I still get a little nervous dropping an f-bomn in public sometimes, and the reasons it is so effing important to keep doing it, they were all there in that simple little sentence.
When I was fifteen, I was pretty sure I knew what a feminist was, even if I didn’t know what feminism was. A feminist was an angry lady. She was power hungry. She probably wore horrible shoulder pads and lipstick that clashed with her complexion and made you really wish she hadn’t decided to dabble in makeup. She both hated being a woman and wanted to make everyone else a woman. She might actually spell the word “women” as “womyn” because she both didn’t understand the etymology of the word and she hated men so much that a totally inappropriate “y” was preferable to ever having to write the three letters M-E-N unless it was part of the statement “men suck.” She was decidedly un-fun.
When, in my junior year history class, our teacher showed us a video which discussed whether feminism had gone too far (this was presented to us as him teaching us to look at both sides of a nuanced argument, although looking back on it the whole thing was incredibly biased and prefaced with a talk that basically went “some people (feminists!) want to say there is no difference between men and women, but that is just obviously not true!”) I kind of sided with him. Maybe these ladies were taking it too far.
All that is to say, I understand how one could develop a distrust of feminists and feminism in our culture, because I grew up in this culture and I used to feel that way. Fortunately for me, I started reading books. And while my mother never called herself a feminist, she did teach me both to think for myself and that I could do anything I wanted to do, even if it was a “boy thing”. Experiences such as teachers (both male and female) who obviously favored male students helped me to realize that gender equality was still an issue, it was not something that we had achieved in the 70s (as I had assumed). It followed that we needed a movement to push it along. And hey! Presto! There already was one, it was called feminism!
All of this got me thinking of my favorite ‘Hark, a vagrant’ comic of all time. If you click no other link in this post, seriously, click that one. Here it is again. This is really the inspiration for this whole thing.
So if feminism isn’t about hating men, what is feminism about? One thing I’m proud of is that, in the conversation mentioned at the beginning, when I was asked if I meant “pro-equality or pro-women”, I didn’t blow up. I didn’t say “GOD WHY ARE PEOPLE ALWAYS ASSUMING THE WORST OF FEMINISTS YOU ARE ALL SUCH JERKS!” Instead I got myself a glass of water, and attempted to calmly and reasonably define that scary f-word. It isn’t always easy to do that. I’m not going to link to any of the definitions of feminism here, I’m just going to dive right in.
In my mind (and I need to mention that I can’t speak for everyone who identifies as a feminist here) feminism is a) the recognition that we live in a patriarchal society and b) opposition to that patriarchy. That’s pretty simple and straightforward, so in case this isn’t long and rambling enough, let’s just take a minute and unpack that.
Patriarchy is a system where power is concentrated in the hands of men, in a variety of both obvious and less than obvious ways. It almost always comes with a side dish of racism and heteronormitivity, so that in a patriarchal society power is concentrated in the hands of men who are perceived to be masculine and “straight” (according to the specific rules of their culture) and are part of the dominant racial or ethnic group. Patriarchy has been around for a long time, and while it has been chipped away at (by people such as feminists!) we still live in a patriarchal society. If you read this and you’re all like “nah, no way man!” you need to take a good look at people in power. Whether it’s Congress or CEOs of major companies, what you are going to see is this: predominantly white, predominantly male. The male-female population ratio (oh and we’re going to talk about how that dichotomy is fake and messed up soon, don’t worry kiddos! but please roll with me for a second, this is the measurement we have) is roughly 50-50. Now let’s look at the U.S. Congress…
While the partisan composition of the Congress is fairly close to that of the electorate, there are larger disparities between the Congress and the general citizenry in term of sex and race. In the House, there are currently 362 men and 76 women. In the Senate, there are 17 women and 83 men. (source)
The second part of feminism is opposing that patriarchy. Patriarchy hurts everyone. I was going to preface that with “I believe that…” or “It is my opinion that…” But no. Patriarchy hurts everyone. Full stop. Patriarchy forces men and women into roles that are not always healthy for them, and fully denies the existence and relevancy of anyone who does not fit into one of those roles. The ideas of patriarchy seep into every aspect of life in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy teaches boys to be aggressive and ambitious and girls to be nice and accommodating, and then blames women when they don’t achieve leadership positions.
It’s as if we give a lady a whisk, and a man proper building tools, and then measure success by house building! When someone points out that it is unfortunate that the lady wasn’t able to build a house, someone else is there to say “we can’t be held responsible if women don’t want to build houses!” or worse “maybe this just proves that women naturally don’t build houses! It’s in their nature to make meringue!” Meanwhile, the lady is holding a goddamn whisk! You can’t even hammer a nail with a whisk! As a feminist, I oppose both the inequality of the whisk-giving arrangement, and the subsequent victim blaming when the whisk wielder isn’t able to build a livable structure with it. Do you want to know why there aren’t more women in leadership positions? It’s because first we teach girls to be “nice” in a world that values competitiveness, and then we chastise them for not competing, and then we take their niceness as evidence that they weren’t cut out for competition in the first place. There is no winning.
Sorry, I get kind of worked up sometimes. Whew.
So back to my conversation. It was great. I explained my position as a feminist, and he listened. I felt like we came to a mutual understanding. There is still sexism. There is still a glass ceiling and a wage gap. These are for real problems. I oppose that. My friend (let’s just call him my friend, I can tell we are gonna be buds) is totally cool with all that. Then he says:
“Oh that’s cool. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t one of those extreme feminists!”
I’m going to post that Hark, a vagrant link again here, because it is totally relevant.
I got to thinking about this days after that conversation. Here is the thing. People hate Sady Doyle. They hate her because she is a feminist. I’m not going to post any of the nasty things that are written about her on the internet here, because I don’t want to give those creeps the traffic. But she is basically what people are talking about when they talk about “extreme” feminists. She’s a killjoy because she talks about sexism in the media, she talks about how pervasive and dangerous patriarchy can be, she talks about rape and how patriarchy supports rape culture. “Oh come on!” they say.
And I’m kind of like that too! When I mention how as I think referring to men as “men” and women as “females” is disrespectful and derogatory, people say “oh come on!” People tell me to lighten up. People tell me I’m being “oversensitive.” I’m probably among the most “extreme” feminists you know, and yet all I’m doing is calling it like I see it. I recognize the patriarchy, I oppose the patriarchy, and I have the audacity to talk about.
I have a lot of feminist friends and I have read a lot of feminist writing, both in blogs and in print. The thing is, that man-hating woman with the shoulder pads, I haven’t found her yet. Sure, people wore a lot of bad shoulder pads in the 80s, and yes some people feel the need to put a “y” in the word “women”, but I think that comic I’ve posted approximately 85 times might be right. Those evil man-hating harpies just do not exist. Or if they do, they certainly aren’t a major part of the feminist movement. I have some complaints about mainstream feminism, but not the ones that anti-feminists have. In blog posts and on other platforms I repeatedly see people willfully misunderstanding feminist aims though, and trying to make us into those man-hating harpies. It goes down like this:
feminist: women should get more respect in the workforce!
anti-feminist: you’re saying all women should have careers and no women should want to stay home with their children! you’re saying men shouldn’t be respected! you want to castrate all men forever!
feminist: women still make less money than men for doing the same job! I think it’s bad!
anti-feminist: omg I can’t BELIEVE you just said that women should make more than men! that’s crazy talk! you don’t want equality, you want superiority!
But you know what the great thing is? I can have conversation with totally awesome people, and I can tell them that I am a feminist, and then I can show them that I am not crazy, I don’t wear shoulder pads, and I don’t hate men. There. Now they know at least one real-life, honest-to-goodness, feminist, who doesn’t fit the stereotype we’ve all been sold. That’s sort of wonderful. And that’s it, right there. That’s why it’s so important to use the f word. I use the f word:
-because I want to help define it
-because it helps feminism to be more visible
-because it still makes me nervous to use it
-because so many people who believe in equality don’t, for fear of being perceived negatively.