Tag Archives: feminism

Poly Marriage: Narrow Views

Are you all sick of talking about marriage yet? Yes? Well, too bad. The fact is that we have a lot more to talk about, and it’s gonna keep getting complicated. Also, between all the gay marriage hoopla and my own impending nuptials, it’s of particular interest right now.

 

If you remember, when I wrote my piece on gay marriage, I talked a bit about how poly marriage is still illegal and we can’t call it “marriage equality” since we aren’t really talking about equality. Here, I’ll quote myself.

One thing that the gang on Sister Wives do though, that most folks pushing for gay marriage try their best not to do, is compare their situation to the gay marriage struggle. The comparison is easy to make. Gay people do not have the right to marry legally in most of this country. Polygamists also do not have the right to marry legally, however they have the added bonus of being able to be prosecuted for living as if they were married! Wowza! If three adult people decide to enter into a marriage-like agreement, even if they do not seek any legal spousal benefits for the third spouse, they can be prosecuted for that. Think about that for a second, when I did, it was probably the first time that I felt privileged as a queer person. I mean, my fiancee and I may never be able to share insurance, but no one is going to take me to jail for calling her my wife.

(It bares mentioning that that was not always the case, and historically many gay people were in fact locked up for the crime of having “indecent” relationships.)

And yet, when conservatives bring up polygamy in that “if we allow gays to get married, what’s next?” sort of way, the vocal majority of those pushing for gay marriage have one clearly resounding answer: We are nothing like them. They are icky. We absolutely oppose polygamy. We promise if you just let us nice, clean, polite, monogamous, gays get married, you’ll never have to worry about polygamy being legalized.

And this is what we call marriage equality? Does that sound anything like equality?

This week, I saw two different pieces talking about this very issue.

First up is Slate, which published a piece simply called Legalize Polygamy! Here’s a quote:

As a feminist, it’s easy and intuitive to support women who choose education, independence, and careers. It’s not as intuitive to support women who choose values and lifestyles that seem outdated or even sexist, but those women deserve our respect just as much as any others. It’s condescending, not supportive, to minimize them as mere “victims” without considering the possibility that some of them have simply made a different choice.

Jillian Keenan does not discuss polyamory at all (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t really either) she is exclusively talking about polygamy. More than that, she’s talking about a specific kind of polygamy, polygyny, marriages where one man is married to multiple women simultaneously. She doesn’t touch on polyandry (one woman married to multiple men simultaneously), the possibility of queer polygamist unions, or the idea that 3 or more people might want to all be married to each other. Put simply, the issue is complicated, and she is looking at only one facet of it. I know some polyamorous people were quite upset by this – they felt like they’d been passed over, and in a way they have been. Keenan talks primarily about Mormon polygamy, and mentions Islamic polygamy briefly.

What Keenan does well in her piece is to respond to some of the prejudices against this kind of marriage. She makes arguments that I have made myself (legalizing polygamy would make it easier to find the child abusers) and responds to some of the arguments that I have found myself responding to. Because if you think that polygamist marriage should be illegal because it is a sexist institution, then, well, you have to make the majority of traditional marriage illegal. You have to make the Duggars’ marriage illegal. It’s definitely worth a quick read.

Of course, I’ve also heard the claim that polygyny is the “ultimate feminist institution” because you know, sister wives means lots of ladies helping each other out. That kind of logic only works if you assume that women need to have children and that only women can do things like homekeeping and childcare. Which, do we even need to talk about how that is a sexist stance?

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And then, coming in on the other end of the spectrum, is this piece on The Stranger, with the delightful title “You May Now Kiss the Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Groom; Why Poly Marriage Is Never Going to Happen

Mistress Matisse takes the exact opposite stance, she’s a polyamorous person, and she completely ignores the reality of polygamous marriage. Doesn’t even mention it, just like Keenan didn’t even mention polyamory. Mistress Matisse’s basic stance is this: poly relationships are far too complicated, and poly people far too unorganized, for a push for poly(amorous) marriage to ever happen. No worries! Gay marriage is as bad as it will get.

What I like about the piece is that she talks about many of the complexities that Keenan washed over. Ok, so you have three partners. Is that three separate marriages (all parties being married to each other individually)? or is it just one big marriage? Or what if one person wants to be married to two people but they don’t necessarily want to be married to each other? How would that work? And who gets to decide? And how will that decision bring more equality anyways? And then there’s this:

But being in love doesn’t have to include a ring or a big white cake. To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?

 

After reading both of these articles, I keep going back to how similar they are. Actually, they are completely different, they ignore opposite things, and they take very different positions. But they both start with a similar assumption: the institution of marriage is basically fine, and basically works well as what it is.

And I disagree. When conservative politicians cry “what’s next? poly marriage?” when we talk about gay marriage what they are really upset about is the idea that marriage, as an ideal, and as a civil institution, will be rethought. They are scared by the idea of people questioning what marriage means, what it’s role should be in society, and whether or not it should be elevated to the super-status it currently holds. They are afraid that we will look at “traditional” American marriage and say “hey wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense! let’s take it apart and make something better!”

 

And that, in my opinion, is exactly what should be happening. Complete with complicated poly marriages, if people want them.

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When We Talk About Gender…

Genderbread-2.0

Pictured above, you will see the Genderbread Person, and its corresponding system for thinking about and discussing gender, posted a few days ago on Everyday Feminism. It was originally posted on it’s pronounced metrosexual and was created by Sam Killermann.

I want to start out by saying, a couple of things. The first thing is that Everyday Feminism is not my favorite website, and my general complaint about many/most of the things I see on their site is that they over-simplify issues, sometimes to the point of getting them wrong all together. I love that they are trying to explain these issues in a way that is accessible to everyone, but sometimes if you go too far in the direction of trying to make it “easy to understand” you lose sight of the actual thing you trying to explain. So maybe the person can understand it easily enough, but the understanding they come to is not actually accurate, because surprise, the truth is not simple. That’s why my blog is called “I have complicated feelings about that…” because the truth is complicated, and feelings are complicated, and humanity is complicated, and compassion even, is complicated.

The second thing is that the first time I saw the Genderbread Person, I was really, really, incredibly, excited about it. I really liked it, and it was probably the first thing on Everyday Feminism that I got really stoked about. Why did I get so excited? Well, it has to do with those double line graphs. See, in the earlier version of the Genderbread Person, everything was explained on a spectrum much like the kinsey scale (as an aside, I was completely obsessed with the kinsey scale when I was 15). The two parallel graphs reminds me of something a vet I hired to perform acupuncture on (one of) my cat(s) said to me (aaaand this is the part where half of you decide I’m nuts and close the window, that’s cool. Her regular vet thought she had asthma, and it was the treatment that a) had proven results and b) didn’t involve forcing steroids into her lungs with an incredibly expensive inhaler. If you still feel all judgey, go ahead and leave). She looked at the symptoms that Blanche was having, and said that, from a Chinese medicine perspective, Blanche either had “too much hot or not enough cold”. And when I cocked my head and said “aren’t those the same thing?” she said very definitively that no, they are not.

The two parallel graph lines for each category allow me to describe, for example, how much I am feminine and how much I am masculine, as two separate things that are not necessarily dependent on each other. And I feel like that’s a really big step in the ways that we talk about gender. Because on the old model, if we see gender presentation as one straight line, to say that I am masculine at all takes me further away from being feminine and closer to being genderless. And that simply isn’t true (for me). My presentation is generally pretty feminine, I read as a girl. But there are also things about me that are masculine. I have a hyper-masculine walk that comes out as soon as I feel threatened, even if I’m wearing a dress. But on the old model, you don’t see that. All you see is a girl that isn’t as girly as some girls, I’m not allowed to be on the masculine side of the graph at all. So I saw this, and I was totally stoked. Here is a visualization that allows me to discuss my gender in a way that is slightly more representative of me! Maybe it’s also more representative for lots of other people! How very very exciting!

Ok, now that all of that’s out of the way.

A conversation in the comments section led me to think about a lot of the limitations of this kind of tool/infographic (both in specific and in general) so get yourself a cup of coffee because we are going to talk about some of that now. I’m going to talk about the criticisms that I heard both on that comment thread and other places, the ones I think are totally legit and the ones I kind of disagree with.

1. Genderbread Person was made by a cisgender person.
That’s totally true! And it is also totally true that trans* and genderqueer people can probably do a much better job of explaining their particular interaction with gender than cis allies can. However, I don’t think that, in itself, makes it irrelevant. You see, one of the biggest pieces of privilege is often not having to talk about a given issue. I’m a cisgender lady, so I can choose not to speak up for trans* people whenever I like. If I hear a horrible joke about “trannies” that joke isn’t about me, and if I want to, I can lower my head and shuffle on.
But being an ally means recognizing that and choosing to do something else. One thing that all of my trans* and genderqueer friends have complained about is the fact that cis people feel that they have the right to just ask trans* and genderqueer people all kinds of questions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their identity, often in wholly inappropriate situations. I see part of my responsibility as any ally as to educate other cis people whenever possible, that way it DOESN’T have to be solely the job of trans* and genderqueer folk to talk about these things. So when I see another cis person talking about how varied gender can be, I don’t think “oh whatever they’re cis it doesn’t count” I think “YES THIS IS WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING LETS GET TO WORK.”

2. Genderbread Person actually glosses over trans* people.
I think this one is both true and not true. I think it’s complicated because when we say trans* it actually means more than one thing. Like many other words it actually encompasses a variety of identities that can be related and are bound together by some common experiences and struggles, but still maintain their distinct differences.
I feel like (from my cis perspective) TRANSGENDER people are represented fairly well using this system. There’s ample opportunity to use these charts to say “even though I am biologically male I am a woman” and I think that is awesome.
What it doesn’t do very well is represent TRANSSEXUAL people (people who have or currently are changing their SEX to better line up with how they feel about themselves). I just spent some time looking for a good explanation of the differences between these two things, and I haven’t found one yet. Feel free to share if you have a good one, and I’ll be sure to post it when I come across one. For now, I think if you have a basic understanding of the difference between sex and gender it should be pretty clear. And the genderbread person simply does not address the reality that people can and do change their sex. Not at all. And that’s a huge oversight and a huge problem. And it’s one I don’t know how to fix.

*EDIT: After discussing this issue (and the others) with Sam over email, I have the following to share: “the GP certainly does accomodate transsexualism, incredibly well, in fact. Taking sex off of a continuum where male and female pull from one another was crucial to this. For example, a person can denote an increase in their male-ness as a result of their transition, which, in some cases, may not decrease their female-ness. I spoke with a lot of transsexual folks in creating this new schema to make sure we could make something that would make sense for them as they consider their gender.
What the graphic does not accomodate, and what you (or whomever brought up this criticism) might be misattributing to an issue with transsexualism, is gender fluidity. And that’s just the nature of a static image. Some genderfluid folks have sent me examples of how they use the graphic, though (basically just marking the range they experience in each area), and it seems they’ve made it work for themselves.”
I personally think this makes a lot of sense, and I’m wondering if it is just something I missed looking at Genderbread before, or if it’s something that ought to be more obvious (perhaps highlighted with an example, something that says “this is how transition can affect this”) in the graphic.

3. Genderbread Person attempts to illustrate that sex and gender are not linear by showing them in a linear way.
It sure does! Jeepers, why are people always trying to show us that things are non-linear using linear models?
Maybe it’s because we are all taught and conditioned to think and view the world in a very linear way? Maybe it’s because even though many of us feel deeply that linear thought is NOT the best way we still have a hard time breaking out of the habit? Think about it for a minute. What would be the alternative way of trying to explain gender? A 3-D model? That sounds totally awesome to me, but that is partly because I’ve already spent a ton of time thinking about gender and trying to see the world in less linear ways (even though it’s crazy hard for me). I think that for cis people who have never had to examine gender (and never had the tools to do so) a 3-D model would just be overwhelming. And then they would look away. And then they wouldn’t learn anything at all. Besides, I think the plotting of  information on multiple linear variables very clearly gives the impression that it is not a linear issue. That’s actually how most 3-D models are made in the first place.
And lastly, I just want to say that when I hear this argument, I kind of feel like it’s akin to saying that we shouldn’t speak English because it is a very gendered language (or French, or Spanish, or, you get the idea!) and maybe there’s a point to that, but when you are trying to explain something to someone who SPEAKS English, if you expect them to learn German before they talk to you, you aren’t going to get anywhere. You have to start with what you have.

4. By using small words, Genderbread Person is talking down to people.
I disagree with this more than any other point I’m going to bring up here. I do not think that it is condescending to try to offer an explanation in an accessible way, particularly when so much of the conversation around gender is SO VERY ACADEMIC that people who haven’t (and in some cases haven’t had the opportunity to) take a gender studies class are a) afraid to talk about gender or b) think it’s all elitist bullshit. But you don’t have to take a gender studies class to understand gender, and you shouldn’t have to! Explaining things in colloquial language is one way that we make them more accessible and the conversation about gender needs to be accessible. On the contrary, I think that when we hide our explanations behind a wall of academics, and act like it’s somehow beneath us to break it down in simpler language, then we are being condescending. I know I have a tendency to do that, and I am trying to learn how not to.

5. Ok, but that thing about oversimplifying sometimes missing the point entirely…
Yep. Sometimes when we try to explain something in a simpler way, we succeed in being simple but not in explaining what we meant to. Exhibit A, straight from the text that Everyday Feminism posted with the GenderBread Person, regarding biological sex:

Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant estrogen, and you can grow a baby in your stomach area.

Being male means having testicles, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, predominant testosterone, and you can put a baby in a female’s stomach area. Being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.

Oh jeez. So incredibly problematic! Where to even begin?
*Referring to zygotes and embryos as “babies” is misleading. They are not babies. It matters.
*Male people have no ability to put a baby in any part of anyone else’s body.
*Male people (generally) have the ability to perform the male part of sexual reproduction. That involves putting sperm (not a baby) into a female person, which, if a mature egg is present, can join with an egg to form a zygote. The zygote then MAY grow into an embryo if conditions are optimal with the nourishment, protection, and support, of the female person’s body. The embryo is literally MADE OUT OF the female person’s body. Only with the support of the female body can it ever become a baby.
*The idea that men PUT BABIES in women and women are merely vessels has been around a long time. It’s been very detrimental to women, is capital S Sexist, and do I need to even say this? IT’S PART OF THE PATRIARCHY PEOPLE.
*Furthermore, plenty of people who are 100% “male” or “female” (aka not intersex people) are infertile and unable to participate in this process for a wide effing variety of reasons.
*This made me really mad. Can you tell? You guys! It’s on a FEMINIST website! Argh!

6. Genderbread Person doesn’t talk about cisgender privilege.
Correct. I don’t think it intends to talk about cisgender privilege, and I think it has a very good reason for not talking about cisgender privilege. As we discussed before, I think it’s primary function is to explain gender to those that aren’t familiar with this discussion (which is lots of people!) and I believe that those people need to have a firmer handle on what gender is (and what it isn’t!) before they can talk about the privilege that their gender gives them. Otherwise, the conversation makes no sense.

7. Genderbread Person oversimplifies sexual orientation.
It totally does. The graphs for self identity allow that maleness, masculinity, and being a man, are all different. But in the sexual orientation section, it acts is if those three things are suddenly the same. So you can use this system to say “I’m a biologically male woman who happens to be incredibly butch/masculine!” but you can’t use it to say “I’m attracted to feminine men who are male!” Plenty of people are attracted to masculinity in women or femininity in men, and I really wonder how they managed to erase those people so completely? Bottom line, if we’re using this system to talk about sexual orientation, we need more graphs for it.

8. Why is Genderbread Person talking about sexual orientation at all?
Probably just to illustrate that it is not dependent on your gender? Like there are plenty of people who think that if you are a trans* lady, your need to be a lady must be because you want to sleep with dudes? So I guess it shows that that’s not the case, but in my mind, I see sexual orientation as so separate (and equally intricate) that it almost needs it’s own page.

***

In conclusion, I’m still kind of excited about the Genderbread Person, but it has a lot of issues and probably isn’t the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about gender. However, if we are waiting for the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about anything then we are never going to have a conversation at all, and then where would we be? I think it is a good way to talk about gender, and it is getting better, and that is important. It might not be particularly useful for trans* people, or people who have already spent a lot of time picking ideas about gender apart, but it might be useful to people who are new to the discussion, and could serve as a kind of introduction. I like that it creates a conversation about gender, and causes us to think about it more.
So how should we talk about gender? How do we create a conversation that is open and allows space for all people of all genders without simply throwing up our hands and saying “GENDER IS COMPLICATED, EVERYONE SHOULD JUST BE WHO THEY ARE!” (which often erases people’s personal and individual experiences)? How do cis allies talk about these issues without co-opting the conversation and selling our trans* friends short? How do we talk to cis people who are well meaning and compassionate, but haven’t had the opportunity to understand something as basic as the difference between sex and gender and therefore view trans* people as crazy or damaged? How do we call out our own privilege, and the privilege of those all around us, without minimizing the conversation?

I don’t have concrete answers for these questions, but I’m happy and excited to have the questions. I also want to share this TED talk, as a final thought, called Fifty Shades of Gay. I think it relates somehow and it’s worth thinking about.

In the meantime, I still really like the Genderbread Person, and I’m still probably going to print a bunch of them off and have fun with my friends filling them out to describe ourselves.

***

It takes forever for me to get my thoughts out. It’s 2pm and I am extremely late for brunch.

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Bad Feminists and Straw Feminists

I’m a little behind on writing this up (and I still owe you more installments on When Feminism Fails) but I want to talk to you briefly about some of the criticism of feminism, and when it comes from sources you might not expect.

I recently read this piece on Libby Ann’s fantastic blog, Love, Joy, Feminism, which talks about the argument over feminism in the atheist community. Now, I don’t identify as an atheist, and I don’t follow atheist blogs unless they also talk about something else which interests me (Libby Ann’s blog is a prime example of this) so while I had kind of heard there’d been some hoopla about the feminism going on I wasn’t familiar with the specifics.

If you are interested, I encourage you to go read that post. I think it is worth your time and I think Libby had some important things to say. Originally I thought I’d go point by point, with quotes and all that, but instead I’m going to try to (for once) keep this brief.

Basically, what is happening here is that some people in the atheist community (all the people Libby quotes are men, though the concept itself was created by a woman) are trying to make a distinction between two kinds of feminism that they see as completely different and somewhat opposed to each other. They call these two kinds of feminism “equity feminism” and “gender feminism”. It needs to be noted right off the bat that all the people who believe that feminism breaks down into these two categories, all those people consider themselves to be “equity feminists.” The people who they would categorize as “gender feminists” do not see the world of feminism in terms of these two different categories, and we mostly just call ourselves, you know, feminists.

The first big problem is the way that they define these two different forms of feminism. In their world, equity feminism is considered with creating legal and social equality for women, and gender feminism is dumb and wrong. That’s a little bit of hyperbole, but it’s not too far off the mark. Rather than first defining the two things as “equity feminism thinks this and gender feminism thinks this” and THEN moving on to “and I’m an equity feminist and here’s why I think gender feminism is missing the mark” they include their criticisms of gender feminism right in their definitions. Ok, here’s just one quote to show you what I’m talking about:

Gender feminism is very different. It looks far less egalitarian, involves sharp criticism of gender roles, and seems to emphasize victimhood.

Libby personally doesn’t pick apart why that definition is a problem, but I want to. Because any time that your definition of your opposing view includes such negative language, you aren’t really engaging with it at all. Rather than explaining the criticism of gender roles, and then explaining why they find that to be less egalitarian, they start right off the bat telling you that gender feminism is NOT ABOUT EQUALITY.

Hm. Insisting that the majority of feminists aren’t interested in equality and just want to play the victim… does that sound familiar to you? Let’s come back to that in a minute.

Because that’s just the first problem. The second problem is the insistence that gender feminists want to deny that there are biological differences between men and women. Essentially, what they are saying is that if there aren’t more women engineers, it’s probably because women just aren’t as good at engineering as they are at some other things (like childcare!) and we just need to accept that men and women are different and let them do the things they are best suited for. As long as women have full legal rights, gender roles are a-ok with equity feminists.

So many issues here. First, sex and gender are two different things, and that is an important thing to know. When you use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably you create some very real problems (and I stop taking your argument seriously). Sex is biological, and gender is social. The two are often related, but not always. Also, because gender is a social construct, gender norms and expectations can vary greatly from culture to culture. If this is still confusing to anyone, here is an example:

Having breasts is part of being of the female sex, while wearing a bra is part of the female gender (in many parts of the world). Breasts are biological, whereas to claim that women naturally wear brassieres, as if it were somehow part of their biological make-up to do so, is preposterous. In many parts of the world women do not wear them, and while in our culture it is considered a feminine thing to do, it is entirely possible to still be female without one on, and it is also possible for male people to wear them.

The argument being made by the “equity feminists” (and it’s really the same argument being made by many supporters of old-school patriarchy) is that when we rail against gender roles, we’re trying to deny that there is any difference between men and women at all. That simply is not true. Because sex and gender are different things. And because we don’t any of us live in a vacuum. It is impossible to know whether women are by nature more nurturing then men are, as long as we encourage young girls to play with baby dolls and discourage young boys from doing the same. And even if you, as a parent, don’t tell your son not to play with baby dolls, unless you are parenting in the woods with only toys you made yourself by hand, the gender roles of the dominant American culture affect your child.

Go into a toy store. Go into the “pink” aisle. Tell me how many baby dolls there are. Now do the same in the “blue” aisle.

And if that weren’t enough, what are they using to back up their gender essentialist claims? Oh good, it’s evolutionary psychology. Here’s some criticism of evolutionary psychology that you might find interesting, including this gem about an evolutionary psychology study that claimed to FINALLY discover why girls prefer pink. (Spoiler, pink used to be considered a boy’s color, and the study makes no sense.) Recently I had to try to explain evolutionary psychology to a friend who was not familiar, and I broke it down like this:

Evolutionary psychology is when you take a look at your wife staying home to take care of the house and kids, and you wonder why that might be. Then you think “hey, maybe there’s an evolutionary reason she wants to do that! I bet that back during evolution times MEN were the ones hunting (cause men hunt now!) which lead me to believe that women stayed home with the kids (cause someone had to or they would have been eaten by a lion).” Then you take that faulty logic and REAPPLY it to the modern world, asserting that women EVOLVED to stay home with babies, and therefore that must be what they are best suited for now.

Most of the scientists I know just start laughing when evolutionary psychology comes up.

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Ok so this still hasn’t been as brief as I would have liked, there was a lot to talk about. We need to bring it full circle now. Because the argument that some feminists are good and want equality and some feminists are bad and want to be victims… it’s an argument we’ve heard before in many different forms.

“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.

Yes, I realize that quoting oneself is kind of ridiculous. This is from my piece about why it’s important to speak out for feminism and against patriarchy. Because that is all I could think about while I read about supposedly liberal-minded, equality-minded atheists arguing that the reason most of the speakers at atheist conventions are men is because speaking at conventions is “kind of a guy thing.” Because rather than saying that ALL FEMINISTS are bad, these “equity feminists” are setting themselves up as the “good feminists” and all others as the “bad feminists”… the same old straw feminists that we are all sick and tired of hearing about.

But other than that, other than that assertion that there is a small group of good feminists who think that voting rights are enough, their argument sounds EXACTLY the same as the tired old conservative patriarchal argument that women ought to just stay in their place.

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I have complicated feelings about that: when feminism fails, part one

The other day I spent wrote a long, somewhat rambling, post about why it is important for me to call myself a feminist, and why I encourage others with feminist principles and ideals to use the word themselves. The backlash against feminism (and feminists) is real and it is damaging, and it is important that we talk about it, and that we do not fear the straw feminists. I stand by that post.

What that post wasn’t about was dissecting the problems that occur within feminist communities. I briefly hinted at the idea that hey, shit ain’t perfect and neither are people, but I didn’t delve. Actually, I don’t like the “of course no movement is perfect” stance because it avoids talking about the actual ways in which movements can be flawed, how important they are, and what we can do to change them. So, let’s talk about a few of the problems that I see cropping up in feminism. To be clear, these are not problems that all feminist movements or all feminists have, but they are themes. They can exist in more mainstream feminist circles, as well as more radical feminist circles, and they are damaging to us all when they happen.

I’m going to tackle different failures in separate posts, as they are getting kind of long.

1. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

From my perspective, feminism is about recognizing and opposing patriarchy. It is a little bit like “oh hey look, I see a patriarchy! I’m against it! Now what am I going to do?” This isn’t how a lot of people see feminism though, a lot of people see feminism as first and foremost a struggle for women.

And you know what? Patriarchy oppresses a whole lot of women, all of them, in fact! And there are a lot of women! And many, many, maybe most, people see the world in terms of a gender binary: there are two types of people, men and women. So I could see how easy it would be to think that opposing the patriarchy and wanting equal rights for women are one and the same thing, I can totally see that. Most of the early leaders of feminism framed their struggle in that sense, and that is literally where the word takes its meaning from.

However, patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women. I believe that if you are against oppression you are against oppression period, not just for people who look like you, live like you, or have bodies like yours (more on that later). There’s a pretty clear loser when we make feminism exclusively about women. Have you guessed it yet? It is so obvious. That’s right, it is our trans* and intersex friends and allies.

First of all, the wrath of patriarchy falls the hardest on folks who don’t fit into the heteronormitive, male-female, binary framework upon which it is built. Trans* people, almost be definition, are hated by patriarchy. They receive the brunt of the abuse, and often the dominant patriarchal narrative would seek to either ignore their existence, or make them actually not exist. The rate at which trans people are murdered should terrify you. If we are against patriarchy, we need to be these people’s champions. When we sweep them under the rug saying “oh well it’s such a small percentage, when we’re done with equal rights for women we will totally work on that” we fail.

Secondly, we need to talk about reproductive health. And when I say reproductive health, I mean everyone’s reproductive health, not just people who identify as women. I am sick and tired of reading about the struggle for women to maintain reproductive rights. Maybe those on the other side of it think this is about women, but we need to be smarter and more inclusive than that. The reality is that some people who do not identify as – and simply are not – women have uteruses and vaginas. When we make having female reproductive equipment synonymous with being a woman we ignore and belittle the experiences of many people. People, who as we’ve already discussed, get stepped on by patriarchy even more than cis-gendered women do. Yes, access to birth control and pregnancy termination services are important things, but they are not important things for women alone.

Those things could just be mistakes made by well-meaning feminists who just aren’t thinking. Often they can be corrected simply by bringing the issue up. I’ve seen people make these mistakes, and hell I’ve made similar mistakes, and what I see is that in generally when they are pointed out, people are ready to wise up. When I say something about “women’s rights” and then catch the eye of a trans* friend who is just as affected by these issues as I am, I feel bad about that and I try to correct it. We can keep doing that, all of us. Let’s do that.

There is, however, something more sinister that we do need to talk about. I got the following comment on Facebook, from a close friend who I have a lot of respect for:

“But the extreme “feminists” that absolutely hate trans* people and don’t want us to have equality definitely exist.”

Yep. This person is totally right. There are some feminists who aren’t making an honest mistake when they talk about feminism in terms of women, there are feminists who really want feminism to be exclusively about helping women. I’m not going to unpack the reasons behind their prejudices completely, because frankly, it doesn’t all make sense to me. This is going to come up again and again, but in my life, the experience of being oppressed always makes me more empathetic to other oppressed people. What it never does is make me feel competitive with other oppressed people, as if equality were a limited resources and I needed to try to get more of it than them. But there are people who seem to feel this way, and I keep not getting it. There are also some feminist, cis-gendered women, who seem to feel especially and particularly threatened by trans* women. These women seem to see trans* women as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s as if they live in a world where the major force in patriarchy is the penis and that by identifying as women and (possibly) having penises trans women are sneaking weapons into safe spaces. It probably goes without saying that they feel even more threatened by queer trans* women.

(Because, you know, that’s totally fair, I can totally see how you should try to kick people who suffer oppression from all different angles in our patriarchal society out of your club that is against patriarchy. I’m not sure, can everyone read the sarcasm on that?)

First of all, that just isn’t how it is. Patriarchy isn’t propagated by penises alone, in fact I would go so far as to say they aren’t even a major player in the propagation of patriarchy (although many a penis-having patriarch would like to think otherwise). Secondly, this idea, the idea that ones genitals are the most important thing and make a person good or bad, safe or unsafe. Oh hell. Do I even have to say it? You guys. THIS IS A SEXIST IDEA. It is contradictory to all of our ideology to say that we are in a special cis-ladies only club and no one with the wrong junk is allowed in. Unless of course your ideology is self-serving and doesn’t care about the suffering of others, doesn’t seek to end inequality but only to elevate yourself on the ladder of inequality. And if that is your ideology, than I (and all of my totally awesome non-binary friends) don’t want to play with you.

For this reason, many people who support not only women’s rights but trans* people’s rights refer to themselves as trans* feminists. I don’t do that most of the time for two reasons, I think that supporting the rights of trans* people should  be inherent in the definition of feminism, and also I think that it kind of is. Hating someone based on their genitals is sexism. Feminism is against sexism. I don’t want to cave to the crappy definition of sexism that a bunch of jerks have.

(I didn’t include a break down on the different between sex and gender in this post because I thought it was probably unnecessary. If I’m wrong about that, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to write about it or point you in the right direction for further reading in the future.)

Next time: Anti-racism and Feminism! Wahoo!

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I have complicated feelings about that: sometimes, you have to use the F word

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.

Do you believe in equality for people of all genders? Great! Next time someone asks, tell them you’re a feminist. Yeah, even if you’re a dude.Image

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