Feminism isn’t new to me. I have been aware of and supported the movement for about a long as I have had a sense of gender roles in our society. I think of myself as being respectful of gender equality and a woman’s right and ability to do pretty much whatever she sets her mind to do. I don’t believe my respect, recognition or permission is required. I believe women have as much a right to determine their own destinies as men do and that women’s rights are inherent.
Tone deaf, reading lips
At the same time, I am conscious of my tendency to be very male in my thinking. I wrote about this in a recent, private discussion on Facebook and I thought I’d repeat some of what I wrote to give you a better sense of what I mean. I was writing about participating in discussions about feminism as a man, a fairly risky exercise:
The problem with this topic for me is that it is a linguistic minefield shrouded in mystery.
It’s not to say that I’m insensitive to much of what feminism stands for but I am still a male raised by parents with certain perspectives on roles and relationships. It isn’t to say that my parents believed in submissive women and strong, manly men but they did the best they could as products of their upbringings.
I firmly believe in gender equality and women having as much choice over their destinies as men. At the same time, I also know some of my perceptions and subconscious beliefs are probably relatively patriarchal. I make conscious efforts to change my thinking but I make mistakes all the time.
When I read conversations like this my first instinct is to shut up and move away as quickly and quietly as I can. I just know that opening my mouth is a mistake because I am going to offend people, usually without intending to or even being aware of it.
Just adding a perspective from a flawed male who has definitely missed something important that everyone else seems to take as a given.
One of the commentators mentioned anger at the treatment women receive from men and I had a few thoughts about that too:
Actually I think women are fully entitled to be angry about a lot of things. There are times when I am glad that I am male because I don’t know how women put up with the crap men do, seemingly all the time. So angry is ok too because sometimes men only pay attention when faced with rage.
I think the conversation tends to go sideways when men who support gender equality (and what goes with it) become the targets of all that rage because we are more receptive to it. The men who make being male an embarrassment so often, just don’t care and your anger reinforces their attitudes.
The crux of the issue, for me at least, is this:
For sure but it seems, from my perspective, that when men try and participate in a discussion about feminism, the amount of care we have to take with language we use is analogous to a ritualistic tea ceremony.
It just doesn’t seem possible to have a meaningful discussion using imperfect language that almost certainly carries a legacy tone, irrespective of the underlying intentions and beliefs.
The discussion about mansplaining largely confuses me. It is probably because I lack an awareness of how to effectively listen (active listening? I’m a man, I am almost genetically coded to struggle with this) and explain perspectives without appearing to be condescending.
I know I definitely speak more than I should listen and have a tendency to forget to just listen. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a useful perspective or support gender equality (for example). It just means I sometimes use verbal crayons to express it.
What gender inequality means to me
There are many themes in feminist debates that I come across now and then which seem too extreme for me. I suppose that is bound to happen, particularly in debates about feminism and gender equality and the nuances in gender discrimination. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of those nuances elude me. While I understand that there are feminists who have adopted extreme positions on a range of topics including marriage and men opening doors for women, I don’t agree with those positions.
There is probably a lot in what I have written that only highlights the concerns many feminists raise about men and our problematic behaviours (things like mansplaining, which I think I have a basic understanding of but which can be pretty nuanced in itself). My efforts to outline support for feminism and gender equality probably only exacerbate the situation in some activists’ eyes and I accept that.
I grew up in a relatively liberal cultural context. Even then, I am almost coded to think about gender roles and relationships in certain ways that may seem anachronistic to many. There may be some sort of gender-neutral ideal for how people “should” talk and relate to each other. I don’t know what it is and I’m not sure I want to.
I recognise that men and women are different in many ways. We are physically different. Our brains seem to work a little differently and our bodies, generally, seem to handle some things better than others. None of those differences make one gender better than another or subordinate to the other, fundamentally. But, we are different and those differences are part of what make us remarkable.
There are some differences that are profound and deeply troubling to me as a man. As aware as I like to think I am, I have had very little insight into the daily challenges women face, just being women. Actually, scratch that, girls and women! These challenges are, to me, at the centre of gender equality and they were spelled out in a 2015 blog post by Gretchen Kelly titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About”:
— Sarah E. Bodnar (@sarahebodnar) November 23, 2015
This post is perfect for me. What I have come to accept is that I often need things to be spelled out to me and Kelly does a great job with that in her post. Below are some extracts that really stood out for me. The first touches on this need to spell stuff out for us men. We really can be utterly tone deaf:
Maybe it is so much our norm that it didn’t occur to us that we would have to tell them.
It occurred to me that they don’t know the scope of it and they don’t always understand that this is our reality. So, yeah, when I get fired up about a comment someone makes about a girl’s tight dress, they don’t always get it. When I get worked up over the everyday sexism I’m seeing and witnessing and watching… when I’m hearing of the things my daughter and her friends are experiencing… they don’t realize it’s the tiny tip of a much bigger iceberg.
When I think about the experiences Kelly writes about, I cringe. I cringe when I think my wife may be experiencing stuff like this every day. I cringe when I realise that I don’t even ask her whether she does? I especially cringe when I think about what our daughter may face as she grows up.
Guys, this is what it means to be a woman.
We are sexualized before we even understand what that means.
We develop into women while our minds are still innocent.
We get stares and comments before we can even drive—from adult men.
We feel uncomfortable but don’t know what to do, so we go about our lives. We learn at an early age, that to confront every situation that makes us squirm is to possibly put ourselves in danger. We are aware that we are the smaller, physically weaker sex—that boys and men are capable of overpowering us if they choose to. So we minimize and we de-escalate.
Glimpses of women’s daily challenges
What Kelly writes about is, to me, the scariest thing about how men and women tend to relate to each other. Whether a woman (womyn?) approves of marriage as a structured relationship or takes offence because I haven’t assumed an appropriately remorseful and submissive posture when dealing with her falls into the category of issues that may never be particularly meaningful to me. That may be unreasonably dismissive and patronising. I see it as an issue between the woman and whoever she is relating to.
What makes a deep impression on me and forces me to think deeply about how I live my life and relate to women are stories like Kelly’s. They speak about the fabric of our society and about the legacy we are leaving for our children.
Just a flawed male doing my part
I make a point of teaching our children (a boy and a girl) that they can both achieve great things. I love that my daughter admires Wonder Woman, a character I see as powerful, intelligent and confident. I also don’t particularly care whether my kids choose the pink or blue Kinder Joy eggs, only that they enjoy the treat.
I will keep teaching my son to let women enter before him and, when he is old enough, to open doors for women and to respect them (like my father taught me). If a woman takes offence at that, she will have missed his intention to be respectful and courteous. I don’t want him to grow up being ashamed of being male either.
I teach my daughter that she can do all the things she wants to do, even if they are traditionally male activities. I will also encourage her to learn to defend herself because I don’t want her to ever feel vulnerable because she is a girl. Like Wonder Woman, I want my daughter to grow up feeling powerful, confident and beautiful. I want her to feel free to express her femininity and be compassionate and see those qualities as strengths.
So, yes, I am male. I don’t always listen (something my wife will attest to, enthusiastically) and I can be pretty tone-deaf when it comes to all the things that contribute to gender inequality. I don’t understand all the issues and am not aware of all the nuances. I may never be and I’m not sure I want to be. It seems like a sterile and neurotic world to live in.
Above all, though, I definitely want to help create a world where the fear and compromises Kelly writes about become unpleasant memories. My contributions are not intellectual and semantic. They are the conversations I have with our children about how to be good people and my continuous efforts to be a better husband to my long-suffering wife.
I am glad we live in Israel. Casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman was a perfect choice. She represents so many of the inspiring qualities I see in Israeli women every day: they are confident, capable and beautiful. They set a very different tone for our children and I think that makes a big difference too.
My wife asked me if I consider myself a feminist. She defined being a feminist as “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men”. Maybe I am but that doesn’t mean that I am not a flawed male with residual neanderthal tendencies, just like the many men who work really hard to help build a new world where women’s inherent rights are self-evident, not the subject of debate.