Max @ Feministing Community posed a question last week which I was unable to respond to directly in comments (site malfunction). So instead, since I thought his question was an interesting one, I’m offering a response in the form of a post here on my own blog.
I recently got into a debate on Facebook with a woman who identifies very strongly as anti-feminist and who argues that 90% of what feminism does is detrimental to society. Although she advocates for gender equality and stiffer penalties against those whose commit violence against women, she considers most of the movement to be ridiculous. She also had this to say:
“I’m not marginalized anymore. I am a woman. I do not fucking belong to a marginalized group anymore.”
I just want to know how, as a man and therefore a member of the privileged class, I should go about tackling these issues appropriately. I mean, if she says she is not marginalized as a woman, it would be very paternalistic of me to deny her lived experienced.
There is the argument that I should not engage in these arguments at all for this reason. I’m mindful of some recent cases where members of a privileged class claimed to advocate for a minority’s rights but completely ignored their voices and thus further marginalized them. However, it also didn’t feel right to just ignore the very powerful anti-feminism, since I believe that feminism is very, very important to our society.
So what should I do in future cases like this one? Would the differing levels of privilege mean I should simply back away from this topic? Or was I right to engage her as long as I was careful to respect her lived experience?
Hope you don’t mind that I’ve taken your question and turned it into a post on my own blog. I hopped on over to the Community blog from my Google Reader to respond to your question for a couple of reasons, and then the comment feature was disabled so I thought I would write back here.
First of all, I sympathize with the frustration that comes from trying to have debates with anti-feminists online, particularly women whose response to your arguments is “well, I haven’t experienced oppression as a woman and therefore this power imbalance you talk about doesn’t exist.” I’m not sure I can offer you any advice that will help you change this person’s mind (or the next person’s mind). I’ve had very little success in changing minds, at least in the short-term. In my experience, it’s only extended, personal relationships that have caused people to revisit their values and change over time. But reading your question I did have a couple of observations I wanted to share. Observations that might help you, at least, articulate your own beliefs in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being paternalistic.
I’m most concerned about the fact that you don’t seem comfortable speaking from a feminist position because you’re a guy. You write that, as a man, you are “therefore a member of the privileged class.” Well, yes and no. Yes, you have certain privileges because you move about the world in a male body. And clearly, the framework of feminism has helped you be more aware of the way society confers those privileges on you. Kudos for paying attention to that. But there are ways in which binary, oppositional gender roles rigidly confine you as well. Think about the reasons you identify as a feminist or as pro-feminist. Not just because of how it might create a better future for the women you care about, but also because of how it might create a better world for you and other men.* You write that you believe feminism is “very, very important to our society.” Think about why it’s very, very important to you. That way, you are grounding your argument in your own lived experience of gender roles and their limitations, rather than talking about women’s experience in the abstract.
You write that “there is the argument that I should not engage in these arguments at all” because you, as a man, are in a position of privilege relative to women. I realize that is one way of looking at things that many feminists, particularly feminists in the mid-twentieth-century, articulated. And I think they often had valid personal reasons for making that claim. There is certainly a discussion to be had about whether or not it’s appropriate to make a time/place for women to discuss their experience as women. But if you were having a discussion with a self-identified anti-feminist on Facebook, I’d argue that you have every right to assert your feminist beliefs in response to her anti-feminist ones, regardless of your own gender. You weren’t walking into a space that was defined as for women only and asserting your right to speak authoritatively on feminist politics; you were engaging in a debate in an online networking space that was not specifically designated as women-only space (a concept I recognize is, itself, deeply problematic). I really encourage you, if you identify as a feminist or pro-feminist, to speak up for your beliefs. They are yours, and the fact of your gender doesn’t make you a less legitimate feminist (I realize not all feminist women agree with me here, but for what it’s worth I don’t think being a feminist is gender-specific).
Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I necessarily have a right to make more abstract claims about gender oppression than you do — like you, I am constrained by the authority of my own experience. I can choose to make more abstract arguments about how institutionalized oppression works, but in making those arguments I’m in the same position you are: I am speaking beyond my own direct experience. Other women can (and have) stepped in and contradicted those arguments, refusing to accept my interpretation of how sexism works (or that it even exists!).
So, speaking as a fellow feminist, I’d like to say thanks for speaking and trying to refute anti-feminist rhetoric! I hope that you keep on talking while staying mindful of the power dynamics at play between people whose experience of privilege and marginalization are often radically different.
Allow me to reduce my opinion only to my personal experience as you suggest and then you decide if I should be a feminist or not:
I have been paying a heavy price for being male my entire life. I never asked to be male and I would never have made that choice if I had it.
From little things like daily male-bashing and getting lower grades at school for the same marks as fellow female classmates to more serious things like conscription.
Never in all those instances have I heard feminists raise an issue with them.
I was once a feminist because, as an emancipated male, I am a passionate supporter of female emancipation and gender equality. But I've turned away from feminism because I've grown up and realized that it is just a political ideology that seeks only to spread itself and gain influence.
In the end I have the same advice to your readers:
Study feminism carefully and critically. Don't just believe their claims and statistics but scrutinize them as you would any other political movement.
The truth will reveal itself… but only if you want.
Thanks for stopping by my blog! I also appreciate that you disagreed (very strongly) with me yet did not resort to personal insults. I don't believe speaking from personal experience “reduces” your opinion at all, and I'd like to thank you for sharing. I'm sorry you feel constrained by society's gender-based expectations, and that you have not felt supported by feminists for resisting that pressure to conform.
I'm not in the business of telling anyone else whether they should or should not be a feminist. Feminism as a worldview encompasses a lot of diversity of thought and action, much like (in an analogy I used recently with a friend) Christianity: a Catholic, Pentacostal and member of the Reformed Church of America all identify as Christian but represent a great range of theology and practice.
In this post, I was responding to a young man who already self-identifies as a feminist and posted his question at Feministing Community asking how to be a male feminist activist. So my answer assumed that he finds feminist theory meaningful in his life, and has chosen to use it as a tool to analyze the inequalities in the world. And (hopefully) to work toward a world that accepts a broader range of gender expression, sexual identity, etc., for all humans.
In response to your particular frustrations, I can only say that I, as a feminist, believe ending misandry as well as misogyny (hatred of, or discrimination against, men and women based on their gender). To me, one of the central tenants of feminism is the belief that the bodies we were born into should not constrain the work we are able to do in the world. In my own experience this is something that feminists have been calling for at least since the mid-twentieth century (take, for example, the 1970s children's book “William's Doll,” which depicts a small boy whose family supports his desire for a doll to care for). For a recent example from the week's news, see the number of self-identified feminist bloggers who called out SexReally on their depiction of men as mindless, sex-obsessed misogynists.
I am opposed to the military draft, but agree with you (if I'm reading you correctly?) that if men are required to register for the draft then women should be as well. Unfortunately, mainstream society has put of a lot of resistence to the idea of women in the armed forces. Only this past month, for example, has the Navy finally allowed women to serve on submarines, and the role of women is still confined to non-frontline situations, at least on paper. Openly nonstraight individuals are also not technically allowed to serve, despite the fact that they serve in large numbers, gay, lesbian and bi as long as no one decides to make an issue of it. Feminists have long called for equity within the armed forces for both women and nonstraight folks. You definitely have political company there.
I'm disappointed that you felt it necessary to imply at the end of your comment that feminist political theory is, in fact, a conspiracy designed to take over the world on behalf of male-bashing activists (bwahahahah!). I think you confer upon a marginalized political movement far more cultural, social, and structural power than it has ever had! I would argue that if feminism had, actually, been greeted with less suspicion and less cultural backlash during the 1970s, it's possible that you would have suffered far less gender-based bullying and pressure to join the military than you did. I'm sorry you feel like it is feminist activists who are at the root of your troubles.
Anyway, thanks again for making your case without ad hominum attacks, despite your obviously very strong feelings about the issue. I hope you find folks who are able to support you in being the sort of person you want to be, regardless of your gender.
Wow, Thanks for a great answer Anna.
I'm impressed with your response. Normally I get loads of insults and attacks but you actually talked on one level with me. I appreciate that.
In my country men actually do service, not just register for it (that would hardly bother me).
I know that most feminists are perfectly good willing decent people and all for equality in the true sense of the world (as you obviously are). But my problem is with those who publish things like “To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he's a machine, a walking dildo.” [Valerie Solanas a SCUM authoress (Society for Cutting Up Men.)]
Now I'm sure that you are just as disgusted by those things as I am. The problem is that those people are not treated as the wackos they are but given professorships in women's studies departments or published on respectable newspapers and hailed by a large number of followers including public institutions such as NOW (National Organization for Women).
The result of so much publicity is that these people get to represent feminism. And by calling yourself a feminist, you're passively supporting them however unintentional. Or, alternatively, you want equality while Andrea Dworkin wants to see “a man beaten to bloody pulp”. But she was a public figure and gets the attention. So her opinion shapes the movement a lot more than yours does (unfortunately).
My other problem with feminism is the many false statistics and half truths that are often still used today and even taught in schools despite having been refuted. Christina Hoff Sommers (a feminist herself) describes this better than I ever could so I refer you to her work.
Also, I've noticed that many feminists (even the good ones) often never personally experienced any of the issues they're campaigning for. They've just been made angry by those same statistics and then join the bandwagon of anger fueled activism.
Although feminism certainly did a great deal getting equality started, it just isn't nearly good enough for maintaining it or furthering it.
There is so much more but I should stop before it gets too long. If you are interested in more I invite you to my new blog menarehumanstoo.blogspot.com
I'm glad you appreciated my response. Although I have to say, if you make a habit of visiting self-identified feminist blogs and warning readers about indoctrination, I am not surprised that you have gotten negative reactions in the past.
I should be upfront with you that I probably won't be able to engage in a long debate with you about the merits of feminism. I am about to leave town on a research trip and my focus has to turn to other things. However, I would like to offer a few reflections about some of the women whose names you raised and about your concern that feminist activists are moved to work for change on issues which they don't have direct personal experience. While I firmly believe in grounding one's work in the personal, I also have grave concerns about stopping at that and not incorporating broader analysis (more on that below).
First to your point about how certain iconic feminist women, whose opinions and actions are controversial within and outside of the movement (such as Valerie Solanas and Andrea Dworkin) become the face of feminism. A similar argument about passive support of extremism has been made about those who continue to identify as Christian or Muslim and yet advocate for tolerance. To discuss the place of people like Solanas and Dworkin in feminism would probably take a full course or book to do justice, rather than a blog comment. I would just point out again that feminism is a sprawling, diverse collection of ideas and actions, many of which are not universally accepted by feminists. Whether or not you feel, in the end, that the good work of feminists outweighs the harm is really a matter of personal conviction and practice. I have decided I want to do my part to make it a movement worth being proud of, just as many Christians believe strongly that they should not abandon their faith to hate-filled individuals who perpetrate violence and practice exclusion.
I am familiar with Christina Hoff Sommers, who has written much in the last twenty years condemning all feminists who do not think as she does about politics and gender. Frankly, her politics are far to the right of mine, and her reading of the current state of feminist thought and activism so wildly divergent from my own experience, that I have a difficult time taking her critique seriously. The charges she leveled at feminists in the mid-nineties related to statistics have been refuted by others more knowledgeable than myself on the subject, and I would point you to a four-part analysis of her arguments at Alas, A Blog if you are interested in what her critics have to say. I also take issue with the fact that Sommers appears to be stuck arguing with feminists of the mid-eighties and now it is 2010. As blogger Elle at Sex and the Ivy pointed out last fall, she fails to back up many of her charges with contemporary examples, relying instead on anecdotes from the early 1980s which she has used repeatedly as proof of feminism's excesses. Until Ms. Sommers exhibits some willingness to engage with present-day feminists and their lived experience, I am reluctant to give her charges much credence.
Finally, to your point about how “many feminists (even the good ones) often never personally experienced any of the issues they're campaigning for.” I actually believe this is one of the strengths of any social activist movement: the degree to which individuals are able to step outside of their own experience, listen to the experience of others. The feminist activists I know personally and through books and social activism networks are commited to working for change that will better the lives of all people — not just themselves.
While I believe (as I said in my original post) it is good practice to speak from personal experience, acknowledging the factors that influence one's point of view, I also believe it is important to listen to the experience of others. One of my core values is to engage in work that contributes to the reduction of suffering — even when it is not suffering I myself have ever experienced. And it is among my fellow feminists that I have experienced a culture that prioritizes work to further that goal.
While I do not believe that statistical analysis and attention to institutional, big picture, or change-over-time trends are a substitute for individual, lived experience, I do believe there are structural inequalities that can only be addressed (and are often only visible) on the macro level, in aggregate. Privilege and marginalization are complicated dynamics, the product of both personal and political (social) experience over time, and it is difficult to parse out how they work and how to address them in a way that constitutes change unless we step back and look not only at our microcosm of personal experience but also (in tandem) the way in which our lives exist in a network of interconnected relationships and socio-cultural expectations and assumptions we must work within and against in order to shape our individual lives.
Feminists have been, historically, often challenged to move beyond the limitations of their own individual experience (often privileged by circumstances of class, race, nationality, education, age, physical health, etc.) and understand how marginalization works in these more complex ways. For this reason, I have to disagree with you that feminists who rally to support women whose experiences they do not personally share are a sign of ill-health in the movement. Rather, I see them as a sign of continued relevance.
All the best,
Well we all have a real life to deal with so no explanation needed there. I also wish I had more time for this.
Of course people should go beyond their personal experience and broaden their attention. I was making that point for an entirely different reason. Because somebody has to confirm those issues somewhere first or we run the risk of following each others noses.
That was a little off, so I'll give you an example of what I mean. One of the most popular statistics that feminists quote is the pay gap. This gap (70% to 80%) is so enormous that there should be victims of it everywhere. So I ask you (metaphorical “you”) how many women do you know who are paid less for the same work? Then, for every woman who is paid equally to a male colleague, there is another woman paid at an even greater pay gap (or the whole thing wouldn't add up). On the extreme end, the pay gap is saying that statistically around 1 in 4 women are working entirely for free (or 1 in 5 if the gap is at 80%)!!!
We see that it just can't be anything like what we're told. So I urge people to look critically at the numbers their given and the best way to do that is to compare them with your personal experience. I know it's not sufficient of course, but it's a start and hopefully when people see such a large discrepancy between what they're experiencing and what they're told, they'll take it from there.
This use of statistics is exactly the kind of method used by extremist movements. They have good and just intentions and gain followers, then certain leaders manufacture problems and broadcast them to their followers. This makes them very upset and angry and they'll start recruiting more followers and telling them how unfair these problems are and this sets a self perpetuating movement in motion that far exceeds and often contradicts it's original intentions.
Now I'm not equating feminism with such an extremist movement but these similarities should be a wake up call.
Thanks for the Link on C.H. Sommers. I'll look into that. I should mention here that I don't agree with her on many levels either. I just thought referring to her would be the quickest way to make my point.
I find it very revealing that you draw parallels between feminism and Christianity. Well there are very good reasons for why religion is kept strictly out of politics and law in all western democracies (certainly the USA). So I'd like to call for an equal treatment under the constitution of feminism with all other religions. That meaning mostly, that anyone can be a member and believe in it or not, but it cannot and should not have any say in politics or education.
Religions are belief systems, not a theory and not an academic discipline.
Actually I'm not that harsh with feminism. I don't classify it as a belief system but as a political ideology. If anything, I'd compare it with Marxism. Either way, it certainly is not an academic discipline or even a theory.
And this underlines my point about the radical members of feminism. If feminism was an academic discipline or a scientific theory, then those radicals would have been treated far more harshly and critically than they have been. They would have never had enough attention to get a public voice.
I recently read a great dissertation by a Scandinavian student analyzing the suitability of all the main variations of feminism as academic theories. She concluded that not one of the versions of feminism qualified. I really regret forgetting her name. Now I can't find the work anymore 😦