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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?

Hi Max!

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.