Friday, January 13, 2006

What's Scary about Feminism? - Part I

I did a quick seach on blogspot to see what came up when I typed in "feminism" or "feminist." There are a frightening number of anti-feminist blogs that seem to see feminism as a hate-filled ideology. It always surprises me to encounter this perspective, perhaps because the feminism I embrace, the feminists I see on a daily basis - it/they are not scary or weird or hateful. Your mom might be a feminist. Your best friend probably is one. And I am one, and although I occasionally - VERY occasionally, like maybe twice in the last four years - will get evaluations back that complain that I am or my course is too feminist, I don't think I'm a feminist of the scary variety (nor do the vast majority of my students).

Not that I'm not "militant." If militant means that I believe that women are oppressed in American society, that Hooters is unredeemable, that fraternities are bad for men and women, that women should be paid the same as men, that abortion should be legal and available on demand (as opposed to mandatory waiting periods) and that excellent education, health care, childcare, and jobs are everyone's right in this country, then, yes, I'm a militant feminist.

Do I hate men? No. Do I see men as the enemy? There was a time when I did, back in my young and newly politicized days (just like I moved through an anti-straight political period when I was first coming to queer politics). But now, I see us all struggling together. There are certainly times, such as when I am asked by a smirking man to explain "the point" of Women's Studies, usually as a pretext for him to make a derogatory comment about my profession/field of study, when I see individual men as my enemy. There are also times, such as when I revisit rape and domestice violence statistics, or when a group of men I don't know try to get me to climb into their car (as happened recently outside a club), when I realize that, statistically, men ARE my enemy, since it is quite likely that I will be sexually assaulted and/or raped by a man in my lifetime. But, probably fortunately for my overall mental health and good will, these times seem to pass quickly.

In actuality, I am surprised and a little concerned to sometimes find myself more likely to give men more room to feel comfortable with feminism than I am to give women this same space. Lately, I've worried that I give men in my classes more attention than I give women. Perhaps this is all in an effort to say, "hey - I'm not a scary feminist. I believe that feminism is a form of humanism. I believe that gender oppression hurts all of us. And I think that if you really understood what feminism was all about, you wouldn't find it scary at all."

In my personal life, I've recently begun to give men the benefit of the doubt in ways I never would have before. For example, I used to hate it when men I didn't know would hit on me at a club or assume it was ok for them to make physical contact. But these days, if someone asks me to dance at a club, most of the time I will respond graciously. Instead of looking at the situation only from my own perspective as a woman, I'm also more aware of the roles that the men around me are trying to fulfill. I recognize that it's a risk for a guy to ask a woman to dance, and I don't see the point of being mean for no reason. I can look outside of my own politics to be flattered by the attention, which is generally meant as a compliment. I don't even get particularly annoyed anymore if I find a stray hand on my butt; I realize that, for better or for worse, this is part of the scene, which is largely about hooking up, even if that's not why I'm there. I feel in enough control of the situation that it doesn't threaten or offend me, although it does get old (and I know that some of my younger friends resent this kind of attention and the idea that men feel entitled to touch their bodies without permission). I imagine that if it were a constant occurrence, or if I felt unsafe, or if I didn't feel in control, it would bother me, too. (And, frankly, I have a feeling that my tolerance of stray hands is diminishing - it *is* getting old. And, of course, if I act like this behavior is acceptable, then I'm just allowing someone to think it's ok to grab a woman he doesn't know instead of pointing out that perhaps it isn't.)

So I don't automatically perceive men as my enemy, and I do empathize with the social role men are expected to play. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't also recognize the ways in which men collectively oppress women. Maybe, if you're reading this and you find feminism scary, I've lost you there. I'm not saying that all men consciously and purposefully oppress women. What I am saying is that, through male privilege, through institutionalized forms of sexism, men (mostly unthinkingly, I like to believe) support gender discrimination. And women support it, too - we are often complicit in our own oppression, until we see what's going on.

The thing is, challenging patriarchy means taking huge risks. If (heterosexual and bisexual) women want to date men, to marry them, to be loved by them and thought to be attractive by them, then professing feminism kind of limits the pool (though I do know lots of guys who are turned on by feminists - go, feminist-lovin' guys!).

My particular brand of feminism is also antiracist, and I see a clear parallel between feminism and antiracism in terms of the way men, in one case, and white people, in the other, respond to each. Both are about challenging authority and dominant culture, and we are saying that men and white people have got some power and advantages that they didn't earn and don't deserve, and that they got these at the expense of others. Further, we are saying that, as a result of living in a society that is institutionally sexist/racist/whatever, we are all sexist/racist.

Most people don't want to accept this. We take it personally. We feel that we are not bad people, and yet we are being told that we are. As a white person, I'm aware of my white skin privilege, but it took me a while to be able to accept it. I thought it meant that I was a horrible person, but what it really means is that I've finally become aware of the way society works. I am not to blame for the structure of society, but I'm responsible for educating myself about inequality and oppression and for doing everything I can to interrupt it.

It's the same thing with men and feminism. Some of my strongest feminist allies are men. There are certainly schools of feminist thought that argue that men can't be feminists, but there are schools of every strain of political thought that argue for exclusion. They are not the entire movement, nor are they even the most dominant parts of the movements. So anyway, any men who are willing to recognize what's going on and to take responsibility for doing what they can to change it? Those guys are part of my revolution.

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