Superstitious Responses to Feminism

Typically, I get three responses from men to whom I express my feminism.

A) “Well, don’t worry, as far as I’m concerned you are equal with me.” My response to this is something along the lines of “Thanks, but no thanks.” The fact that you think it is necessary to tell me that I am equal with you shows that we have a problem; equality is not granted, it should be understood as a basic premise. Feeling virtuous for having allowed that I am, in philosophy but perhaps not reality, equal with you is just wanting a Klondike bar for being a reasonable human being.

B) “But you’re not a feminazi…right?” I have tried not bristling and pointing out that whatever extremists there are are not really what defines feminism nor what it is about. My reward for trying to be reasonable and address their fears? An argument a priori that feminism is made worthless or unreasonable by the (assumed to be accepted) “fact” that some feminists are feminazi man-haters.

C) Insisting that we discuss whether women are physically capable of performing all jobs that men are, or that we discuss whether women are physically identical to men in strength, etc. I suppose this is the “gender essentialism” that we have banned from our comments and discussions here. This is the one that really annoys me the most; I am continually frustrated that a person who is boring me by insisting we talk about how evil rape is (it is, I just don’t always want to talk about it) can turn around insist the only useful conversation about feminism is whether or not women are always as physically strong as men. My personal experience is that most guys are stronger than me, and most women are not, so I don’t care to argue the point – who cares? I don’t find that most men and women that I know make a living based on their physical prowess; I live in a high-tech civilisation where it is possible (gasp) to make a living based on mental acuity, social skills, and computer use.

Perhaps it is because I place a high value on listening and understanding a person’s perspective before I start talking, and perhaps it is because I have enhanced sensibilities due to my frustrations with my own activism being downplayed, but I firmly believe that if I met someone who held a viewpoint I was prejudiced to think was silly, and if I believed that person to be an otherwise reasonable and interesting thinker, I would listen carefully and ask questions to understand their viewpoints. It is patently absurd to assume that a reasonable person will bring up a belief that millions of people hold and have no reasons for holding that belief themselves; it is ridiculous to dismiss another’s viewpoints out of hand if you have any intention of actually convincing them of your point of view. After all, even if you think their position to be absurd or irredeemably flawed, rational discussion is the way to show them that, is it not?

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    “But you’re not a feminazi…right?”

    I hate hate hate that word. Not just because it’s a Godwin, but because the real Nazis were anti-feminist as hell – it doesn’t just paint a false equivalence, but one in direct contradiction to the reality, moving it from hyperbole to lie. Which I suspect is the purpose behind it.

    The fact that you think it is necessary to tell me that I am equal with you shows that we have a problem; equality is not granted, it should be understood as a basic premise.

    I think this is the hardest one for a guy (at least me but maybe I’m projecting) to get. At first glance it seems like the opposite of denying equality ought to be granting it. It takes longer to realise that both those put equality into the privileged hands, and the real opposite is taking it out of them. That’s my evolution of thought anyway. And I’m not quite done with it; it’s still able to give me privilege-bites.

    Insisting that we discuss whether women are physically capable of performing all jobs that men are, or that we discuss whether women are physically identical to men in strength, etc.

    I don’t care whether most women have the physical aptitude to be a be a firefighter for example (or whether most men do, or whether most people have the mental aptitude to be); I care whether firefighters do. And if I ever need my life saving by a firefighter, I find it unlikely that the gender of my rescuer will mean a whole heap to me.

  2. Izzy says

    Hell yes re: comparative physical strength not mattering. I get that a lot from men who think women need male protection. “Um. Dude. There’s a little thing called a “gun” you might want to read up on. Came out a couple centuries ago. Kills you just as dead when you have a penis. Go fig.”

    I firmly believe that if I met someone who held a viewpoint I was prejudiced to think was silly, and if I believed that person to be an otherwise reasonable and interesting thinker, I would listen carefully and ask questions to understand their viewpoints.

    Hm. I suppose it depends on the belief, with me. If someone I liked and respected turned out to be a Young Earth Creationist, or a Prairie Muffin, or a Scientologist, I think I’d start thinking less of them rather than investigating their viewpoints. I’d be sad, but…yeah.

    But I’m not the person to take out when you want to convert anyone. ;)

  3. harlemjd says

    Izzy – to be fair to us (cause I totally agree with you), I assume we think less of these people because we know what these beliefs are. Feminism does not require hatred of men, but Young Earth Creation does require a belief in an earth much younger than any reputable science says.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I have tried not bristling and pointing out that whatever extremists there are are not really what defines feminism nor what it is about.

    I would take this a step further and argue that the man-hating “feminazi” doesn’t exist within feminism, let alone define it. I talked here about how she’s actually a disillusioned patriarch who hasn’t quite grasped the goals of feminism (yet). She may self-identify as a feminist, but if she ever starts talking to feminists who reject gender essentialism, she’ll either come to agree with them or get disillusioned with feminists and become someone who disagrees with patriarchy.

    She’s also largely a construct blown way out of proportion to reality by people like Rush Limbaugh and whoever pulls his strings to justify the anti-feminist backlash that started in the 80′s.

    I feel the need to make that distinction because I’m not sure “extremist” always has a negative connotation, and if not, radical feminists might read it as descriptive of themselves, and they certainly DO help to shape feminism. (But they don’t embrace man-hating, which I think was your point.)

    I also think I probably need to start saying “we” when I talk about rad fems, because I’m pretty sure my belief that we’ll have to end the concepts of ownership and nations to fix the inequalities of the world qualifies me as a rad fem. In fact, I might even scare rad fems. ;)

  5. Rob says

    Your point A is why men find it frustrating sometimes to talk with feminists. When a guy says ““Well, don’t worry, as far as I’m concerned you are equal with me” he is not trying to grant you anything. He is trying to say that he believes that you are an equal. Acknowledging a fact is different from claiming the ability to “grant” a status.

    Please don’t throw interpretations on everything we say which assumes that we are all patriarchal assholes. This should go doubly for poorly phrased but well intentioned attempts to say that we are trying to be on your side.

    BTW, the only people who use the term “feminazi” are followers of Rush Limbaugh. They are not on your side. Thanks for lumping us all together.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Rob,

    No one lumped all men together. You’re reading with your back up. Try to relax and read the article again. I’m not being snarky – I’m serious. Because there is NO WAY, especially if you read comments that you got that her Point A was offered as evidence of all men being assholes. And I made the same point about feminazis in the comment directly above yours, so you are arguing against us by an argument I just used.

    Of course men are often well-intentioned when they say “I think you’re equal.” Except when they mean “You bitchez already haz it eazy, shut up.” Most of the time, they are genuinely confused and think feminism already did its thing and everything’s equal now. Like Marcia Clark announced in the middle of the OJ trial, “Wow, I’m stunned! Here I am, a white person in no position to see racism up close and personal, so I figured it was dead!” And most of the time, I respond by explaining to the guy, “Well, yeah, a lot of laws are improved, but the culture still has a way to go, here are some examples.” At which point they usually somewhat agree, or at worst agree to disagree, which is treating me with respect and therefore good enough.

    But Firebird’s point still stands. “I think you’re equal” suggests – however unintentionally – that the man imagines he speaks for all men. This is frustrating because we’ve known men who hate us or don’t respect us, and we’ve also known “nice” men who refuse to believe those guys exist because that would mean digging their head out of the sand – something humans are generally loathe to do.

    Perhaps a better way to say it would be something else I’ve heard: “I see women as equal.” Actually, I’ve more often heard from men “I think women are better than men” which I find just as troubling as thinking men are better than women, but in any case I try to work with them to see where they’re really coming from and whether or not we have any common ground.

  7. Izzy says

    Rob: The thing about poorly phrased opinions is that, yeah, the often *do* come across as offensive or aggravating. And what is the listener supposed to do? You may have the best of intentions, but the person you’re talking to does not, unless your world is veeery different than mine, have psychic powers. Nobody knows your intentions–we’re going to go by what you say and do, whether that concerns feminism, racism, cutting us off in traffic, or whatever.

    If you don’t want people to react to poorly phrased statements, well, learn to phrase ‘em better. (As I try with all my might to resist the ‘Lern 2 play, n00b’ joke…) Or get used to saying “Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean that–what I meant was this.” It’s a fairly common and useful conversational tool.

    Me? I get annoyed at the “Don’t worry, I think you’re equal…” because…dude, I *wasn’t* worrying, and I didn’t ask, and when I say I’m a feminist, it’s not a challenge. You don’t have to pull out your Sensitive Guy Cred here and now. Relax.

    Either it comes off as patronizing or it comes off as insecure; either way, you’re jumping the gun. If I ask you Your Thoughts On Feminism, “I see women as equal,” is fine. Otherwise? Chill. Have a drink. Stop trying to prove anything. Stop trying to *dis*prove it, too.

    (I dunno–four years at the college of Men Who Try Too Hard got to me, or something.)

  8. SunlessNick says

    Is the guy thinking you’re equal is something you’d rather see than hear about? Is that a fair way to put it?

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nick, just speaking for myself, yes. Because, given that people’s stated philosophies don’t always match their actions, I’m going to reserve opinion until I see your actions anyway.

  10. Izzy says

    Nick: Yes, pretty much.

    Or rather…the times I’ve said “I’m a feminist,” it’s been in the context of another discussion: “I’m a feminist *and* I think blah blah,” or “I’m a feminist but I don’t agree with…”

    At which point derailing the discussion to present the Really A Nice Guy, No Really cred is irksome.

    Also, what BetaCandy said. *Also* also, and this may be a product of four years at the most touchy-huggy-feely school this side of Reed, guys who fall all over themselves to Understand My Oppression are just…exhausting, really. It’s like they’re waiting for me to pat them on the head and reassure them that actual feminist girls do like them, we really do! And that’s just too much work.

  11. SunlessNick says

    *Also* also, and this may be a product of four years at the most touchy-huggy-feely school this side of Reed, guys who fall all over themselves to Understand My Oppression are just…exhausting, really.

    Again – and again the disclaimer of this is me, but it might go for other guys too – this is a hard one to realise. It’s easy to assume that “understanding” would be a relief, not another burden. Road to hell, as they say.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, but I think most feminists can understand why a guy would think “understanding” would be a relief. Many of us have privileges we want to assure “others” we won’t lord over them (and any feminist who hasn’t worked that out has some work to do).

    Take the recent mess with Amanda Marcotte and BFP. When we wrote On Being Allies in response because we felt it was important to take a stand, we avoided personal statements of intent and instead talked about the things we believe ALL feminists should be doing. Because to say, “Yes, some privileged feminists suck, but We’re Not Like That!” would sound too self-congratulatory to be taken seriously as a statement of alliance. We instead went for more of a “Here’s what we challenge ourselves to do” because, frankly, that’s all you can do with privilege. If you really want to grow, you will leave it up to the people who lack your privileges to determine whether you’ve done a good job overcoming privilege.

    While we’re at it, what are the responses we’d like to get to saying “I’m a feminist?” From someone who doesn’t know enough to ask, “Which kind/what exactly does ‘feminism’ mean to you?” (which would be MY first question, since it can mean very different things in practice) I’d be fine with something like, “Really? I thought that was all over with. What does that mean these days?” Because I think a lot of people learned in school that feminism was when these women in the 60′s wanted to have jobs and earn the same as men, and now they do, so on to the 70′s!

  13. Patrick says

    A) is definitely one where context, tone, and such can be important. I can definitely see the same words used out of unthinking privilege (as you said, unconsciously perceiving equality as something “granted”), and the times where it may be used simply out of poor word choice are going to fall by the wayside. (To those guys, I say: It’s your responsibility to say what you mean clearly, it is not her responsibility to assume you ment the best, especially when experience causes most women to expect otherwise.)

    B) is the one that aggravates me most, and it can be found in all sorts of situations apart from feminism. I’ve lost count of the number of people who, upon learning that I’m a Christian, responded that I simply couldn’t be, because I’m kind, considerate, and respectful of others.

    C) is a pretty comon tactic for all sorts of things, I’ve noticed. I don’t know what the term for it is, but it’s the fallacy where you treat a single point as embodying the entirety of someone’s argument, so by “disproving” this one thing, you have proven that their entire position is worthless.

  14. Firebird says

    So for some reason I’m not getting emails of comments on this site, and so I had no idea this fascinating conversation was happening. Sorry guys!

    Anyway, Patrick, you put it exactly right for A). I would have had difficulty clarifying what the problem is, and indeed, as I was coming to your comment I was listening to the memory of the guys who have said this to me again, and realizing it was everything to do with how it was said. And thanks to everyone who pointed out that it is not entirely the listener’s responsibility to puzzle out the proper meaning behind a poorly worded communication.

    Nick, if *you* said to me that you thought women were equal with men, I would probably hug you, because I know from your posts and comments here what kind of mindset you are saying it from. Even so, I think “equal” is a trigger for me personally because saying someone is equal in our society has become kind of a code for saying that people are not in fact equal but that we will all abide by a polite fiction that they are. Or is that just me? Perhaps that is my cynicism commenting on the “All men are created equal” that founded our society and excluded women and non-whites and non-property holders.

    I had a guy ask me once if I could honestly say that anyone had ever told me I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. Now, this was not precisely the same sort of situation; I never labeled myself in conversation, and we were discussing a class we were taking together that dwelled on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible. It was obvious that he had formulated this question expecting to show me something about my own feminism, and that he had used it successfully on other women, but I didn’t at the time find that offensive, mostly because when I said that yes, I had in fact been mistreated and oppressed in precisely that way, he listened and asked questions and I could see that he was thinking what I was saying through. That was one way to respond to finding that a woman that you expected to respond one way did not, in fact, do so.

    I think labels are problematic. When Patrick says he is a Christian, a lot of emotions flare for me, especially today. That’s my junk and it doesn’t belong here, except as an analogy. In retrospect, I think I generally resort to the feminist label when I am faced with a guy who isn’t understanding why a conversation isn’t going the way he expected or whathaveyou. In other words, I think my results may be skewed because I tend to use the label in situations where simple sharing of perspective isn’t working – meaning, the guys so presented with my label are more likely not to “get it”.

    Nick, I completely understand feeling like there is no right answer, like you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I think what happens, and what is problematic in these situations is when a statement about me get derailed to being about you. It’s a natural human response to anything that feels indicting. Our first concern is to make sure that we personally are the exception to any rule, and still acceptable. It’s a really hard urge to fight, but I think it is really important to fight it, and not just as a man talking to feminists. ;-)

    I do think that it can be a source of friction, as a male ally talking to a feminist, though, because taking the conversational focus back onto yourself can feel like the same old same old, and undermine anything you say with the metamessage that says “I’m the most important thing here.” I don’t say that you or anyone specifically else is saying that intentionally, other than that usually we each are operating from the idea that “I” am most important. I think mature, adult communication recognizes that pitfall and strives to avoid it.

    If you are asking what to say when a woman says she is a feminist, I would go with something that draws her out. Why did she say that, just then? Was she apologizing for a comment she thought you would misunderstand? Reacting to perceived privilege on your part? Starting a discussion? Explaining a viewpoint? Being hostile? What does she mean by it and what is she trying to accomplish? Does her viewpoint interest you? Are you willing to engage the conversation/subject? Like I said, when I’m confronted with a label I tend to take a step back and think about what it means and try to engage the person on why they believe what they believe. Unless it is not someone I like or want to understand, in which case I just take a step back and find a reason to excuse myself. ;-)

    And Rob, no, Rush Limbaugh is NOT the only man who uses the term feminazi. I was not calling men assholes…but I have, regularly, heard men AND WOMEN use that term to me. Regularly, and yes, sometimes in the exact context I quoted it in.

  15. SunlessNick says

    Nick, I completely understand feeling like there is no right answer, like you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I think what happens, and what is problematic in these situations is when a statement about me get derailed to being about you. - Firebird

    It’s also an implicit denial that women are individuals – different women will naturally react to things differently – where you are suspicious of being told you’re equal, another woman might consider it a nice gesture, another might find it patronising, another might count a perceived need to say it as appeasement of the opposite sentiment as also legitimate, another might be relived, another might consider it a nice gesture but one that needs backup from actions, and another might find it meaningless altogether. Humans are like that.

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    Even so, I think “equal” is a trigger for me personally because saying someone is equal in our society has become kind of a code for saying that people are not in fact equal but that we will all abide by a polite fiction that they are. Or is that just me? Perhaps that is my cynicism commenting on the “All men are created equal” that founded our society and excluded women and non-whites and non-property holders.

    What you describe IS the beginning of the polite fiction. Once you fully comprehend that a bunch of learned men could in all seriousness pen the phrase “all men” but mean “white male land owners” by it, you can’t comfortably go back to the blind assumption that all Americans are Equal and Free and Overflowing With Opportunity just because that’s the PR we’ve been fed from an early age.

    And then when someone tells you, “You know, I don’t feel so equal” it’s hard to assume they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  17. Patrick says

    The irony of “All men are created equal” is especially apparent when you look at that other Sacred American Document, where initally a slave = 1/3 of a free person. Equal, indeed.

    What Firebird mentioned about her gut reaction to my statement of religion is, I think, pretty significant to the issue of communication. People on any side of an issue have often had bad experiences that strongly affect their viewpoint and will affect how they perceive someone else’s words. The “polite fiction of equality” being another good example, as how a statement of equality will be perceived can depend heavily on the listener’s experiences. I don’t think anyone is immune to this. It is a much more understandable source of prejudice than simple ignorance or bigotry.

    (As a personal example, I’ve had plenty of bad experiences with fans of Richard Dawkins who dismiss anything I say as invalid because I am mentally ill, infected with the “thought virus” of religion. As a result, I will often perceive any declared atheist as being arrogant and condescending despite their actual intentions.)

  18. Jennifer Kesler says

    People are extremists. They want stuff to be all or nothing, black or white.

    Christians are a diverse group. Feminists are a diverse group. Atheists and anarchists are also very diverse. That’s why labels are so inadequate. When someone tells me “I’m a [whatever]” I generally ask them precisely what that means to them, and if they blink at me like I’m crazy, I tell them, “I’ve met a lot of [whatevers], and in my experience they don’t all agree on everything.”

  19. Caroline says

    1) Yes, we all hate the word “feminazi”- It suggests that if you have a problem with women being treated as inferior to men, not having the same rights, being constantly portrayed as sex objects, etc, you are automatically a horrible Nazi-like person, who hates men and wont let anyone else have an opinion that differs from yours.

    2) If a guy says “As far as I’m concerned you’re equal to me”, it certainly does sound like he’s doing you a big favour by seeing you as equal, as if women need men’s approval to actually be equal to men – ie women are NOT equal to men. This probably was not the speaker’s intention, but as women who are sick to death of seeing women treated or portrayed as inferior in our society, it’s perfectly understandable for us to be a bit pissed off when a guy phrases things that way. It reminds me of how I get annoyed when women say “well, I guess we should be thankful that we get treated reasonably well in the Western World, in comparison to how women are treated in certain other countries”. It would piss me off more if a man said “You should be thankful….”. No, we should not be thankful. We have a right to be treated as equal because we ARE equal – being equal is the natural state – it is the laws and customs made by men in the distant and not so distant past that cause inequality in the way women are treated and considered. To state that we should be “thankful” assumes that the natural state is that women are NOT equal, and are merely lucky if they get treated well by men (like they’re doing us a favour). Does everyone know what I mean?

  20. says

    And no one believes me when I tell them I’m a male feminist. . .

    There exist guys who have (a) read feminist literature, and (b) agree that there continues to be a need for feminism. Unfortunately, at least where I come from (small northeastern town), people find male feminists laughable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.