Image Credit: Original artwork by JamieJoelle.com
This piece is the first in an ongoing series called “I Only Fight With My Friends,” speaking specifically to people with whom I would typically agree on a variety of subjects. These pieces are meant to provoke thought, self-reflection, and self-awareness, and not to attack any group of people.
To some degree, I’ve been writing this piece in my head for months.
It could be said that, as a woman, I was slow to wake up. As a small child, I claimed the term “feminist” because I’d been hearing a lot about it. I got snarky with boys who held doors open for me and I threw a fit about my dad being sexist because he wouldn’t let me play football in school (to his credit, I was also like, 60 lbs.) Then, somewhere along the way, something happened (religion) and I stopped believing in equality and came to favor complementarianism: women and men had specific gender roles, given to them by God. Women weren’t supposed to be leaders. That’s what men were there for. Women could be nurturers, they could be housekeepers, they could maintain and care for their family’s needs, mentally and emotionally, but they could not be leaders. I was feeling called to the pastorate, for instance, and was told by a Bible camp counselor that, although that was all well and good that I thought I was being called by God for a specific role, that I must have misunderstood–women could not be pastors, you see. They could be youth workers, but not pastors.
Even at 15, I thought that was pretty much bullshit, but whatever. I didn’t make the weird rules. I just had to abide by them.
And so I went through evangelicalism in high school and then at a Christian college, staying decidedly asleep. Men were meant to lead, women had hormones and periods, and were supposed to be soft and kind and bending (read: things I’m not sure how I ever truly believed I would ever be.) Sure, equality was something I wanted, but that didn’t seem to be what feminism wanted. Women just wanted to be in charge, and damnit, didn’t they know they couldn’t be?
As the years went on, of course, I realized that I was wrong…that feminism was working toward equality, that women not only could, but should lead. But I still had a blind spot: men. I just didn’t believe that men really believed in feminism. I didn’t believe that men were feminists. I wanted them to be, of course, but didn’t know a whole lot who would be caught dead using the word to describe themselves. I thought I knew a few in college, although they would turn out to be men who seemed to think that the word “feminist” was a great way for them to improve their stock with the lady-folk. When that didn’t work, they got angry and could later be found citing all the ways that feminism was wrong and “rape culture” wasn’t real, etc. etc.
Ultimately, I went through a period where, as long as men were willing to even listen to a feminist talk, this was a motherfucking victory. I didn’t need them to be feminists…I just needed them to even pretend to understand why I might be one.
So I gave men a pass, over and over again. I dated men who claimed to believe in gender equality, but also seemed to treat me (in particular) like shit. I entertained conversations with close male friends who “know that rape is never okay, BUT WHAT IF…”I let men dump their anger at life into me, acting as an emotional punching bag and unpaid feelings-laborer. I listened to shitty arguments against the wage gap, believing with some part of me that maybe they were right–I mean, women were the only ones who could have children. How was that a man’s fault? I believed these men when they talked: every one seemed to know someone who had been falsely accused of violence. Every one seemed to have experienced some kind of “female supremacy” language from a feminist. Every one seemed to know a woman who had it better than they did and still accused them of having privilege. And every one would follow up with, If every feminist were like you, then maybe I’d understand it. I would walk away thinking we just had to make peace with each man, one at a time, and then surely, we would win over them all. Surely they would start to understand the struggle. Surely they would eventually see the problems.
God, it makes me sick to type that out.
At any rate, I eventually started meeting the “brave” men who brazenly referred to themselves as feminists. They weren’t afraid of it–they believed in gender equality. They understood microaggressions. They cared about reproductive rights and about women of color and in the queer community and about wage equality. These men understood their privilege and they wanted to work toward equality for everyone. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to find these men, and how happy I was to call them my allies.
You see, I’d thought for a while that we had a real “ally” problem. Not only did I not know many male feminists, but I also thought that women had a tendency to eschew our allies. We would shout them down instead of listening and having real and meaningful dialogue. We started to create division between men and women instead of conversation. So I thought I was doing the right thing when I said, over and over again, that we needed to welcome our allies. I didn’t care when they arrived. I didn’t care why they showed up. I cared that they were there at all.
Digression: To a point, I still feel this way. I don’t care when or why someone comes to the right side of history–I care simply that they are there. I have been on the wrong side of history a great many times in my life: I was against gender equality, I was anti-choice, I was anti-LGBTQ rights. And I was wrong each time. So I work every day to be and stay on the right side of history now. That’s what I care about…don’t talk to me about when you got to the party. Tell me about what you’re doing now that you’re here.
Toward the end of last year, I started to get really tired. It happens often, when you’ve devoted any part of your life to activism, that you eventually get exhausted with having to work and fight every day just to be considered a human. You take a few days off from the fight, you take care of yourself, and you get back to normal. Except that wasn’t really happening for me this time.
I was having the same fights, over and over again, with men and women:
- Why it’s a problem when men tell women to smile.
- Why it’s a problem that Donald Trump talked about grabbing women by the pussy.
- How, even if him saying it doesn’t directly mean that he sexually assaulted anyone, there were still several accusers that came out against him.
- Why we shouldn’t dismiss those accusers.
- Why we shouldn’t dismiss accusations of sexual violence in general.
- How “no conviction” does NOT equal “innocent.”
- Why women shouldn’t be penalized in unequal wages simply because they weren’t fortunate enough to be born the gender that couldn’t bear children.
- How we are already paying for unintended pregnancies, so this argument that paying for women’s contraceptives is somehow more expensive, is patently false.
- That yes, men do interrupt women. Constantly.
- That yes, men do “overexplain” things to women, even though they don’t know if the woman already understands the concept, or worse, the woman very clearly understands the concept. Constantly.
- That yes, men do have a tendency to hear women make a point, and then repeat their exact point back to them, as though it was the man’s original idea. Constantly.
- That the feminist movement is responsible for important things that benefit men specifically, like men being able to be considered rape victims, like men having mental health needs acknowledged, like men being able to pursue child custody.
- That women of color do, in fact, have it harder than men of color.
- That lesbian women do, in fact, have it harder than gay men.
- That privilege is real. That it can exist in many forms. That just because you don’t have it in one way (class, for instance) doesn’t mean you don’t actually have it in other ways (race, for instance).
- How the choice for a late-term abortion is not made lightly just because “someone decided they didn’t wanna be a mom.”
The list could seriously go on for so, so, so much longer. Typing it out to this degree even feels exhausting.
October came and went and I felt “triggered” for the first time in a very long time realizing how many people–women, in particular–were defending a candidate who was capable of saying these kinds of awful things about women. November came and went and I cried most days thinking about my own rapist and how he could be elected to the highest position in the land if he wanted…how his actions would have no effect on this electorate’s seemingly important and carefully weighed decision.
In December, I was on a date where I was sexually assaulted. I had foolishly and mistakenly believed that, as a 30-year-old former victim, that I was “old hat” when it came to things like this, and that it couldn’t happen to me again. I did not make a bad decision on this date. The man in question most definitely did.
And pretty soon, the actions of men became amplified. Suddenly, I felt like men had these microphones that were connected directly to speakers installed over my head: I was hearing every word in a much different, much louder, much more infuriating way.
I don’t think I got more sensitive. I think I finally woke the fuck up.
You see, after spending so much of my feminist life giving a pass to men, particularly if they seemed in any way to be decent to women, I started noticing some of the actions of my male friends, and those who called themselves feminists, in particular. Why? Because these people were supposed to be on my side. And for the first time, I was realizing just how much they benefited from being male and how much they either a) didn’t realize that, or b) didn’t care.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends say they understood why we needed a product or service that benefited women, but that they didn’t benefit from it, so they wouldn’t be using it anymore.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends made disparaging or hurtful comments about my makeup, my hair, my clothing, my undergarments, as though I had done any of these things with the intention of pleasing them…or perhaps because they thought I should have done it for those reasons.
I started noticing every. goddamn. time. that I was in a conversation with two or more male feminist friends and one would repeatedly interrupt me four words into a point, so they could talk about an unrelated thing.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends would tell me how better or more effectively to make change for women, how better or more effectively to protest or contribute to the cause.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends would read a joke I posted on Facebook that was meant to be exactly that–a joke–and take the time to explain to me “how something worked,” even though I hadn’t asked. I started noticing when my male feminist friends assumed that I didn’t know how something worked, even though they hadn’t asked me, nor had I asked them to explain something.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends seemed to listen to a statement I just made, and then proceeded to make the exact same statement, sometimes repackaged and sometimes not, as though it were their own original thought.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends made attempts to tell me how my industry works–the one in which I work every day and make my living and am actually pretty goddamn good at–because of something they read on the internet.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends said things like, We just have to deal with this president now. We have to work toward peace. We will all survive–you need to stop overreacting, as though because they would likely survive (as white hetero-cis-men) that meant we all would.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends gave me looks of serious doubt when I talked about the spike in men who made threatening comments toward women about being entitled to their bodies, all in the wake of the election.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends would ask if I was being too sensitive, or if I was overreacting to a slight made toward me by another man, or a sexually suggestive or offensive comment or action were made. As though it should be something I can shrug off. As if it doesn’t happen every day.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends truly did not believe me when I said that, if most of the women I knew called it “assault” every time it happened, there would rarely be a year (a quarter?) where many of us didn’t qualify for victimhood, and that victimhood, as it stands, is a really fucking exhausting state in which to live.
I started noticing when my feminist friends of all stripes were more willing to believe a man they barely knew than they were to believe me when I spoke of how I was mistreated by him.
I started noticing when my male feminist friends said that, although my assault “wasn’t my fault,” maybe next time, I should “make different decisions.” (Note: I could tell you a lot more about this particular situation, about whether alcohol was consumed and what I was wearing, and what decisions were made and why, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t fucking matter. My lovely friend Colleen reminded me to not listen to such men in the aftermath of these situations, because they don’t realize that “we literally train for this kind of thing every day of our lives–if they think we didn’t think about that decision before we made it, they have no understanding of what it means to be a woman.”)
And these microaggressions started to add up. Worse yet, they started to seriously eat away at me, causing me intense and crippling anxiety. These were my friends. These were my allies. If they weren’t on my side, who would be? And worse, if I confronted them, would it go anywhere at all? Would I be screaming into the void? Would they take a step back and think about their actions and apologize, or would they tell me that their intentions overrode the consequences…that I was overreacting or being too sensitive or not taking into account the person and ally that they were…that I knew them to be? Would I lose them as allies entirely?
The words of a former male feminist–one who believed that women were obligated to give him serious passes on his behavior because of his self-described label–haunted me: If you keep yelling so much, you’re going to lose all your allies. If you keep calling men out like this, they will stop supporting you. If you don’t listen to your allies, they will leave.
I’ll admit, the idea of losing my male feminist allies has scared me into silence a great many times. But then I started thinking:
What good are allies who don’t listen?
What good are allies who refuse to hear that they could be wrong?
What good are allies who are more interested in constant validation of their own efforts than they are in actual progress made for the cause?
What good are allies who continue to hurt me but who I am unable to confront on their actions and words?
What good are allies who don’t actually listen to me when I talk or believe my experiences?
What good are allies who are more interested in their interpretation of women’s experiences than they are in the actual experiences of women?
And furthermore, what good are allies who listen but never act? Who hear us but never change? Who are there when we experience these microaggressions and talk later about how fucked up they are, but who will never stand up and say so in the moment?
Short answer: they’re not.*
So here’s the thing: I’m done. I’m done worrying about toes being stepped on or feelings being hurt or allies being lost. I’m done with being more concerned about the validation of my male feminist allies than I am about the cause itself, fighting for women every single day. If you want to consider yourself an ally, you are required to do some heavy lifting for the cause, and that includes the heavy lifting of prolonged looks in the mirror, asking yourself how you can be better, how you can do more, how you can change your actions to better serve your women friends of all colors, all orientations, all sexual identities, all disabilities.
You are required to understand that you can still say and do sexist things, even as a feminist, just as I can say and do sexist things, even as a woman. You are not exempt because of a label you’ve given to yourself, or that society has given to you, or that nature has given to you. You are not exempt because you have a whole garden of “female” friends who think you’re aces. And you know what? I don’t even think you’re doing it intentionally, just as I don’t say and do sexist or racist things intentionally. But if I do them, I sure as hell want it to be pointed out so that I can refrain from doing them in the future.
I told a friend earlier that I would be writing a blog today about my frustrations with male feminists. He’s aware of them–I tell them to him often. He knows the serious internal panic I’ve struggled through trying to make sense of it all in the last several months. He asked, What happened since the last incident?
I responded, I’m a woman–that’s what happened. “What happened” is something that happens every single day.
If you read through this and thought I was speaking of a specific instance that you know about or had to do with you, while I appreciate your willingness to think about that, you’re also missing the point: these are categories I created because these categories represent things that happen monthly, weekly, daily, to me and to other women of all colors, all orientations, all identities, all disabilities.
The point is that one person and one situation is not the only one, but it certainly adds up. Microaggressions are real, and subtle discrimination is just as harmful as overt discrimination…sometimes moreso, simply in its subtlety. These all may sound small or insignificant in nature, like a $1 bill. The problem is that when you get together a million $1 bills, the result in front of you is $1 million.
In your quest to be an ally, don’t just try to avoid $1 million offenses. You must try to avoid the $1 offenses as well, or you still contribute to the massive deficit women live their lives trying to overcome.
*This same rubric can be used to speak of allies for any cause, but for the purposes of this specific blog, I’m speaking specifically about men and feminism.