Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In which I defend feminism yet again

 A few years ago, I shared an experience where a friend said I was a feminist and I flinched. Two years of grad school and a semester teaching later, I'm ashamed that I would even bat an eye. But I understand a little better now why I flinched. Feminist seems to still be a bad word, a stand in for man-hater or wannabe man. Sadly, I've gotten used to that. You can't convince everyone, but lately, it seems like the world wants something to blame for people not being happy, so they look towards feminism.

I've read quite a few articles on gender lately. Nothing too scientific, I'll grant you. Some that I hope no one would take seriously. Believe me, I'm tempted to tear some of them apart, but I worry that I would just be tearing apart a straw man. I will however mention one, Susanne Venker's To be happy, we must admit women aren't equal. In it, she blames feminism for making marriage more competitive and for posing women against men. I can actually agree with her that sometimes there is a competitiveness between men and women, but I don't think it's feminism's fault. I think it is that some people, men and women, don't understand what feminism is about.

Here's an example: I often like to get my students to debate and one summer, we actually had enough time to have daily debates. In trying to teach against stereotypes, I asked my students, "What makes a woman a woman?" Genetic features aside, they mentioned a few things, but challenged and questioned each other and finally came to the conclusion that the definition depended on the person. I couldn't have been happier with their conclusion. I thought my lesson a success. However, one of the guys in my class said that he'd like to discuss what makes a man a man. Well, I thought it was only fair. So the next class we began our debate with his question, but it turned out quite differently. No one challenged the definitions of manhood being stated. In fact, despite the challenges of the last debate, many of those definitions relied on contrasting masculine characteristics to feminine ones. They even went so far to say that men had harder qualities while women had softer ones. Venker might point out that the total breakdown of my lesson proved that men and women are different, but I saw something different. I saw my male students were perfectly fine breaking down constructions of gender when they applied to women, but still relied on those constructions when it came to defining their own gender. The guys on my class had to define themselves in contrast to women.

If feminism has played a part in the break down of marriages, it is not because feminists hate men, it is because we have not been able to get men to talk about the pressures they feel to meet certain stereotypes while trying to allow women to break stereotypes. If men are still expected to protect and provide, then maybe that is why some of them feel threatened when a woman is hired over them or their partner seems to be able to take care of herself. In that frame of mind, they are essentially redundant, but relationships are about individuals. If it was simply a matter of gender, anyone guy could marry any girl. But it doesn't work that way. Some guys may need to provide so they like girls who let them. Great, fine. Personally, that's not the guy I need. Feminism is about making sure people, men and women, are treated equally and treated with respect. To give Venker's closing statement a new meaning, "Isn't it time we stopped fussing about who brought what and just enjoyed the feast?"

I'm not the first to notice this, either.
How Movies Teach Manhood

Suggested Further Reading
Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth
Yes, I'm a Homemaker

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