Dear ‘pro-feminist’ male partner
You may have noticed a growing trend for writing blog posts addressed at large, loosely-defined groups of women, with the express intention of explaining to them, in patronising detail, why they are a bit shit. Dear white feminists, dear cis people, that sort of thing (yes, these titles don’t specifically state ‘women’ but we all know that is what is meant). These posts are crap for a number of reasons:
1. They make the political deeply personal while pretending not to do so, presenting personal attacks as structural analysis (and any structural analysis on the part of those being critiqued as personal attacks).
2. Instead of contextualising aspects of sexism as it is experienced by different groups, they simply deny that certain groups of women experience these aspects at all (a poor cis white lesbian? Don’t be daft – such a creature cannot exist! And denying another person’s very specific experience of oppression is, like, totes intersectional…)
3. They’re not really aimed at the people they claim to be aimed at – it’s just a passive-aggressive sport. See how much you can insult a woman without her revealing her “bigotry” by saying “enough”.
4. There’s no theory of patriarchy because to have a theory of patriarchy is, so the story goes, tantamount to saying sexism is the only form of discrimination there is and that there are no intersections with other forms of discrimination. This story is, by the way, utter rubbish, but it doesn’t stop those who tell it from thinking they’re being really deep and insightful. Silly them. Silly, sexist, patronising them.
Anyhow, those “dear group of people I shall pretend to educate, even though it’s not my fucking job and what I’m actually doing is shitting on you because I feel like it” posts — they’re awful. So I’m really, really not wanting to write one here. What I am wanting to do is explain some things about privilege, fear and male entitlement that a lot of ‘pro-feminist’ men don’t seem to get, not because they are stupid or mean but because a lot of women, having lived their entire lives being told they are inferior, don’t get them either.
Feminism excludes people. Yeah, I know, that’s what you’ve been saying all along, each time you’ve wrung your hands over feminist “in-fighting” and wished those cis fems would sit down and listen and learn (not to you, obviously, what with you being male. But you have tried to “signal boost” on behalf of more oppressed women, which isn’t the same as speaking for them, since only nasty cis fems can make that mistake). Anyhow, feminism excludes, but not for the reasons you think. Feminism tells people — those born male — that they are excluded from spaces that they thought belonged to them. Such spaces include women’s bodies and their minds. It tells them they are no longer invited to the “decide what a woman is and use her accordingly” party. This annoys men since it goes against what they’ve been told all their lives. They cry “bigot”, as do some women, who can’t imagine a life whose boundaries were not set by male superiors (why, without a man to fuck her and tell her what she is, does a woman even exist?). The space that women need to be whole, complete human beings is suddenly off-limits to outsiders. This “keep out” sign — which we call “consent” — is recast as prejudice. This is not fair or just, but it’s what feminists have always been fighting against in one way or another.
Of course, it is convenient not to think of feminism in this way. Nice, inclusive feminism should create some space for everyone (in much the same way that nice, inclusive traditional womanhood does). Thus we pretend that the oppression of women isn’t based on a violent gender hierarchy which tramples over the very idea that those born female have a right to say no. We pretend it is just some embarrassing mix-up. Being devalued as a person because of your biological sex in relation to the gender hierarchy is suddenly reduced to the same status as wearing odd socks or being given white wine when you ordered red. We just need to tweak it a little to find out what one’s “natural” position is (hey, you know who’s best at that sort of tweaking? Trans women. Funny, that). Meanwhile, women born female might as well just carry on being cis, which is totally different to playing the same old shitty traditional inclusive womanhood role, apart from the fact that it’s exactly the same.
I know what you are thinking: this is not the whole of feminism. It’s just one particular area, those inclusivity debates that take place on twitter, and it’s hardly real life. And anyhow, setting aside all this trans-cis stuff — since risking being called a bigot is a step too far for you when it comes to standing by a woman — aren’t there more important, practical things? What about real-life violence, abuse and silencing of women? You’re ace at spotting and condemning that. Well, here’s the thing: you’re not. It’s happening all the time and you don’t notice, or rather, you only notice when a man “acts like a sexist”. The broader context of undermining, devaluing and silencing women passes you, and indeed most of us, by.
Do you know why, when you go into a meeting at work or a seminar or a classroom or down the pub, men are not yelling at women to shut the fuck up or they’ll get what’s coming to them? You think it is because most men are nice. I think most men are nice, too, but I also think the reason they are not yelling these things is BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE TO. Female socialisation — the abuse and the fear that it embeds — is massive. The effects are everywhere. Women are traumatised by it in ways they can’t even admit. In places relatively new environments (e.g. social media) men yelling at women to shut the fuck up are far more common because the knee-jerk silence response isn’t yet embedded. It will be, though. Women see what happens to other women and they know to be quiet without having to be asked.
Women feel this online but they also feel it in everyday interactions. It is part of what being a woman is (yeah, yeah, whatever, you read some Butler and Serano, you think being a woman is a contextualised performance with specific scenarios blah blah blah. But denying that the performance of womanhood is shaped within a context of extreme oppression from the point of birth is, I think, a pretty fucking selective reading of context and performance). Womanhood, if it is anything, is about feeling unsafe and unduly dependent on others for one’s own reality. Once you know this you know enough not to reinforce it
It is not enough to condemn men who explicitly abuse women and make them feel threatened. That is good and it is appreciated. But if you want women to feel safe, you owe them the reassurance that you do not implicitly expect their silence. You owe them the reassurance that you do not feel entitled to define their boundaries. You owe them the reassurance that you do not think “being a male feminist” is a game of “spot the sexist” or merely the act of sharing the housework — it is understanding that we inhabit a whole culture that makes women feel that they are less. It is understanding that women’s spaces still need reclaiming.
It has taken me a long time to understand this and I am a woman myself. I imagine it is harder for a man. I don’t condemn or judge you. I just really, really want you to understand.