In the wake of the Time Magazine debacle where they attempted to ban the word “feminist” from the vernacular in 2015, a friend (rightly appalled) posted a link to this article in which a mom declares, “I Am A Mother Of Two Children And I Cannot (And Will Not) Support Feminism” (here). I am used to hearing some of my 14 year-old students parrot ultra-conservative talking points they hear at home about feminism, but when I point out the definition of feminism (fem·i·nism - /ˈfeməˌnizəm/ noun - The advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.) they generally say, “Oh, well I support that.” Sometimes they can’t reconcile the cognitive dissonance so quickly, and they push back a bit, saying things like, “I just don’t support those extreme feminists who want women to dominate men and want to make all men feel bad.”
Then I say, “Who says that?”
They invariably can’t name anyone. “I don’t know. Those extreme feminists.”
“So you say you are not a feminist because somebody told you that feminists stand for something other than feminism, and you believed them even though you don’t know of any self-proclaimed feminist who actually believes the thing you disagree with? I am a feminist because I believe in feminism, in advocating for equality for women and men. There. Now you know a feminist.” And I leave it at that.
Here’s the thing: They get it. They are 14, and they understand that. So why are fully grown adults going around printing thoughtless, just-joking-but-stupidly articles and posting rants about how they will raise their sons to be anti-feminist?
I just don’t get it.
I was raised by feminists. My parents both worked, both shared household responsibilities, and both made decisions together. They also went out of their way to point out that gender should not dictate what kinds of opportunities a person should have (starting when I was very young, pointing out that women and men could be garbage collectors, women and men could be nurses, women and men could be police officers, etc.) and also teaching me that women and men deserve the same protections and inalienable rights (you know, not to be treated as servants in their interpersonal relationships, not to be made to think that getting drunk or wearing whatever they want gives someone the right to rape them, far out progressive ideas like that).
Now, I’m very lucky in this regard. I know not everyone had this kind of experience, and it’s easy to slip back into a traditional mindset when your default is a product of your upbringing, My mom became a pastor so early in the days of women serving as ministers that her diploma when she got her masters in divinity had all the “he”s and “his” whited out and the female pronouns written in with blue pen. I take great pride in the tacky-ness of the folks who amended her diploma: Their tacky-ness is a sign of her pioneer spirit. But I also take pride in the way my dad fully embraced feminism. He not only treated my mom as an equal in our home when I was growing up, but they worked together, and he went out of his way to communicate their equal status. I remember that, when they arrived at one church, he made sure he took the slightly smaller office so that people in the congregation would recognize that he wasn’t the boss just because of his outdoor plumbing. My dad’s feminism never made him less effective. Some folks didn’t get it, but more of them did and respected him for it, and it allowed him to have a coworker who was working at her full potential. From a professional standpoint, not letting half the workforce fully contribute is just stupid. We all lose.
I did learn a bit of the kind of old-fashioned chivalry Kennedy-Kline references in her post. I was taught to hold doors for women and to always give up my seat to a woman on a bus or a train. I recognize that these were traditional, if sexist, lessons that my parents learned, and I don’t resent the lessons. Here’s how I handle them as a feminist:
If someone is approaching a door and it is within hands reach and I can open it for them, or if I am already in a doorway and I see that someone is coming up behind me intending to use the same door, I do not look to see if they have a penis or a vagina. I hold the door open for them. Because I’m not an asshole.
When I am on a train or a bus and I see that someone is standing up, I remember that I am able-bodied and prefer to stand rather than sit and wonder if the person next to me is uncomfortable. Their gender isn’t a factor. I offer them my seat. Because I am not an asshole.
Sometimes people say, “No, thanks.” I have never, not once, had someone shout at me, “You are only offering my your seat because I’m a woman, you sexist pig!” Do you know why? Because feminists are not assholes. Those kinds of “feminists” exist in movies and in the mind of Rush Limbaugh precisely because they are ridiculous caricatures and Rush Limbaugh doesn’t get the joke. He doesn’t get the joke because he is a sexist pig.
We need to stop telling that joke. Too many people aren’t getting it. It seems we have a generation of women and men who have come to believe in the caricature of the “extreme feminist.” Talking heads on Fox News and the right-wing shock jocks on am radio blame feminism for the decline of America’s woes, and somehow that has filtered into enough brains that it’s crowded out the true definition of feminism such that men and women and formerly respectable magazines are afraid of the word for fear that it will associate them with this straw man who radiates negative connotations.
We have regressed. My speculation is that feminism in academia outran the culture in the nineties. Back then, we could have really interesting discussions about difficult questions like whether or not pornography was positive for women. (On the one hand, it could provide female actors, directors, and producers the chance to depict female sexuality as something that isn’t shameful and doesn’t need to be hidden. On the other hand, the audience is largely male and the market forces push the industry to reinforce negative, unrealistic depictions of human bodies, healthy relationships, and power dynamics.) We could talk about workplace politics. (Should we advocate for more women to have the freedom to work ridiculous hours and turn their parenting over to others like their male counterparts, or should we advocate for more freedom for men and women to have healthy work-life balances and for corporate practices that encourage men and women to take time off to share in parenting? If the answer is both, how do we work towards both goals simultaneously?) Unfortunately, while these discussion were going on amongst feminists, the anti-feminists were painting this picture of the “extreme feminist” and plucking bits and pieces from the academic debate to make their case (“See? The extreme feminists support S&M where men are being dominated! They want to make all stay-at-home moms feel bad! They want to make all men stay-at-home dads!”). Then, as the economy took a downturn and men and women lost their jobs, especially in previously male-dominated fields like manufacturing, the people who had never participated in the healthy debates about the way feminist should advocate for equality were left looking for a scapegoat, and there was the “extreme feminist,” the one who wanted all the men to be unemployed and had allowed all those women into positions of authority that were crowding men out of the market. People bought the lie.
As a teacher, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to review. Does it feel boring and condescending for the people who already get the material? Yes. That’s difficult, but it’s unavoidable. There are too many people in our American classroom who never learned that feminism is about equality for women, and that equality for women is a good thing for women and men. The debates of the nineties focus on very difficult issues of equality and liberty, but we can go back and agree that no one, male or female, should have to worry that he/she will be abused or raped for any reason. Similarly, we can agree that no one, male or female, should be made to feel that they are less of a person because they don’t want to fit into some traditional role where they give orders or take them just because that’s what men or women are supposed to do. We can agree that healthy sexuality is about mutual pleasure and love rather than shame and dominance and suffering. We can agree that the generalizations based on biological averages are irrelevant in individual cases, and that knowing whether a person stands up or sits down while peeing is a pretty stupid way to determine what they can contribute in every other aspect of their lives.
Tara Kennedy-Kline seems to think that it’s a good idea to teach her sons that leering at women is fine, and that she needs to spend her energy teaching them about the danger of “easy” girls. She seems to think that giving gifts or “spontaneous hug or peck on the cheek from time to time to show their love” is somehow gendered and she needs to encourage these behaviors in her boys to make them real men, as though women don’t do these things as well. She doesn’t want her boys to ever have to “submit to the anger of a woman” because that “means suppressing masculinity.” I worry deeply about the ideas of masculinity these boys will develop, especially considering they are a reaction against feminism, a movement that says everybody deserves to be treated as a person rather than an object, everybody gets to give gifts and hugs, and everybody, male feminists or female feminists, has a right to get angry when we hear about somebody trying to force someone else into traditional gender roles. It pisses me off in the same way it will piss off the women they will have to deal with in their lives. If they can’t handle that because they’ve been taught that protecting their mother’s sexist attitudes is the key to their masculinity, she has done them a disservice.
I am going to raise my son to believe that women deserve social, political, and economic equality to men. That’s because I’m a feminist. I hope he’ll be one, too.