Last month, a few male friends who I consider to be both intelligent and enlightened posted an article against feminism, voicing support for the views of the woman who wrote it. A debate ensued, with several people pointing out flaws in the author’s argument, but with others saying they agreed with her points on the restrictions placed on people in the name of feminism. Personally, I have serious issues with this woman’s opinions, but it intrigued me that people were so relieved that someone had pointed out doubts they had themselves about feminism.
The last year has seen a pretty impressive explosion in the modern feminist movement. Many people, in the public eye and outside it, have found it much easier and more acceptable to say yes, I’m a feminist. I believe in equality. No, that doesn’t mean I burn my bras (why would I do that? It’s painful to run without one) and want to poke all men in the eye with a fork. There’s still a long way to go, but personally I’m encouraged.
Yet there seems to be an issue with swinging too far the other way. What I think the author of this article is saying is that in the quest for equality, feminism is erasing the differences between the genders. In saying women should be equal to men, she seems to think feminism is looking down on all feminine qualities, and telling men that displaying masculine qualities is wrong. I don’t think that’s true. The reason feminism is so important for men as well as women is that it allows men the freedom to have feminine qualities, at the same time as woman can have masculine traits. One of the main problems with this article is that in most of the examples she gives of what she wants to teach her sons – to have respect for their partners, and to treat them well – she is in no way going against the ideals of feminism. She also seems to have misconstrued the principles behind several feminist campaigns, misquoting or wilfully misunderstanding them in some cases. The Hollaback! Campaign is not telling men never ever to speak to female strangers, but to think about how they are coming across and not make people uncomfortable by making personal comments in a public space, or by forcing women into a place where they feel they must respond. I don’t follow the logic that the #YesAllWomen campaign, by saying that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted, is sending the message to girls that 100% of men are rapists. That’s just bad maths.
While it’s good that she is teaching her sons to grow up to be gentlemen, the underlying tone in her writing worries me. She seems to have some issues around “easy” women, saying that the shame is being flipped onto males for looking at women who are flaunting their bodies. I do think this is an issue with the feminist movement, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, that sometimes in fighting for women not to be overly sexualised in the media, the argument pushes too far into not sexualising women at all, when of course people are going to find women sexually attractive just as we find men sexually attractive. But I’m not sure that’s what she’s arguing for here – she seems to be showing a worrying judgement on young girls who feel the need to dress a certain way. Of course the focus in school should be on all sexes wearing ordinary, decent clothing which isn’t focused on social status. But why does she think young girls are rolling their skirts up at the waist, and stuffing tissues in their crop tops? Because the message they are sent by the media is that that’s what they should look like, and we need feminism to teach them that this isn’t the case, that they don’t need to do that. This mother shouldn’t be teaching her sons that to be attracted to women who are wearing exposing clothing makes them perverted, but neither should she be teaching them to judge those girls for what they’re wearing, or to expect something from them based on it. She mentions earlier that she wants her sons to judge people based on what is on the inside, so you’d think she’d agree with this message, but the way she talks about “easy” girls makes it sound like she is judging them herself without a second thought. The line ‘and let’s not pretend there aren’t plenty of them,’ in reference to “easy” girls, made me particularly uncomfortable. Are we still talking about school-age girls here? Girls at that age dress in “easy” ways because that’s what they’re being taught will gain them approval, by the media and music videos and all the articles judging even powerful women based on what shoes they have on. In later years, women should be allowed to wear what they feel comfortable in, and men shouldn’t feel like they’re doing something wrong by finding women’s bodies attractive. But it shouldn’t be the sole basis for a judgement of a person, or an assumption of their “easiness.”
Lastly, I worry what kind of message this woman would be giving to her daughter, if she had one. She says that she thinks each gender has a specific role, but she doesn’t specify what she thinks they are. She says she doesn’t believe the sexes can ever be completely equal, but she doesn’t say in what context or why. If she had a daughter, would she be saying that there are some things she won’t be able to do that her brothers can, and that’s just the way it is? That is, in most if not all societies, still a fact, but to say that that’s how it is- and, as her mother, that’s what she believes is right, is seriously damaging. And, if that’s the attitude she has, that will be getting transmitted to her sons. So, as someone pointed out, how will they cope in later life if they have a strong female boss?
I think I understand why people found this article resonant. In saying that men and women should be given equal opportunities, sometimes it does feel like we’re saying that women should be just as physically strong as men, should never have to ask for help, and that men should never offer assistance for fear of being told they’re sexist. The ‘holding a door open’ example is a good one. Is it sexist for a man to hold a door open for a woman? No, it’s just polite. I hold doors open for people regardless of gender, and I know most people do too. Is it un-feminist of me to say that I am crap at putting together a bookcase, because I’m not very strong, and some men with greater upper body strength would have done a better job? No, it’s just a fact (although I partly blame the screwdriver, which was simply USELESS).
In asking for equality, I for one am not asking for the differences between the sexes to be erased. Do I like being stereotypically feminine sometimes? Of course. Do I like men being stereotypically male at times? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that I want to feel bound to certain paths because I’m a woman, and I don’t think men should be either. The problem with this article is that most of it is saying things that are perfectly in line with equality between the sexes (which is the definition of feminism- the ‘fem’ in it is confusing sometimes) and the other bits are exactly the kinds of attitude that greater equality is needed for, to counteract views like this one that girls at school are already “easy” and can, and should, be judged as such. Asking for equality for women doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t be allowed to give women compliments, or to look after them when they need it. In the right context, of course they should, and women should be able to do the same back. Equality is equality, with freedom to mix masculinity and femininity and a need to be respectful to everybody. I like an example of this that an old colleague was very keen on: when a man opens a car door for a woman, that’s sweet and she should get in. But while he walks round to his side, she leans over and unlatches the door for him. Consideration and support on both sides, and we all win.