Since today is International Women’s Day, I have been thinking about the progress of feminism in the United States and my own personal growth as someone who believes in gender equality. The candidacy of Hillary Clinton and her campaign’s utilization of a social justice narrative to galvanize support also has given me reason to ponder these things. Last but not least, I have an 18 month old daughter. While I was not oblivious to the struggles of women in our society before she was born, obviously her birth has made me even more conscious about the discrimination and deprivation she will someday face.
While I have always self-identified as a feminist, I have not been a good one. As a teenager, I was awkward and shy, pompous and pretentious. I was unpopular with the opposite sex. Like many young men, I fell into the trap of believing bogus explanations for this, such as “women only like men who are bad for them” or that “women will trap you in the ‘friend zone’ if you let them.” When I went to college, I ended up joining a fraternity, and while it was not the embodiment of “bro culture” as many assume, it was also not a breeding ground for progressive social consciousness. I became bitter and cynical because I felt — again, like many men, unfortunately — entitled to romance, because I was doing everything right, in my view, and women were not throwing themselves at me. This basic truth took me a long time to acknowledge, much to my shame: women do not owe men anything, regardless of how much kind, sensitive or intelligent they are. I certainly never felt obligated to be attracted to a woman because of her character or demeanor; a woman was either attractive to me or not, and that was all there was to it. Yet I remained frustrated that women acted according to their own standards and not my own.
Life has been the best teacher in this regard, and it was actually through talking with women — friends, relatives, girlfriends — that I learned about the reality of what many women have to endure. For example, I always knew that sexual assault of women happens more often than is discussed in society, and I probably encountered the statistics on college rape many times in my young adult life. However, it was not until I realized many women I dated had been sexually assaulted, or that many had sisters or friends who had been, that I began to really understand how prevalent such violence is, and even worse, how tolerated and neglected it traditionally has been. I also started to see the insidious and absurd language used in attempts to prevent sexual assault, like “consent is sexy” or that “imagine if she was your sister.” Why does consent have to be “sexy?” Why can we not just accept that consent is required? Why do I have to visualize a woman as someone important to me? Isn’t the fact that she is a person be enough to show her respect?
My biggest problem, however, has been objectification. In my interactions with women, there is always a judgement of appearance, of beauty, of whether or not she might find me attractive. Even if I recognize a woman’s intelligence, integrity, and other qualities that actually matter, there remains that voice inside my head saying, “She’s very attractive” if I happen to find her alluring. Honestly, I have ruined a few relationships with women because I could not resist hitting on them — even though I told myself time and again, “This is a good person, someone you want as a friend, don’t make it weird.” Fortunately, as I have grown older and entered into genuine committed relationships, this tendency has become less frequent, but it’s something that still happens. I worry about it, too, because many of the older men I know are not shy about being “dirty old men,” leering at young women young enough to be their daughters. That’s not a judgement, because objectifying women is a hard habit to break, especially in a society that places such emphasis on women conforming to traditional definitions of beauty and grace.
I have noticed that those definitions are shifting, but not strictly in a positive way. For example, a very curvy woman was recently featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Successful female athletes like Ronda Rousey and Lindsey Vonn also wore body paint in the same issue. On the one hand, I am glad that mainstream society is willing to admit that beauty comes in different flavors, from the voluptuous to the toned. On the other hand, these women are posing on their hands and knees and in other suggestive positions, portraying themselves as pure objects of arousal. I am not denying that Rousey and Vonn have had inspiring careers or suggesting they should be ashamed of their bodies, but is it truly a triumph for feminism if what we are doing as society is essentially expanding the category of what straight men should consider “hot?”
I am also perturbed by how much feminism has been co-opted by modern capitalism. Nancy Fraser has written extensively about this. In a nutshell, women are encouraged to fight to enter the rat race: to break the “glass ceiling” and climb the corporate ladder, to earn more competitive salaries, to be more assertive in the workplace and not worry about being seen as a “bitch,” and so on. These are not trivial matters, but there is a danger in stressing these goals over ones that challenge the capitalist system. For example, day care in the United States is absurdly expensive. Yet, bourgeois feminism insists that women invest in child care so that they can become workers. However, what if mothers (and fathers) preferred being a parent to an employee? Instead of celebrating women who perform the work/family balance, why do not we pressure the government to make day care a public good, or at least provide people with a basic income, so being a stay-at-home parent is a more viable option in today’s rough economy? Why isn’t feminism being partnered with trade unionism, so that women workers could collectively bargain for things that would benefit them, like better pay, better paternity leave, better job security? More and more, feminism has been divorced from economic arguments, so that the spotlight is almost exclusively on non-economic issues, like political representation, strong female characters in the media, and even how women are portrayed in video games. Again, not to trivialize these issues — they matter, too — but there is worrying trend of feminism being used to support capitalism rather than to criticize it.
Additionally, feminism has been more and more oriented toward the interests of white middle class women. What about women of color? In terms of health care, women of color are more likely to die from breast cancer and from cervical cancer than white women. Women of color also fare worse in terms of educational attainment, and unlike white women, have to deal with police brutality and other forms of institutionalized racism. What is more, despite the efforts of Hillary Clinton, these issues are not separate from economics: women of color are less likely to afford health insurance or a higher education than white women are. Modern feminism needs to do a better job of making sure that women of color are not ignored in their struggles to transcend the trap of low-wage work — and that they have access to the skills and knowledge that white women can access.
To repeat, I am a man, and no matter how “woke” I may aspire to be, I will never know what it is like to spend a day as a woman, facing what women face, knowing what society forces them to tolerate and endure. However, I do recognize that feminism is worth supporting and defending, and that I should strive toward better progress in understanding the problems women must deal with and to be a better ally as a result. I still have a lot to learn, and if people — especially women — want to leave me comments, I encourage them to do so.