Art by Sacha Irick
It’s often said that many in our generation who reject feminism are “feminists without knowing it.” They believe in gender equality but not the “f-word,” which to them means a rather different agenda. I will surprise nobody when I say that feminism is prone to misunderstanding by its detractors, as well as distortion by some of its supporters. But I see no need to drop the label. The original goal of feminism was to make the genders equal in a “man’s world.”
If we zoom out to a global view, we see that “the patriarchy” is still very much alive. Women are subjected to the fruits of injustice everywhere, from having acid thrown in their faces to being denied any opportunities for education, independence and leadership. According to UNICEF, in 2004 the adult literacy rate for women was still 18 percent lower than for men in the least developed countries.
While American society sends mixed messages about gender and power, it’s easy for us men to be oblivious to the ways this culture caters to us: double standards about sex for women, much greater objectification of women and simple female movie characters that exist mostly to support complex male heroes. Powerful women are generally resented, while powerful men are more often lionized. It’s wrong to say nothing of issues like violence, rape and trafficking, which (though reversals exist) are more often inflicted on women by men.
Is feminism necessary for equality? Absolutely, but here’s the rub. It’s done a far better job of communicating to women than it has to men. Feminism has given women historically unprecedented opportunity in the First World, but there is still some chaff among the wheat. Some argue that gender is irrelevant to our role in society, but others make the feminine divine and the masculine defective or demonic, reversing old patriarchal prejudices. Men respond by checking out of the conversation.
I think the greatest fear many men in our society have of feminism is that it will eventually make them the despised class that women were in the Age of Patriarchy. Some just don’t like having female bosses, but perhaps more feel that feminism has done its job and now wants to go beyond equality. They are made anxious by the extreme fringe of feminism, which calls for a matriarchal coup and insists that all males are mentally inferior rapists-in-hiding who break everything they touch.
If the thought of your gender ruling over the other excites you (or you wish the other didn’t exist), you’re probably running from something or someone. Nature has no concept of “superiority.” It’s a human concept intended to protect the ego from a deep sense of inferiority. The 19th century women’s suffrage activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while admirable in most respects, insisted on female superiority when surrounded by men who wanted to shove her back to the sidelines.
The truth is, those men were afraid that politically powerful women would begin, in John Adams’ words, a “despotism of the petticoat.” Meaning that women would totally run their lives if men let up their control. Both misogyny and misandry are kept alive by a steady diet of insecurities. Then fear steps in and starts pulling the strings.
Power struggles between men and women don’t stay in the political arena. They take place daily, whether from egocentric bosses or soon-to-be ex-wives. For many, the first shots fired in the sadly but aptly named “battle of the sexes” are in childhood, as anyone with an abusive father or mother will testify. Later experiences can confirm our prejudices.
If feminists sneer at social issues facing men (homelessness, male rape, higher incarceration rates), they’re only shooting down any notion that they have greater compassion. But perhaps the tide is turning. Emma Watson’s viral “He for She” speech at the U.N. (given Sep. 20, 2014) surprised me greatly, and I sorely wish the “masculinists” would have recognized an olive branch when they saw one. My jaw hit the floor when she said she saw her father’s role in the family “less valued” by society. Before I’d heard only of how fatherhood was obsolete or harmful.
True equality and reconciliation between the sexes will take immense growth, healing and openness for all parties involved. The way forward isn’t greater suspicion or resentment of the other gender, but trust that there is goodness within all people, plus a willingness to cooperate and (above all) listen.
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