I am a straight, white, married, American man. I am a feminist.
This is not a trivial label to adopt. The “f-word” is, and always has been, deeply contested. Feminists’ opponents have long accused them of hating men or wanting to destroy families; on the other side, some of those sympathetic to feminist objectives explicitly reject the term.
Some suggest that “feminism” has become obsolete — who needs it when powerful women like Marissa Meyer reject it? Others wonder how to handle the appropriation of the term by women, such as Sarah Palin, who work directly against some rights for women on issues like fair pay and access to abortion. As brilliantly deconstructed by Jessica Valenti, “If anyone — even someone who actively fights against women’s rights — can call herself a feminist, the word and the movement lose all meaning.” Has that happened? Has it lost all meaning?
Female celebrities, the most visible women in the world, muddy the waters (if you took Women’s Studies 101, you’ll remember that “visible” evokes the power of the “gaze”). Lady Gaga can’t be a feminist because she loves male culture. Taylor Swift doesn’t “really think about guys versus girls.” Katy Perry is not a feminist but does “believe in the power of women.” Madonna is a “humanist.” And the list goes on. In some cases, one senses a fear of women who market their sexual attractiveness being labeled with the f-word.
The most common dodge away from feminism in my community, among men and women alike, is to agree that they are generally in favor of women’s rights, but to reject the label. Instead, they define themselves as “egalitarian.” The egalitarian argument focuses on generalized equality, rather than specifically fighting for the rights of women.
Egalitarianism is a noble idea and I am not here to reject it. But to simply embrace egalitarianism requires ignoring the continuing the dominance of men in our society, to embrace abstract principles over the realities of power dynamics, and to deny the existence of patriarchy.
I am a feminist because in America, as in much of the West, patriarchy usually functions in a pervasive and subtle way. As the great historian Judith Bennett argues in History Matters (and elsewhere), patriarchy usually does not consist of a group of men getting together in a room explicitly to discuss how they might better oppress women this week — which is a pity, because otherwise we could just find that room and lock the door (from the outside).
Instead, patriarchy permeates our culture, pushing us to act in ways that reinforce the subordinate status of women and also place limits on male identity. Patriarchy shapes the gender norms that invade our minds nearly from birth. Unless we deliberately pursue the ways that patriarchy shapes our speech, actions, media, and so much more, we assume that the structural power dynamics are natural. We assume that boys will just be boys and girls just want to be pretty. When patriarchy is subtle, we also lack clarity for who we should target when trying to effect social change. We must move deliberately to work against it, identifying pathways to change. That kind of deliberate action lies at the core of my feminism.
I am a feminist because when I go to McDonald’s (and yes, I know I shouldn’t go to McDonald’s), and order a Happy Meal, they ask me whether I want a “boy’s toy or a girl’s toy.” The boys’ toys are active, with moving parts, and often violent: cars, giants, aliens, catapults, action figures, heroes, and heroic paraphernalia. Girls’ toys come in pink, purple, yellow, and orange. They are passive — at most, they sparkle. Dolls, plastic versions of clothing, and animals — but not animals that might climb or hunt, but cute little things you can snuggle. Right now, boys get Hot Wheels.™ Girls get Sparkle shoes (little plastic keychain shoes, covered in hearts and flowers) from Sketchers.™ The people at the counter are supposed to say, “Do you want the shoe or the car?” But they never do. What am I supposed to do if my son wants the shoe and my daughter the car? Of course, having heard the gender norming question, they just go with what’s expected.
I am a feminist because when Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon, BBC host John Inverdale said, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.’” The comments on Twitter, in the same vein, were much more vulgar. The key here is that a woman was being judged for her appearance, not for her (awesome) accomplishments. We see this constantly, from Wired’s profile of a leading Google engineer that begins with a discussion of wardrobe, to the way my daughter won an award for “best-dressed” when she was four.
I am a feminist because when a British man won the men’s Wimbledon title, the announcers crowed, “Andy Murray ends 77 years of waiting for a British champion.” They either forgot or didn’t care that Virginia Wade, a British Woman, had won a title in 1977.
I am a feminist because sometimes we do see literal bodies of patriarchs, gathered in a room, oppressing women — and we can’t just lock the door. In Texas, at the end of June, a woman in white stood, for eleven hours, as men in dark suits for eleven hours tried to silence her. Senator Wendy Davis remained standing in her sneakers and filibustered the cruel anti-abortion bill about to pass the Texas Senate. The men tried to game the system, judging discussions of forced sonograms and Planned Parenthood somehow non-germane, and even placing a fraudulent time stamp on the bill even though they voted after the session had expired.
I am feminist because on the next day, Governor Rick Perry called a special session to reconsider the bill. He invoked Senator Davis’ own history as a single mom as a means of delegitimizing her argument, though later, relying on the excuse used by many harassers of women, he claimed he was just giving her “compliments.” When the Texas legislature debated the bill, women were forced to dispose of tampons and pads before being allowed to enter gallery (though, as widely noted, guns were fine). North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin have all passed anti-abortion legislation recently, often using shady legislative tricks. These bills endanger women’s lives, force women to carry unliving fetuses to term, and strip away women’s legal control over their own bodies.
Finally, I am a feminist because it’s good for men, too. I am an active, involved, father with serious professional ambitions. Feminism promotes not just the idea that “women are people too,” but that one can organize one’s life in diverse, equally acceptable ways. I take full advantage of that in my complex life, talking freely about my family obligations in the workplace as I pursue balance in my life.
My examples — Wimbledon, Wendy Davis, McDonald’s, the ways in which sexism and patriarchy attempt to govern our lives — all manifested themselves in the last few weeks. By the end of summer, I will have many other examples, as the fight against patriarchy continues, perhaps endlessly. And that’s why I’m a feminist, because the threats against women’s rights are real, and the consequences matter for all of us.