Under-appreciated Steps To Understanding Your Role In “Women’s Issues”

War on womenWar on men


We’ve heard a lot about the War on Women and the War on Men in the news the past few months. Every conversation I hear about it seems to be missing a crucial point of view or idea. I am also amazed at how often important voices are left out of each of the conversations. This is my attempt to highlight a few [and by no means all, or even the most important] steps we can take to improve our conversations about issues of sex and gender. As always, I seek increase my own awareness through dialogue, so whether you agree or disagree with this list, please leave a comment on below.

O. Watch this video by Jackson Katz which inspired me to write this.

I think he effectively gives the argument for why I have a problem with somethings being a women’s issue and not a human or a man’s issue. I’m not talking about or advocating for “Men’s Rights” [a topic I will write about soon], I’m talking about how making something a woman’s issues means that it is something that women have to deal with and I can just tune out. This is why you hear the complaint from some men saying “well, we never talk about men’s issues I don’t see why I have to hear about women’s issues all the time.” First of all, we do talk about men’s issues some times but they are just called issues. Here is a great post about how Men are People, Women are Women from a friend of mine. Second, we should definitely talk about Men’s issues more but men need to be prepared to have real conversations about masculinity. Its not going to be easy.

Just like Women’s Issues are not just shopping,  reproductive rights and parenting, Men’s Issues are not just sports, sex and fatherhood. In fact, the issues are basically they same. Some men like shopping and some women like sports. All men should be concerned about domestic violence and reproductive rights and all women should be concerned with fatherhood and men’s health. We all may care about different aspects of these issues. Men may understandably be more concerned with their part in stopping domestic violence and women may be more concerned with how they can support or improve their children’s, niece’s or student’s relationship with their fathers. Yet these are issues that affect us all. Also, I am not calling for the end labeling things as women’s issues, merely advocating that we find a way for insure that everyone hears and is heard.

I think Lindy West put it best when she wrote:

Think of it like this. Imagine you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book about a bunch of beasts living on an island. There are two kinds of beasts: Fleetches and Flootches. (Stick with me here! I love you!) Though the two are functionally identical in terms of intellect and general competence, Fleetches are in charge of pretty much everything. They hold the majority of political positions, they make the most money (beast-bucks!), they dominate the beast media, they enact all kinds of laws infringing on the bodily autonomy of Flootches. Individually, most of them are perfectly nice beasts, but collectively they benefit comfortably from inequalities that are historically entrenched in the power structure of Beast Island. So, from birth, even the most unfortunate Fleetches encounter fewer institutional roadblocks and greater opportunity than almost all Flootches, regardless of individual merit. One day, a group of Flootches (the ones who have not internalized their inferiority) get together and decide to agitate to change that system. They call their movement “Flootchism,” because it is specifically intended to address problems that disproportionately disadvantage Flootches while benefiting Fleetches. That makes sense, right?

Now imagine that, in response, a bunch of Fleetches begin complaining that Flootchism doesn’t address their needs, and they have problems too, and therefore the movement should really be renamed Beastism. To be fair. The problem with that name change is that it that undermines the basic mission of the movement, because it obscures (deliberately, I’d warrant) that beast society is inherently weighted against Flootches. It implies that all problems are just beast problems, and that all beasts suffer comparably, which cripples the very necessary effort to prioritize and repair problems that are Flootch-specific. Those problems are a priority because they harm all Flootches, systematically, whereas Fleetch problems merely harm individual Fleetches. To argue that all problems are just “beast problems” is to discredit the idea of inequality altogether. It is, in fact, insulting.

1. Embrace Complexity:

Understand that none of these issues are black and white. I even disagree with one or two points on all the articles I link to because ultimately these are complex issues and all of us have several lenses and paradigms we see them through. What’s important is that just because you disagree with one part of someone’s argument shouldn’t mean you disregard it completely. You might be a pro-choice man and find a women’s right to choose appalling given that the fetus has no say. You have a right to that opinion but that doesn’t men you should disregard the uproar when people talk about “legitimate rape” just because you like their stance on abortion. Similarly, you might identify as sex positive or sexually liberated but don’t forget that everyone’s sexual experience may not have been as positive as yours.

Bottom line: not all women who are pro-choice have internalized oppression or men who have guilt connected to their masculine identities made effeminate by feminism. These issues and our reactions to them are as complex as we are.

2. Understand that there is a problem:

I get it, maybe you think that women have gone to far. That whatever wave of feminism we are up to now has upset the natural order of things. Maybe you are woman who likes the role which women have been traditionally expected to fill. Maybe you believe that men should be the head of household because God said so. Maybe you are man who is tired of being portrayed as the dumb, overweight husband on T.V. Maybe you are Black man who is tired of young, college educated white women telling you how privileged you are to be a man. Great, you have a right to those opinions. What you shouldn’t do is forget that gender inequality exist because you either think you aren’t directly hurt by it or dislike the people talking about it.

We all have different takes on what the problem is, it severity, urgency and its causes but we should all agree that there is a problem of gender inequality in human society. There are numerous examples of human civilization having some problem with gender. From the examples the severe oppression of women world wide to accusations of reverse sexism, it is clear that it is out there. Recognizing that there is a problem is the first [er second? Third?] step in dealing with it.

3. Learn the power of active listening and intentional speech:

Words matter and how we talk to each other matters. Part of understanding the complexity of these issues is understanding that the are often very personal. This not only means that open dialogue is required to hear different sides of these personal issues but that this open dialogue needs to happen in a safe place. We will learn nothing from each other if we keep on the same accepted scripts and refuse to be vulnerable to each other. I found this article by Ana Mardoll to be helpful for that. It is talking specifically to men about being a feminist ally but I think it is helpful for how to talk about gender in a safe place and how to stand up for justice when surrounded by people who don’t think there is a gender problem. Therefore, I think it is also useful to women. Since society tells women that they are emotional thinkers I’ve noticed that some women assume that they are more emotionally aware than all men because they are women. The sad truth is that we are just not that introspective of species. Emotional awareness takes hard work and all genders have to do it. While different genders may have different emotional work to do, we all, as humans, have to do some.


4. Learn what other people think Patriarchy is and then come up with your own definition:

Perhaps you disagree with me about what the problem is? Perhaps you think that feminism went to far. Perhaps you think even radical feminist aren’t advocating that we go far enough? Either way, patriarchy is central to issues of “the gender problem” and questions of if it exists are in many ways secondary to what does it look like. I firmly believe that you have to have your own definition of the systemic problem {patriarchy} [or lack their of] before you can argue about the daily iterations of it {misogyny}.

The OED defines Patriarchy as “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” It is pretty difficult to argue that we don’t live in Patriarchy given that definition. [If you would like to argue that we don’t, please, post a respectful comment to that effect.] Yet, ultimately this is an overly simplified definition of the term. For a more in-depth look at the term I’d suggest going here or here.

Hopefully, understanding different ways that patriarchy is defined will convince you that Patriarchy does exist in some form. It doesn’t mean that every man has some societal power over every women. There are many women with more power in the world than me.  It also doesn’t even mean that the men who do have power are openly bigoted or sexist. It is possible to have a patriarchal system in which CEO’s all have programs designed to bring more women into underrepresented fields. Unfortunately, Patriarchy doesn’t need bigotry to sustain itself, undiagnosed and unprocessed bias is more than enough.

In my personal understanding  of the term, Patriarchy exists on two fronts: Power and Privilege. There is the real power that some people [male, female and intersex] have to exert their will [conscious or subconscious] on society and there is the privilege that is afforded to individuals based on their existence within a group which is believed to have power.

Power, in my definition of patriarchy, is the ability to exert your will [conscious or subconscious] over other people. It is important to realize is that power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are layers of power interacting with each other. Just like having a Black President doesn’t mean that racism is gone, having a female Speaker of the house didn’t mean that women achieved true equality. Nancy Pelosi is powerful by just about any definition and her position as the de facto leader of Democrats in Congress [Harry who?] is a testament to how far women have come in society. Yet, one look at the Republican convened panel on women’s health, shows us that sometimes the dominance of one group’s subconsciously biased view on the world can constrain even the most powerful people in a society. In this case, congress [a body  comprised overwhelmingly of men] decided to have a panel on women’s health and invited people who they perceived as qualified to brief them. The panel ended up being all men talking about women. These congressmen chose men to talk to them about women’s health for a variety of reasons. One of the those reasons is because people tend to like to hear themselves talk. Humans have a natural tendency to want to hear facts from people who act, think and look like us and most of the members of congress on the panel were men. Another, more destructive reason, is the notion of “qualifications,” as in what makes someone qualified to talk about an issue, is biased towards men. We as society are used to men being authority figures and explaining things to us. This means that the voices of women as a group, whose health as group was in question, are left out of the conversation. Not to mention the fact that there are a number of women who are actual trained experts in women’s health and can speak articulately beyond their own personal experience.

When the dominance of the most powerful group in a societies point of view becomes termed “normal,”  members of that group are granted privileges just for perceived as being part of that group. For instance, it is considered “normal” for a boy to be good at math. Science and finance are seen as traditionally male careers. If I were to pursue a career in science or finance I would not have to deal with the problems associated with stepping out a my gender caste. A woman might have to deal with people suggesting she try nursing, teaching or being a mother instead. For many women these suggestions are merely an annoyance, for others there are a barrier to success and advancement.

Privilege is complex but well discussed check out some interesting takes on the complexity of privilege in terms of gender: black women and slut shamming and benevolent sexism.

5. Learn what your role in Patriarchy is:

We all have a role to play in Patriarchy [beyond dismantling or perhaps convincing every one that it doesn’t exist]. I personable believe that the role isn’t as simple as victim and perpetrator or oppressor and oppressed. I, as a man, benefit from Patriarchy. I stand a good chance of getting paid more for the same job than my sister will. I can expect to be listened to in many circles because I am a man and it is seen as normal for me to deferred to [granted, age, race and class sometimes makes this male privilege somewhat null and void.] Yet, at the same time, as a non-hetero-normative man, a man who doesn’t fit naturally into what society expects a man to be, I am also oppressed by Patriarchy. I find the idea of a “real man” in all his well muscled, anti-intellectual, emotionally stunted, alpha male grandiosity to be stifling. It is not an ideal that I can or want to live up to. It curtails my human potential by telling me that I’m not really a man. I personally believe that in internalizing patriarchy I have in effect oppressed my self and other men as well as women. I’ve had to come to terms with this fact in order to start the process of slowly deprogramming myself from patriarchy thinking, which is an on going process.

Similarly, women have complex roles in Patriarchy as well. What arethe moral implications of women who knowingly support patriarchal images of submissive women for their own profit? How does race and white privilege effect your role in patriarchy? What about women in Latino or Asian cultures with their diverse gender roles and stereotypes? How does class change our role?

6. Grow!

In my opinion, the purpose of understanding your role in issues of gender is for both personal and collective growth. I think that conversations about gender roles is essential not because we convince bigots to not be bigots but because we can examine our own biases and hang-ups which impede change more than bigotry. I know, as a man with an over active conscience, that it is easy to get bogged down in guilt or despair. Yet we should not let shame, guilt, anger or pain stop us from striving to understand ourselves and those around us. We need to be introspective to understand why we do what we do and how what do effects those around us. The better we understand that, the easier it will be to tackle and solve gender issues.

I’m interested in hearing what other under-appreciated steps people think there are.

2 thoughts on “Under-appreciated Steps To Understanding Your Role In “Women’s Issues”

  1. Pingback: A Farewell to 2013 | The Well Examined Life

  2. Men need to learn that their own sexual urges and responses are not women’s ‘fault’ or responsibility. They need to learn to relate to women on a non-sexual level, as fellow human beings, not interchangeable providers of sexual and domestic service. Only then will anything change.


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