This past Saturday millions of women – and men – marched in cities around the globe in response to the inauguration of a man who, at best, has been tainted with a reputation for misogyny. I’ll not go further into the politics surrounding that particular development in the history of our Republic. That’s an entirely separate topic. For the record, I’m a registered Independent with strong Libertarian leanings, which means any person out there can find reason to fervently agree with or adamantly disagree with me – as they choose. We can save that for later. For now, I’d like to focus on one simple question that resurfaced for me amidst all the news of this weekend’s marches: Am I a feminist?
Feminism is a label, and like all labels its application is subject to context. From different points of view I have been labeled ultra-conservative, bleeding heart liberal and everything in between. Labels are inherently inaccurate and flagrantly abused, and as such I don’t put much stock in them. But, with that in mind, I still think it’s worth pondering whether or not I am, or deserve to be called, a feminist.
Some may consider me ill-equipped to bear the title, or even to consider its meaning. I am, after all, a man. I make no apology for that. I am what God made me. But, I’m not just any specimen of the male gender. I’m a heterosexual, middle-aged, (slightly?) overweight, balding white guy who served in the military and lives in one of the most conservative corners of arguably the most conservative state in the Union. It’s not my purpose here to make any qualitative judgment on any of those factors. But, I think it’s fair to say if you were looking for a spokesperson for the term ‘feminist,’ I wouldn’t naturally spring to mind.
To be certain, I am not qualified to fully understand what it means to be a woman in our society, or to be a girl looking forward to what that has historically meant. Whatever my thoughts or intentions, I am and always will be a man. I’ll never know what it feels like to accept a job offer, and have to wonder if my pay is less because of my gender. I’ll never have to wonder if I was excluded from a job because someone very thoughtfully ascertained that my genitals, or perhaps just my emotions, would get in the way of my performance. I was never told as a child that certain professions, hobbies, sports or activities weren’t “for me.” I’ve never been asked to wear anything higher, or shorter, or longer because it might make me “more agreeable” around the office. Frankly, I’m not qualified even to make a sufficient list of all the things I’ve never had to face, and will never fully understand about being a woman in our society.
I do, however, know a few things on this topic. I know I’m married to an incredible woman whose work ethic is matched by immense talent. I know my sweet, sometimes salty, little Irish grandmother was one of the first women to work in a particular agency without fetching coffee or taking dictation. I know my mother worked tirelessly, both in the home and in a wildly diverse set of professions, to help provide for our family. I know my sister puts in more work than anyone should for a living, and is a credit to her profession. And, I know each of these amazing women have given more, worked harder and gone further to receive less than they would have if they’d been men. Finally, I know my two incredibly smart, talented and driven daughters soon will be walking into the same world I’ve seen denigrate and discriminate against their gender. I know that scares and enrages me, and all-too-often leaves me feeling despair for the path they must take through a society in which behind-closed-door misogyny is still winked and back-slapped into acceptance.
Now, that last bit – the winking, back-slapping, “You know what I’m saying,” sexism – I can speak to that. You see, being a middle-aged, (slightly?) overweight man, people tend to think I’m a willing, or at least safe witness to this kind of mentality. And, I’ll just go ahead and point out: the proponents of keeping women “in their place” aren’t always men. Frankly, some of the most outspoken misogynists, the ones who said stuff that really made my skin crawl, were women. I’m not going to guess what made that happen to them. Perhaps they just embraced their chains a little too tightly? I’ll likely never know. But whatever the cause, whoever is spreading it, and whatever you want to call “it” – misogyny, sexism, chauvinism, gender inequality, gender bias – “it” is still there. I’m often allowed to see “it” because it’s generally assumed, naturally, I agree with “it.”
I’ve had countless people (men and women) ask me what I thought about serving with “those women” in the Navy – the obvious implication, if not outright assertion, being “those women” were somehow out of their proper place. I usually answer the question with a question (a particularly annoying rhetorical tactic): “What women do you mean?” This usually makes them uncomfortable: I’m apparently not in the club. I then go on to explain that in the Navy I tended to judge people by how well they performed their jobs, and whether or not I would want them next to me in an emergency. I placed people into three categories: those I would trust with my life, those I thought probably wouldn’t get me killed, and those who posed a constant threat to themselves and everyone around them. From my point of view the sexes were represented equally across this spectrum, from the outstanding to the abysmally inept. But in no case was my shipmate’s integrity, courage, tactical skill, intelligence or any other substantive quality defined by their gender.
Questions about the role and “proper place” of women in the workplace have been far more skewed to the old-timey sexist end of the spectrum since I left the Navy (which was certainly not perfect, but as close to a blind meritocracy as I’ve experienced). I’d like to believe that overt sexism has been conquered, or at least diminished to a point of almost universal disapproval. That’d be nice. But, then my daughter’s friend is told by a (female) teacher she can’t grow up to be a firefighter because “girls don’t do that.” It’d be nice to believe that was a fluke. But, then my (male) colleague tells me I should consider not hiring a woman for a particular job because “the men won’t respect her.” Perhaps that was an outlier? An anachronism? But, then I hire her anyway, and am asked – on no particular grounds – to justify paying her the same salary as her male counterparts. Maybe there was some good reason for that, to which I was simply not privy. But, then it’s suggested, none-too-subtly, I could save money in my budget by hiring a woman for another position. And, how do I save money by hiring a woman instead of a man? Well….ummmmm…. Maybe all of those things manifested themselves because I settled in a state that still says a man can’t be charged with raping his wife. You know, ‘cause it’s his right as a husband and all. Yes, that must be it. Maybe if my daughters move somewhere else… But, then we as a nation, as the supposed beacon of the free world, elect a man for whom misogyny is a matter of course, sexual battery a punch line. Where do my daughters go now? Where do any of us go from here?
I’d like to have answers to those last questions. Unfortunately, I do not. I am simply a man with a wife and two daughters, who fears society is slipping back into a place in which it’s morally permissible for them to be cheated out of an equal chance at all this world has to offer. I don’t have an answer as to how to stem our apparent regression in gender equality. I do know doing nothing is unacceptable. Saying nothing is complicity. Indifference can come only from ignorance, cowardice or laziness. And those aren’t words I want chiseled in my daughters’ memory of me. So, I do what I do: I write. And I pray. And I pray others will write, and speak, and march, and pray, and demand a world in which all our children, regardless of gender, may finally live the true meaning of liberty.
Am I a feminist? I don’t know that I deserve the title. But, if my voice may help lift its banner in some imperceptible measure, then I gladly give it. And if you judge me deserving of being called a feminist, I will gladly accept the honor.