Piggy in the middle

Note: I analogise between racism and sexism in this post. Yes, I realise they’re not the same thing. However, I believe there are enough similarities and parallels to draw useful analogies.

I was having a poke around on fora.tv, a rather neat site with video of book readings, speeches, and appearances. One video is a July 21st reading of Jessica Valenti’s book, “Full Frontal Feminism”.

Asked by an audience member about “men’s emancipation” in the US, Valenti replied:

I have a chapter on men in the book, because I do think that it’s really important. If we’re talking about feminism we have to talk about the way patriarchy hurts men too, the way sexism hurts men too, because If we’re going to build a really strong feminist movement we have to have men involved as well. You know I think that the best way to do that is to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones suffering from sexism here, this is hurting you as well”.

What struck me here is the contrast between this rather pervasive idea of “men should support feminism cos sexism hurts men”, and ideas about white allies in the antiracism movement. Is anyone going around saying that the only way to enrol white people into antiracism would be to talk to them about the ways in which racism hurts white people? Not that I’ve seen. To me, that would be the absolute pinnacle of repugnant white-centrism. You’d have to be positively festering with self-entitled unexamined white-privilege-boils to think that racism is wrong because it might occasionally hurt white people’s feelings.

There is absolutely no need to centre white people in antiracism. The reason racism is wrong is because it hurts people of colour (and, incidentally, disproportionately women of colour), not because it hurts white people. White people should fight racism, should ally with antiracists, because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s in their own self-interest. They should ally because that’s part of being a decent human being.

Doesn’t all of the above sound blindingly obvious?

So why is there this pernicious streak of male-centrism in feminism?

How about men supporting feminism because it’s wrong to hurt women, not because “sexism hurts men”? Why are women thinking that this is too much to ask for?

Categories: gender & feminism

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13 replies

  1. I think it has taken this turn only because some women felt that it was impossible for change to occur unless men’s needs were addressed as well. Remember when the “men’s movements” happened in the late 80s – early 90s? Some (white) men were feeling disenfranchised and felt the feminist movement wasn’t inclusive.
    When I was heavily involved with a local NOW chapter, I could see this. The women, at the time, were actually anti-male and didn’t think that men could be a part of the feminist movement.
    I think this is just a part of the evolution of understanding. Maybe if we’re all-inclusive, people will start to treat one another with more respect. It may not happen but it doesn’t hurt, either, to consider.

  2. I’ve seen the argument made in the context of race, and I’m not convinced it’s a completely worthless argument.
    If it’s presented as an either/or situation — as Valenti seems to — then I agree with you that it’s deeply weird. Self-interest shouldn’t be (and ultimately can’t be) the only reason for a member of a dominant group to support equality for members of a subordinate group. But I think it can be productively pointed to as one reason among several to do so.
    Ultimately, I reject the idea that anti-racism and anti-sexism are zero-sum propositions. I don’t believe that any advance in women’s position or the position of people of color is a setback for me as a white man. In some situations it is, and should be, in a narrow material sense, but I don’t think it’s accurate to describe it that way across the board. I do honestly believe that an anti-racist, anti-sexist society is, on the whole, a better society for everyone — better for white men as well as for women of color.
    I’ve talked to white American civil rights workers who were active in the fifties and sixties who said that the moment they realized that civil rights was a personal issue for them was a critical moment in their development as activists — that when, for instance, it hit them that segregation in restaurants meant that they couldn’t sit down to eat with their friends and comrades in the struggle, it was a transformative realization. They weren’t just working in a philanthropic way to aid other people, they were fighting for their own liberation as well. That may not be a particularly noble realization, but it can be a profound one.
    Having said all that, it’s clear that there’s a very different dynamic at work when I, as a man, say that men should support anti-sexist work (in part) because it’s in their self-interest, as opposed to when Valenti, as a woman, says something similar.
    (I saw this over at your home blog first, and replied to it there, but I figured it was worth putting up here as well.)

  3. Well, I’m a woman of color and a radical feminist and I have *no* problem with this analogy.
    It’s something that frustrates me, as well.
    I have to say that I’m not terribly involved with people of color movements because I don’t want to kiss men’s asses.
    I think it’s because women have been the sex class largely from the beginning of time and it’s virtually impossible for people, even feminists, to imagine it any other way (cue the Sex Wars), but racism as it exists today dates back ~500 years.

  4. They should ally because that’s part of being a decent human being.

    Obviously!  If you can demonstrate unfairness, it should be corrected.  Sexism, racism, disability rights, … they are all the same.  Yet disability issues have wider support, but perhaps everyone can imagine themselves in that position.
    But… if you are talking about gender wage-equality, there are some twists in recent VoxEU papers.  Counter-intuitively Paid paternal leave might help female wage-equality (by changing perceptions about home duty committments), and there’s a thought provoking newish article Gender-linked performance differences in competitive environments: evidence from pro tennis

    Female tennis players play more conservatively and commit more unforced errors when playing critical points. Does this explain the upper-echelons wage gap?

    But what I found suprising was that women in high places don’t hire more women under them, indeed in Spain, when female ministers in parliament shot up, and senior female career public servants kept increasing gradually, the proportion of women as polically appointed "directors general" went down. I’d love your take on this because I can’t figure it out.

  5. I totally agree with this, Lauredhel, and I had the same reaction to this sentiment when I (finally) recently got around to reading Valenti’s book. I do think it’s important to point out how sexism hurts men, too, but that should only be a sidenote and never a main focus. Speaking from a “recruitment” standpoint, I suppose it does make sense to try to point this out to men in an attempt to bring them to feminist thinking. But that sort of contradicts another point Valenti makes in the book, because she also says at one point that she would rather the feminist movement have fewer people in it than for people to be on board for the wrong reasons. Sort of a “quality over quantity” argument. And if men are becoming feminists because of what it can do for THEM instead of an understanding of how patriarchy and sexism hurt WOMEN, then they ARE in it for the wrong reasons.

  6. Good point. I had never thought about it like that.

    I have always been a big supporter of the idea that patriarchy hurts men, although not usually in the way they think it does (i.e. child support etc), because I genuinely believe it does hurt them. I never thought of it as recruiting men to the cause because there is something in it for them, but I can see that that is what it does in effect.

    I agree that desire for equality is about being a decent human being.

  7. I’ve noticed this aspect in feminism before too and it can grate (why are we so frightened of angry feminists for instance?) but I’m giving Valenti a bit of room to move on this one because I think her book is aimed at newbies, its a recruitment tool. It is not advanced feminism but that’s ok, we need some new recruitment tools too. For people who might be interested in feminism but who don’t know a lot about it one of the first things you might need to do is challenge the myth that feminism is about man-hating (particularly for all those young hetero girls who are still so wrapped up in male approval), what better way to do this than to say feminism is addressing a problem that hurts both women and men… plus people have a million causes and issues and philosophies out there competing for their valuable attention and a little bit of self-interest is the easiest way to engage them.
    It is sad to think that the concept that sexism is primarily hurting women and that feminism should primarily focus on women is a radical notion for people, but it is, and I’m prepared to soften the feminism message initially so we don’t frighten the horses. Is it ok to refer to non-feminists as horses? hahaha.
    However I agree that feminism still suffers from a problem of trying not to appear too shrill, heaven forbid we should offend anybody. We’re always apologising for the angry feminists. That’s a problem we need to address but maybe not in a ‘beginners book’.

  8. For me, I do refer to the fact that “patriarchy hurts men too” not because I feel it always has to be about THEM, but because I like to point out that some of their woes may be due to patriarchy whereas they’re convinced somehow that it’s “the feminists” fault.

  9. Helen –
    Though I roll my eyes at the “What about the MENZ?” refrain, that’s a very good point. I remember one antifeminist blaming feminists for the horrific shooting of several young girls by a mentally ill man, because “feminists think that men should hold all their emotions in”; and another antifeminist blaming prison rape jokes on feminists. (And yes, indeed, I think it’s patriarchy, not feminists, who are to blame …)

  10. To Lauredhel’s point about “isn’t it the right thing to do?” about male motives for gender equality, I’ll point to that famous 19th century writer on issues now labelled “feminism”, the first and final paras.

    The object of this Essay is to explain as clearly as I am able grounds of an opinion which I have held from the very earliest period when I had formed any opinions at all on social political matters, and which, instead of being weakened or modified, has been constantly growing stronger by the progress of reflection and the experience of life. That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes “” the legal subordination of one sex to the other “” is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
    (four chapters later)
    When we consider the positive evil caused to the disqualified half of the human race by their disqualification “” first in the loss of the most inspiriting and elevating kind of personal enjoyment, and next in the weariness, disappointment, and profound dissatisfaction with life, which are so often the substitute for it; one feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth, there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another. Their vain fears only substitute other and worse evils for those which they are idly apprehensive of: while every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it), dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.

    The Subjugation of Women, John Stuart Mill, 1869, reputedly with his wife as co-author.

  11. Sorry : “Subjection” not “Subjugation”.

  12. I think your point is well made Lauredhel, especially with reference to white antiracism, so don’t take these thoughts as an attempt at refutation.
    As a tutor with young men in my classes, I do feel that the point about feminism being good for men can be useful pedagogically, because it offers those men an entry into learning more about feminism and gender, although perhaps only where they are becoming reactive rather than just being challenged by the ideas.
    I also think, personally, that it’s factually true that feminism benefits men. I don’t have a strong commitment to expecting people to ‘do good’ for it’s own sake, either. I agree with Jennifer Rutherford and Melanie Klein about where a preoccupation with doing the right thing can lead, and I think that is a potential within both antiracism as well as feminism. But this is just wariness, not a strong argument against what you’re saying here.


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