Written for A Room of our own by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2014 Victoria A. Brownworth
Every woman knows what “everyday sexism” is: Street harassment, scantily clad women in the daily newspaper on Page 3 or Page 6 depending on whether you’re in the U.K. or U.S., the insidious memes of rape culture.
But what about mansplaining from men asserting they are feminist allies? How are women, whether they self-define as feminists or not, expected to address the very real and often
blatantly misogynist behavior by men who insist they are working with and for us, not against us?
The problem of paternalism remains one no one discusses–not feminists, not men, not the larger culture. We have attempted to address it with regard to race, to greater or lesser effect depending on where one lives, but with regard to gender that discourse remains maddeningly out of reach.
Ownership of women has shifted to ownership of women’s issues. What about the men? is a familiar refrain feminists on social media are wearyingly familiar with. Few of us don’t feel compelled to add “not all men” when we write about any issue related to misogyny or violence against women. “Not all men” harass women, “not all men” abuse women, “not all men” rape.
Yet all men do seem quick to anger when women speak out about the breadth of misogyny and its violent correlatives like rape and domestic violence murders. My colleague Karen Ingala Smith has been cataloguing the murders of women in the U. K. via her project Counting Dead Women. There is rarely a day when I do not see her being harassed by men with words like “progressive” or “liberal” or “hates Tories” or “proud husband and father” in their Twitter profiles.
One night on social media I objected to the use of the word “cunt” by men as a pejorative against women. I wrote that it was one of the worst things a man could say about a woman, reducing her to nothing more than her genitalia. Dozens of men began tweeting at me, explaining to me that “cunt” was just a word and that I should step back from my “extreme” feminism. To a one they mansplained me about the importance of free speech (as if a female journalist wouldn’t know about free speech better than most). And also to a one, they proceeded to call me a “cunt.”
Yet as I went to block each one there were the profiles again: “progressive,” “left-leaning” and so forth. More than half had “father of x great kids” in his profile.
If you self-define as a progressive, why are you calling a feminist a “cunt” on social media, since feminist ally is part of every progressive platform? If you are a “proud father,” is this the example you are setting for your son in how men should treat women or worse still, is this the language you think your daughter should presume is acceptable when thrown at her?
There remains a disturbing disconnect with regard to men and women in the progressive arena. I expect Tory or in the U.S., Republican men to be dismissive and denigrating of women and treat us as second-class. The right, regardless of country, has made it their business to interfere in women’s lives by withholding access to safe reproductive freedom. The right also has stepped into our bedrooms with their anti-gay policies and their bedroom taxes. The coup de grace continues to be the pay gap, which shockingly gets ever more extreme the more education and advanced degrees a woman acquires.
Progressive men cite their pro-feminist allegiance. They argue for pay equity and reproductive rights. They assert they are pro-gay rights. And then their paternalism rears its misogynist head.
Experiences this week on Twitter reminded me yet again of how invidious this problem is. One situation seemed simple enough. A man I follow and who follows me with whom I have had many positive exchanges about feminism tweeted about how only four countries–the U.S. being one–did not have maternity leave (this was in advance of Mother’s Day in the U.S. on May 11).
I tweeted back that his comment was not entirely accurate. He asked, “How?” I said it left out the word “paid.”
The snarky reply I received took me aback. “It’s obviously implied,” he explained. “No need to state it.” I said simply, “You can’t presume people will know that,” to which he then said, “Every woman in the world knows this.”
The exchange went on for much longer than it should have done and I was stunned by both his response and my literal gut reaction to it. The implication that I, as a woman, was somehow ignorant of an issue I have been writing about literally for decades felt, quite simply, like a slap in the face.
I DM’d him to explain in more depth that I really could not understand his mansplaining me, to which he replied that he was very hurt and angered by my “accusations.”
How had a simple comment turned into a full-blown argument? All I had done was say he needed to add “paid” to his tweet for accuracy’s sake, as the U.S. has had unpaid maternal and paternal leave for more than 20 years under the Family and Medical Leave Act. I went back and re-read my initial tweet. All it said was, “not quite accurate” and I had attached an article on the issue.
So why the extreme reaction? Why the need to both dismiss my comment and publically put me down? I’ve been pondering this since it happened because this man wasn’t tweeting as an individual, he was tweeting from the site he runs, which is one about feminism.
As I said: Oh.
Why is it so difficult for men to acknowledge that women know more about their own lives than men do? Or that feminists are actual scholars of women’s issues? Or that there is an issue of privilege implied when a man says “every woman in the world” knows something because he is now speaking to a woman about “every other woman in the world,” and that is the very definition of mansplaining and also the very definition of paternalism.
Maybe every woman he knows, but likely not the women who I work with, who are under-educated, under-privileged, poor and for whom navigating governmental systems is not only difficult, it can feel both insurmountable and oppressive, as they have told me time and again. When you come from the position of educated, middle-class, white male privilege, you really cannot presume to speak for all women.
We toss the word “privilege” around a lot these days, particularly in progressive circles, to mean almost anything. But in real life, the real life where women make between half and three-quarters of what men make for the same work, the real life in which one in three women is a victim of male violence and one in five is a victim of rape, the real life in which there is no day that does not involve misogyny in every aspect of their lives from the medications they take that have only ever been tested on men to the cat-calls on the street to the inferior education to the sexism in the work place, in real life all men have privilege over all women.
I have no doubt this is difficult for progressive men to accept. What progressive man would willingly accept the mantle of oppressor of women? And yet it remains the non-objective reality of women’s lived experience. Just as those of us who are white and actively doing anti-racist work must accept that we still have privilege that accrues to the mere fact of our whiteness, people with penises have to accept that their genitalia granted them a level of privilege at birth that no one born female has ever had.
Or ever will have.
Another Twitter experience was equally, if differently, disturbing. In this instance, a U.K. man with whom I have had numerous serious exchanges about race–he is black–responded to a series of tweets I had posted about the abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls. He insisted it was not a gender issue. I said it was. He told me I was being simplistic. I told him he was ignoring the facts.
The exchange was heated and ended when he told me I was hysterical, an idiot and imbalanced. There’s that paternalism–when challenged, even the pro-feminist progressive man feels compelled to put women in their 18th century place, despite this being the 21st century.
He also said, “Women are as much to blame for these abductions as men.”
And there it was, the consummate mansplaining argument, the obverse of women’s lived reality, but the last excuse, as it were, that a man can give. It’s not all our fault. It’s not all men.
The wearying nature of these exchanges exhausts many feminists. It certainly exhausts me. In my quest to make the world a better place for women and girls–which I fully believe would also make the world a better place for men and boys–I want allies in my struggle, not endless antagonists.
Whither the truly pro-feminist man, then? I know it is easy to dismiss this series of events on social media as contextual or examples of a bad day or maybe these guys really just aren’t as feminist as they say they are, but I reject that argument and I reject it because I have witnessed this day after day after day. It’s not just me having these “issues.” It’s every feminist I know, every feminist I follow on Twitter or other social media. There is no respite from this for women who are doing the hard work of addressing violence against women and its antecedent: male violence.
I’m not suggesting there are no pro-feminist men or that men are incapable of being feminist allies. But I do believe we are all inculcated from birth with the notion that men are superior and women are inferior. That daily reinforcement of women asless than is insidious–there is no aspect of women’s lives it does not invade. There is no Page 3 or Page 6 for men, there are no sexy outfits for boy toddlers, there are no taunts about boys being “too ugly to fuck” that follow girls or women protesting negative comments, there are no date-rapes of boys, no mass abductions of boy children to be sold into sex slavery, no boys being shot in the head for the simple act of going to school and yet even as I chronicle this tiny list in the endlessly long list of what it means to be female versus what it means to be male, I know there are people reading this and thinking, not all men or it happens to men/boys, too.
That simply must stop. Just as white people must learn to stop saying “I’m not a racist,” men must learn to stop mansplaining women. They must learn to do what women have done for centuries: hold their tongues. Listen and not speak. Learn.
I have no idea what it is to be a man in the world because I am not one. I don’t presume to know. I imagine it’s great to never have to fear certain things, but I also imagine there are responsibilities and expectations that are wearing.
Nevertheless, it’s not my place to wonder or worry about men and their feelings. Women have done this for millennia at the expense of themselves and each other. It is my job to work to make the lives of women safer and better, to illumine their circumstances worldwide and in doing so, illumine the cause of those circumstances which is always, whether men want to acknowledge it or not, men.
I don’t blame every man I meet for the oppression I experience and have experienced throughout my life. I don’t blame every man for the brutality women and girls face worldwide. But what I do expect and what I think is not over-much to expect, is that men who self-define as feminist allies, as pro-feminist, as our friends, not our enemies, not argue with us in public space about our lives. We know our lives better than you. And most importantly, you do not speak for us, you can never speak for us.
That last is likely the hardest lesson for the pro-feminist/feminist ally man. Silence. Men are used to speaking whenever and wherever they choose. They cannot comprehend what it is to be forever silenced, even by one’s self-appointed friends. But when a man declares he speaks for “every woman in the world” or that the abduction of schoolgirls to be sold as sex slaves–be it in Nigeria or Romania or the U.S.–is not an issue of their femaleness, then I must object, I will always object, and you can tell me I am hysterical, an idiot, unhinged or a “cunt,” but you will still be wrong.
To be an ally, you must listen.
To be an ally, you must learn.
To be a feminist ally you must never again say the words “not all men.”
And until and unless that happens, you will be against us, not with us, in our feminist struggle for full rights as women and as human beings.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA, the Keystone Award, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her Y/A novel, Cutting will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX