Originally published on April 3, 2013 by So to Speak
“Hey, the 1950s called, they want their stereotype back,” I said during a somewhat intense debate last night. I was asking a new friend, let’s call him Adam, what he thought of Garance Franke-Ruta’s recent article in The Atlantic called “Why Isn’t Better Education Giving Women More Power?”
If I’m being honest, I probably already knew his response; I just really wanted it to be different, because… I like him. The article is basically about how even though women are generally more successful in school, the same behaviors and tools that helped them to succeed in the academic arena, don’t necessarily translate into the workforce. The article gives statistics on the disparity between genders and points out that studies show women in the workplace are criticized more, make less money, and are generally judged more negatively. But, the most important piece of this essay, and the part that I am most interested in, deals with the root of the problem: “The university system aside, I suspect there is another, deeply ingrained set of behaviors that also undermine women: the habits they pick up—or don’t pick up—in the dating world. Men learn early that to woo women, they must risk rejection and be persistent. Straight women, for their part, learn from their earliest years that they must wait to be courted. The professional world does not reward the second approach. No one is going to ask someone out professionally if she just makes herself attractive enough. I suspect this is why people who put together discussion panels and solicit op‑eds always tell me the same thing: it’s harder to get women to say yes than men. Well, duh. To be female in our culture is to be trained from puberty in the art of rebuffing—rebuffing gazes, comments, touches, propositions, and proposals.”
Bingo. This makes total sense to me. I am a woman. I have all too well mastered the art of rebuffing. It’s March: Women’s History Month. There are signs in stores that are supposed to be “celebrating” women. They read: 60% of our employees are women! But, it’s a party trick. “Hey, look over here!” Because when you look at upper management, it’s only 4% female. Now, Adam’s initial response to this article was to also look at the numbers. He’s very logical. He’s very smart. I like him. He would like to see the holistic ratio of employees in business. He’s had a 50/50 ratio of male to female bosses. Then, he gives me a word problem: If there are 100 employees in the office and 10 are women, and there are 10 spots to move up from that 100, then 1/9 women should be promoted and 9/90 men should be, too. His point being that no one thinks about the actual numbers, they only look straight to the top and see that there are 9 male bosses and 1 female boss. I acknowledge that he is speaking from a place of privilege, and in my mind, this isn’t the problem either. The problem is much deeper; it’s much bigger. The problem is that there are only 10 women who are employees going after that promotion in the first place. The problem is that we (women) have been taught all of our lives to accept our position, to be submissive, and to self-objectify. These behaviors and states of being are so deeply ingrained that sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m participating in this dynamic. From a very early age, we lose belief in our own political and social efficacy. We learn to see ourselves and value ourselves how the media and the collective consciousness see us.
BUT… still, the real problem is even more insidious and subtly woven into our social makeup. The REAL problem is that we still exist in a time and place that perpetuates an accepted culture of violence against women. At some point in our debate, Adam says that men and women ARE different, right? He brings up the obvious difference: our physical traits. This is the in. Yes, I think, herein lies the issue at the core of our patriarchal power dynamic. Our physical traits have been held against us and kept us repressed since the beginning of time. This is usually where I lose my male readers. They hear sexual assault/domestic violence and distance themselves, because they would never do that, so this part doesn’t apply to them. This is where we’re all wrong. Let me give you a scenario that most of the women in my life can relate to:
I am joking around with my boyfriend. Maybe there’s a mutual nudge or a thrown pillow (all in good fun—remember, we are being hilarious and having a great time). Then, he holds me down by the wrists (not maliciously, still joking around, maybe even in an effort to transition into something more intimate). But, I have a moment of panic. Being held down, in that split second, I am utterly terrified when I realize that I am completely helpless, physically. He is still laughing, and when I suddenly say, “let go,” and he (of course) does, he is caught completely off guard by my reaction. He asks, “What’s wrong?” and says, “I was just joking around.” AND he was just joking around… and he didn’t do anything wrong, but what I realize in that moment is that he will (hopefully) never feel that specific kind of complete helplessness. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what that violation feels like. He doesn’t understand that even the threat, the possibility of violation, is intimidating. He doesn’t know how to empathize. We MUST have these conversations. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t express the legitimate danger, then people (and men, specifically) simply don’t think about what’s actually at stake here. What feels like small, insignificant attitudes and actions are actually monumental in this way.
Circling back to my debate with Adam, he says, “women take things more personally than men do.” I have a heart palpitation, and I want to freak out, but I make a joke instead. He says, “Women are more sensitive by nature.” I use the “1950s” line that I opened with, and I urge him to read this fabulous piece on emotional gaslighting by Yashar Ali called “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy’.” This article essentially talks about how “it’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.” And, Ali also argues that “[he doesn’t] think this idea that women are ‘crazy,’ is based in some sort of massive conspiracy. Rather, [He believes] it’s connected to the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis. And gaslighting is one of many reasons why we are dealing with this public construction of women as ‘crazy.’” He goes on to talk about how men are conditioned to feel uncomfortable with emotional expression, because they are discouraged from emotional expression from an early age. Ali’s conclusion is in the form of a question. He asks: “Isn’t the issue of gaslighting ultimately about whether we are conditioned to believe that women’s opinions don’t hold as much weight as ours? That what women have to say, what they feel, isn’t quite as legitimate?” I think, yes.
So, Adam reads the article, but I am still met with more defensiveness, and I realize as we go back and forth, that we are essentially having two completely different conversations. Adam initially interprets the article as an accusation. When he reads Ali’s plea to stop telling women that they are “crazy” or “too sensitive,” Adam thinks back to that one time with that one woman who said/did that super crazy thing and he told her she was acting crazy. He feels like the message is: “Don’t do that. You’re wrong.” I see this interpretation/reaction all the time. My students, my friends, my family… I realize that Ali’s audience is “the choir.” He is essentially speaking to women who can already relate, and this problem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The question now becomes for me as a teacher, daughter, friend, and potential partner, how can we enter into this conversation from a place of empathy? I have this hope that my attitude will inspire empathy in those who have a difficult time relating (coming from a place of privilege, or lack of exposure/experience) to the women who are being gaslighted. How do I talk to Adam?
Firstly, we need to recognize that men and women are taught to act and react differently. It is so important to take these kinds of articles and suggestions seriously, because I believe that this basic common respect, and our ability to value each other as equals, is the only way we will eradicate our culture of violence against women. This is how we stop victim blaming. This is how we end rape culture. This is how we become better humans, partners, family members, etc. We have to teach men not to violate women. We have to unlearn what we already know so well. This, as Adam points out to me, is essentially the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. He asks, “What can I do that would be acceptable in the context of this article?” This is exactly what we all should be asking ourselves.
I think about Adam: he is a good human with a good heart… did I mention that I actually like him? So, what do I need to change about the way I am approaching this conversion? It dawns on me that we are all universally connected. We all have mothers, and sisters, and daughters, and friends. We all only have control over one thing in this world: our behavior. I try to shift our conversation towards this focus: “Don’t you want your partner/mother/sister/friend to feel valued? Shouldn’t we all (men and women) strive to put ourselves above emotional manipulation?” And the answer is obviously, yes. But Ali is also pointing out that we even enter this conversation on unequal footing. The incredible documentary film, MissRepresentation, points out: “Little boys and little girls, when they’re 7 years old, in equal number want to be president of the United States when they grow up. But then you ask the same question when they’re 15, and you see this massive gap emerging.” Undeniably, there is a hierarchical structure of power in our society, and women are not at the top.
Our conversation shifts back to us as individuals, and Adam starts to talk about what he can do about the “problem.” So, in the context of raising a family, and in the workplace, and in relationships, he says that he’s been taught, harshly, to take responsibility for his actions, period. That he should own up to his mistakes and not make excuses. He’s been taught (like so many of us) that everyone is the same, and that it’s important to surround yourself with people that make you better regardless of their sex, race, or sexual orientation. He then asks, if he is operating under that fundamental mentality, in the way that he should, then what should he do differently within the context of his everyday life? This is an awesome question; one that I think about constantly.
My response is something that I have to work on every single day of my life. It’s what I am working on in this moment: even when I believe that someone is being too sensitive or emotional, I try to listen with an open heart. Instead of poking holes in a belief or argument, I try to look for ways to be helpful and to empower people who feel as though they have lost efficacy. And then, Adam says something really powerful. He says that “in reality, if someone is being too sensitive, I listen to them, and I ‘empathize’ as you’d say. The only time that I say [the] things [in the article] is when I am at the end of my rope in a relationship and acting out. It’s my actions that cause it; I realize that. The good thing to do would be to cut it off or to not say those things at all.” While what Adam is saying seems so very simple, it is in practice, truly profound. It’s hard to act well, especially when our social instincts feel like they’re being threatened, and when we’re taught that vulnerability is “bad,” it’s no wonder we get so uncomfortable when people express themselves so directly.
All roads lead back to compassion. How do we teach and inspire compassion? I’m not saying that women shouldn’t be angry. I am furious. Everyone should be furious about violence against women. This is an issue that impacts all of us. Most of the men I know seem to be unaware, even, that 1 in 4 women in their lives have been sexually assaulted or an attempted assault has been made on them. Or maybe they (we) hear these numbers but can’t connect them to ourselves? I imagine that our lack of information is primarily due to the fact that assault is difficult to talk about and difficult to hear about. We don’t really have safe spaces (especially in the public opinion arena) to talk about such things. We tend to retruamatize survivors. So, I want to know how we can express our anger in a way that doesn’t shut people down. It is a travesty that there’s so much negativity connected with the Women’s Rights Movement. People are terrified to be a part of the feminist community, to call themselves FEMINISTS. I’m scared, too. I know, it’s hard to believe with my incessant facebook posting, and boycotting, and protesting that I feel scared, but I am human. I care about being judged just like everyone else. I wonder, because of the negative connotations surrounding the “F” word, whether I will “scare” off a potential partner. I’m afraid it will scare Adam. What will my future employer think? These thoughts are persistent; although, I have learned to move past that fear and do what I think is right regardless of how I feel. But still, how does feminism and the feminist community become more inclusive? If a feminist is “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men,” then we should certainly all call ourselves feminists. If not… I think we have a whole lot of explaining to do to our wives, daughters, sisters, and friends.
With Love, Compassion, and Empathy. XO
The majority of the women that I have dated have related horrendous stories of sexual trauma. Sometimes, I wondered if any of them thought of their assaults while we were together in sexual intimacy. I couldn’t fathom what this could be like. A girlfriend would cry in my arms, it was painful. Painful in the way that your best friend is dying and there is not a muthafuckin thing you can do about it pain. All you wanna do is comfort your partner and truly understand and communicate with her that you are here. I’ve come to understand what being “present” is.
I’ve learned to slow down and listen to the subtleties of human behavior.
“A girl child ain’t safe in house full of men folk”, The Color Purple ( the quote may not be exact)…. and, unfortunately, so true.