Feminism

An Open Letter to Anti-Feminists, on What Feminism Means

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Today, I saw a curious article making its rounds on many, MANY of my Facebook friends’ walls called “I Am A Mother Of Two Children And I Cannot (And Will Not) Support Feminism.” I tried to read it with an open mind, but it really bothered me that the article seemed to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic tenets of feminism. Since it was a Thought Catalog piece, I felt it was appropriate to respond with an open letter to Ms. Tara Kennedy-Kline. We actually have quite a few things in common, so I decided to address her work directly. I have included her original words in italics.

Dear Ms. Kennedy-Kline,

After reading over your letter in its entirety, I think you meant to title this piece “I Am A Mother Of Two Children And I Cannot (And Will Not) Support Feminism Man-Hating.” Either way, I think we should continue to address the rest of your piece. I see you begin with a little introduction about yourself…

I’m a wife, mother, sister, daughter, business owner, sports nut and beer lover,

I’m a wife, potential future mother, sister, daughter, hopeful business owner, basketball fan, beer lover, oxford comma enthusiast, and feminist. Looks like we have some things in common. Let’s chat.

but I am not a feminist.

I’m still willing to talk.

I may have been at one time, but then I became the mother of two boys and I realized that I cannot align with a message that has changed into something degrading, offensive, accusatory and opposed to the morals and messages I am teaching my kids. 

Okay, I see where you might have gotten confused. The fundamental definition of feminism is and has always been someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes (please refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, or for the short version, see Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”). I don’t see anything degrading, offensive, or accusatory about that.

You see, I’m kind of psyched to be raising my boys as gentlemen. I am proud to raise them to be hard-working and dedicated providers.

That’s great! I’m glad you’re set on raising them well and instilling positive core values early on in their life.

I am raising them to treat the women in their lives like princesses,

That’s cool, but not every girl wants to be treated like a princess. Maybe if she wants to be treated like a princess, do so, but if she wants to be treated like a champion NASCAR driver and that’s what makes her feel good, maybe do that instead?

and to make eye contact with, and say hello to, everyone they meet.

That’s awesome. I do that too even though I live in New York, and sometimes people think I’m a crazy person. Or a tourist.

I am raising them to appreciate the beauty in a person based on what that person believes and how that person makes my boys feel, not on what that person is wearing or how much of their skin is exposed.

This is also how I try to live my life and how I hope to raise my potential future children. After all, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. (As a former librarian, I’m particularly fond of this idiom.)

I want my boys to be chivalrous, to open doors and carry heavy loads,

Cool. I love it when anyone, male or female, opens doors for me or helps me out with carrying my stuff. I try to return the favor whenever I can.

to ask a girl out on a date

Dates are important for relationships. My husband still asks me out on dates. I also ask him out on dates too.

and pay the bill without expecting anything in return.

It’s always a nice gesture when someone covers for me, and I do appreciate it very much. I’m sure others appreciate it too when I pay their bill—even though I am a female. All of these values you want to instill in your sons are not necessarily gender-based though, I think. They’re just a part of being a nice person.

I am encouraging my sons to tell girls when they think those girls look beautiful. I love that my boys want to surprise me (and eventually their partners) with gifts, and the spontaneous hug or peck on the cheek from time to time to show their love.

I like all of these things. All of my feminist friends do.

But, the latest campaigns by the feminist movement are telling boys they are wrong if they do these things,

Like who?

or anything else that would make a girl feel stereotypically “girly,”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing “girly” things if you’re female OR male, just as long as you allow for other folks to do “boyish” things as well. I think the vast majority of feminists would agree with me on this.

or my sons to act stereotypically “gentleman-like.”

If your sons want to act stereotypically “gentleman-like” and that’s really, truly, what they want to do from the bottom of their hearts, I don’t think feminists would have a problem with that.

The FCKH8 Campaign would have girls tell my sons to “fuck off” if they called them pretty or reached for their hand without permission.

Well, the FCKH8 Campaign is a for-profit company (it says so on their website), and they’re more or less capitalizing on this “feminist” moment in pop culture. Informed folks tend not to take what they say so seriously, since at their core, they are more about making money rather than social justice. That being said, there’s a way to tell a woman she’s pretty and making her feel good as a person, which is entirely different than telling a woman she’s pretty and making her feel like a piece of meat. Think about it as the difference between a passing comment to a person at the bus stop, and a passing comment to the adorable stray cat on your doorstep. You might say the same words, but your tone, body language, and general attitudes will be completely different. Also, this “reach[ing] for their hand without permission” can also vary with context. If I’m on a date with my husband, and he reaches for my hand even though I didn’t give him explicit permission to do so, that’s still really sweet. If I’m on the subway and a total stranger of any gender/race/sexual orientation/etc. reaches for my hand, I will panic/scream/run away/think about calling the police.

Hollaback! sends the message that if my sons make eye contact with, or say “hello” to, a woman they don’t know, they are a predator, or at the very least, a “creepy douchebag.”

Not at all. Hollaback! is about ending street harassment, which is entirely different than saying “hello” to a stranger in a nice, friendly way and treating them as a human being. As the Hollaback! page says, “The real motive of street harassment is intimidation. To make its target scared or uncomfortable, and to make the harasser feel powerful.” If your sons have not set out to do any of these, women are smart enough to know the difference (give them some credit), and your sons are totally in the clear.

#YesAllWomen wants my boys to know that the fact they have a penis makes them a threat. They cite the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted, but seem to ignore that they are sending the message to little girls to assume 100% of all men are rapists.

The #YesAllWomen hashtag was started not to let your “boys know that the fact they have a penis makes them a threat” but instead to provide a support system for women who have faced harassment and assault—unfortunately—at the hands of men. It was to help survivors realize they are not alone, as well as to understand that this is a systematic problem, as you have mentioned in that statistic. Also, most little girls are ALREADY raised to fear men in general. You can see this in their career choices, the way they orient themselves in public spaces, even in body language. If you’re interested in looking at psychological and sociological studies about this, let me know, and I can point you to some fascinating resources. (I’m always happy to talk gender policing à la Butler and Foucault.)

I’m assuming you’re raising your sons not to be rapists. That’s awesome. Unfortunately, not every parent does this. Not every child is raised to treat women like human beings. Not every child is raised to value human life. There’s a difference between your sons not being rapists and a societal problem that needs to be addressed, understood, and resolved. Please understand that when women speak about sexual assault at the hands of men, they’re not invoking each and every single man, but rather, these troubling facts and figures that point to a very serious problem in our society.

#FreeTheNipples preaches to end “slut shaming,” yet what they are really doing is flipping the shame of “sluttiness” from the girls who expose their breasts (and bellies and butt cheeks) to the boys who look at them.

Everyone has nipples (and bellies and butt cheeks). They’re just body parts. I mean, I think my husband’s arms are so terribly sexy. I see arms all day. Doesn’t mean I get turned on by every arm I see. If you teach your boys early on not to sexualize these very natural parts of women’s bodies (like society has weirdly enough conditioned us to do), you shouldn’t have a problem. They will learn that their future partners’ body parts are special, and that is what they will look at “in that way,” rather than looking every which way at every and anything that comes their way. You can’t assume that every woman you see who exhibits what you deem as “sluttiness” is doing so for male—or more specifically, your sons’—pleasure. And if they are, you’ve already taught your boys not to appreciate folks based on their external appearances but their internal qualities instead, so trust that they will remember this. 

TakePart.com supports teen girls spin doctoring age-old terms like “boys will be boys,” which is more about farting, burping, and falling out of trees than it is sexual harassment. They make claims like “dress codes are the result of boys not being able to control their sexual urges,” but how about encouraging all students to simply dress with decency in a public institution designed for education and growth, instead of focusing on elevating social status and hooking up?

I will be honest and say that I’m rather unfamiliar with TakePart.com. But based on some website research and what you’ve said, it seems that you’re doing some “spin doctoring” yourself and twisting the organization’s commitment to “make a difference” and feature “a range of informed perspectives on important issues.” I’m all for dressing decently and professionally in education. It gets you ready for the business world. That said, the term “boys will be boys” is also used with male co-workers who look up pornographic material on their work computers in full view of the rest of the office. I’ve heard “boys will be boys” said of teenagers who smack women’s bottoms at bars, restaurants, even the subway platform. All of these things are by legal definition “sexual harassment” and are punishable by law. And I’m pretty sure it’s not the TakePart writers but actually the schools who have said things about the appropriateness of female students’ outfits in relation to male sexual urges. This was true at my school, and many of my friends’ schools as well. I’d like to give men more credit and say that they’re not animals and can, in fact, control their sexual urges.

Teaching my boys that they are somehow wrong, perverted or bad if they look at what is being flaunted in front of them is also making the job of parents a thousand times harder to have that conversation about steering clear of “easy” girls. And, let’s not assume for one second that there aren’t plenty of them.

Whoa, whoa. That’s a lot of accusations. Let’s turn it down a notch. If you’re teaching your boys to treat women as human beings, to “appreciate the beauty in a person based on what that person believes and how that person makes my boys feel, not on what that person is wearing or how much of their skin is exposed,” rather than a collection of potentially sexy parts, they can see “what is being flaunted in front of them” and know that these people are just people with body parts, just like any other person—sans the sexualization. You won’t have to make some sort of explanation about perverted thoughts because your sons won’t look at these women “in that way.” They will see them just as they see any other person who is dressed in a different fashion than they are.

And these so-called “easy girls?” You don’t know their stories or why they dress that way or anything about them really. But they are people too, just like you. They eat, sleep, laugh, and cry. They have wants and needs, hopes and dreams. They can love, and they can get hurt. Remember that. 

When the term feminism turned from being a message of empowerment and gender fairness to basically a list of rules, restrictions, idiosyncrasies, offenses and grievances directed at all things male, I tapped out.

Actually, I (and many, many of my feminist colleagues) would say that this change in the term never happened. In fact, we support choice. If you want to become an unmarried CEO of a Fortune 500 company, that’s great. If you want to have twelve children and do needlework in your spare time, that’s great too. Feminists want freedom to achieve the things that fulfill them, whether this be a career, a family, motherhood, and so on.

We also support men. If you can’t tell already, I love the men in my life. I love meeting new male friends. I have absolutely nothing against men or things that are “manly,” as long as they don’t degrade women in any way, and they treat me as their equal.

Additionally, I think you should watch this video. It provides some perspective on this whole “rules and regulations” idea.

I do not believe that opposite sexes can ever be completely equal, as there are very specific limitations for each gender.

There’s a difference between believing in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes (feminism), talking about biological sexual dimorphism (which does exist, but, as my archaeologist husband tells me, is actually much less significant in modern-day humans than other animals, like the angler fish for instance), and addressing the gender binary (which deals with learned behavior rather than biologically innate qualities).

I also believe that there is nothing wrong with many of the gender roles that have been honored throughout history.

I’ll gladly agree to disagree with you on this point. But you shouldn’t hold other folks to this as well. We all want to do different things in life. If it doesn’t infringe upon your personal life and well-being, why have a say in something that makes another person happy?

I want my sons to love unconditionally and I want their partners to do the same. I want my sons to choose a partner who honors their manliness, strength, valor, chivalry and masculinity, and I am raising them to honor the qualities and virtues in their partner as well, even if those qualities include being maternal, ladylike, demure, and feminine.

That’s good. Do remember though that if you want them to love unconditionally, you yourself have to love unconditionally as well. If they don’t believe in the qualities of “manliness” that you want them to have, you do have to respect that. Men can be good people even if they have more “maternal” qualities than “masculine” ones, in the same way women can be good people when embodying the “provider” role rather than a more “demure” one. Strong relationships are built from love, respect, understanding, and mutual support. You shouldn’t have to pigeonhole a person with certain “masculine” or “feminine” qualities in a relationship as long as the partners are happy, healthy, and functional.

I don’t want my sons to ever have to submit to the anger of a woman who believes she is justified in treating him with disrespect based on the feminist movement.

I don’t what them to either! I usually hate it when people revoke other people’s “feminist cards,” but if someone disrespects someone else using feminism as an excuse, they can’t sit with us anymore.

I support fairness for everyone, but as long as being feminist means suppressing masculinity, it cannot possibly be called a “quest for equality.”

You’re right. That’s why feminism doesn’t suppress masculinity. Unless, of course, your definition of masculinity involves subjugating women. Then we should probably talk some more.

Respect is earned, not demanded.

Once again, context is key. I’m pretty sure I earned the right to be treated as a human being when I was born as a human being. All women have the right to be treated as human beings, I think.

There will never be a time when I will tell my boys not to treasure, protect and admire the women in their lives because “Women don’t need a man to feel valued.”

You can reframe this idea as “Women don’t need a man to feel valued, but it is nice when they do, and women appreciate it.” I believe my fellow feminists will agree with this statement.

I say, “Value all people and the gifts they bring.” Only then will the world be truly fair and equal.

I wholeheartedly agree. From my very feminist point of view, you seem to support many feminist ideals. Man-hating, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. Don’t worry, feminists aren’t man-haters either.

Best,
Pam

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