Taking the “Femme” Out of Feminism

Francesca Bessey

In July 2009, former President Jimmy Carter renounced his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in defense of women’s rights. Despite his six decades as a member of the convention and the continued centrality of the Christian faith in his life, Carter called the decision “unavoidable” after the convention’s leaders, quoting a few Bible verses, ordained that women be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving in the military or in a position of authority within the church. In his public statement, Carter debunked the longstanding justification for religious-based persecution of women—that the inherent gender bias in religious doctrine is simply how God intended it. Said Carter:

“The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.”

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In this decision, Carter demonstrated a sound mind and a sounder heart, allowing his disgust and compassion for the plight of women worldwide to supersede an institutional relationship of 60 plus years. He was not afraid to admit the integral role religion has played—and continues to play—in the systemic oppression of women. And he was not ashamed to identify the predominant religious perspective responsible for this impression as distinctly “male.”

In short, Carter—a self-identified man—exhibited an act of what we call feminism.

This characterization, however, would strike many of you as impossible. A feminist man? Does that mean they’re, like, gay? Don’t feminists hate men?

These concerns, however, are merely misconceptions, originating from a misconception of the nature of feminism itself. Feminism is an ideology—a set of social and political views based on establishing true equality across genders. The perceived incompatibility of feminism with the male gender results from the perception of feminism not as an ideology but as an identity, and because of its feminine prefix, an identity that is inherently contradictory to any sort of masculine identity.

These concerns may also be influenced by a fundamental difficulty in understanding why the top dog would help out the underdog if it won’t win them an advantage in the game.

But, as feminism will tell you, men may not have been winning in the first place. Not because women have been doing better, but because gender bias often takes as serious a toll on men as it does on women.

Gender discrimination, like gender, does not characterize individuals on the basis of sex alone. Rather than the oppression of non-males, gender discrimination has traditionally constituted the oppression of those who are perceived as non-masculine, including women, intersex people, gay and bisexual men, men who don’t like sports, men who write poetry and men who cry.

The problem is rooted in a fundamental social preference for traditionally “masculine” traits: strength, independence, rationality, efficiency, stoicism, etc. Historically, a significant degree of sex discrimination seems to have resulted from denying the potential existence of these traits in women and the subsequent assumption that women are only fit to serve subservient social roles.

More recently, however, an increasingly visible issue has been discrimination against men in the form of extreme pressure to adhere to a very narrow range of masculine social norms and extreme backlash when they choose to deviate from these standards.

Because the masculine identity consists of socially valued characteristics, men are born holding the most coveted position in society. If they choose to reject this status, however, they are chastised for relinquishing the top spot. Women, on the other hand, begin on the bottom. By emphasizing certain “masculine” characteristics, such as independence and efficiency, women can actually increase their esteem by rejecting their so-called feminine shortcomings.

Men in first-world countries thus typically face far more dire consequences for deviation from their assigned gender role than women do. To use a simple example, it remains far more socially acceptable for a woman to wear pants than for a man to wear a skirt. Women can choose whether or not to wear jewelry, barrettes and nail polish, but men who accessorize are cast out and ridiculed. While the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. have publicly come out in support of LGBTQ rights, the Boy Scouts of America have banned queer participation altogether.

In short, while discrimination against the female sex is becoming less and less appropriate, discrimination against femininity remains a powerfully entrenched social phenomenon. Thus, we have entered an era—at least in Western, industrialized nations—when professional women are celebrated as well as men, but where the stay-at-home parent, male or female, is consistently devalued. Similarly teaching, nursing and other jobs traditionally associated with “feminine” characteristics like nurture, compassion and domesticity have been relegated to the lower tiers of the first-world economy in terms of income and esteem.

This hurts everyone who doesn’t fit the masculine social ideal—whether one has a vagina or is simply an avid fan of musical theater—and, illusions aside, no one ever fits perfectly with an ideal of any kind. So if you identify as a man and the jury’s still out on feminism, I offer you to consider the following:

Feminism strives to ensure that women’s bodies, thoughts, feelings and abilities are valued no less than those of men. But it also strives to eliminate a power structure that hurts men as well as women. It seeks to abolish gendered standards of behavior so that no person—regardless of gender or sex—is judged based on their capacity to conform to an arbitrary set of physical characteristics and personality traits.

Feminism is therefore a human enterprise. It is not at odds with maleness or masculinity. In fact, the perspective it provides on gender in our society exposes pathways by which men can stage their own liberation.

So yes, men can be feminists. They can be feminists because they’re sick and tired of watching their sisters, mothers, daughters and lovers struggle. They can be feminists because they believe in equality, free expression and the right of each person to reach their full potential. And they can be feminists so that they, too, can experience complete freedom from judgment about how “manly” they are. Because no, being “manly” does not make you a better person, nor a worse person, nor feminist, nor anti-feminist.

It simply makes you manly.

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