Are you a Feminist?

I learned the power of this question when I was about fifteen years old. I was at a friend’s house and I overheard my friend asking her father if he was a feminist. Thereafter came a long, parched and silent pause. He did not want to say ‘yes,’ but he also did not quite want to say ‘no.’ This was many years ago, and I do not remember his ultimate response, but what stuck with me was that pause.

I am about to use a tired and cliche writing crutch, and for that I apologize to all the wonderful writing teachers I have had, but as there is often confusion and misunderstanding around this word (as well as outright aversion to using it) I think it is necessary. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of Feminism is: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Last month Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, as he has done numerous times, made comments about the importance of feminism. “We men have to be feminists too.” The internet went nuts. However, he went further, saying that not only should men be feminists, but they need to say that they are feminists: “And it’s about time we said that more often.” Mr. Trudeau has backed up his words with actions by choosing to create gender parity in his cabinet, and when asked about justifying this choice he said, simply: “Because it’s 2015.”  I cannot applaud his actions in this area enough, but I want to go back to his call for men to self-identify as feminists, and encouraging them to talk to their daughters and sons about feminism. He credited his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, with helping him consider the example he sets for their son.

This got me thinking.

I grew up in a family with daughters, and we were raised by both of our parents to think that the sky was the limit. There was no profession we should not aspire to, no class we could not excel in, no activity we should not attempt because we were girls. I learned how to drive a pickup truck and stack cord wood. For Halloween, my sister dressed as a princess one year, and batman the next. My mom is strong (literally, guess who showed me how to stack wood?) and always pushed my sister and I toward our own strength and independence, and my dad pushed just as much for our careers and self-reliance. My dad has also commented, on more than one occasion, that he is happy he had girls and would not have known what to do with a boy. It is a joke, but I think he really means it.

This brings me back to Mr. Trudeau’s comments on men and their relationship to the word feminist. My dad is wrong about one thing, he would have known what to do with a son … teach them the same things he taught his daughters. Why not talk about equality with boys? We should be talking about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man with everyone, because if women are set up to fulfill specific gendered roles, then men are too. And no one wants to be limited. We may not all be Canadian Prime Ministers who can take steps like cabinet appointments of women, but we can all start using language that reflects a commitment to feminism and not shy away from a term that simply means we are equal.

I understand that just using the word feminist will seem like too small a step to some – this post does not even begin to delve into the complexities of intersectionality and how race, sexuality and many other factors bear on inclusive feminism. However, I think  given the celebration over Mr. Trudeau’s comments, and the sexism rearing in the current Presidential Race, identifying as a feminist is a good place to start.

So if your daughter asks if you are a feminist, do not be afraid of the question, say YES!

 

About that ‘Catcalling’ Video…

 

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I wasn’t going to post about the recent video produced by Hollaback, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment. You know… the one showing harassment of one woman over a ten-hour period. There are already so many opinions about it out there. But then I read some of the comments* about the video and my blood beat a little harder and my jaw clenched a little tighter. The comments that struck me were the ones griping – how is a man supposed to converse with women if not on the street? Shouldn’t she just be flattered? Is no one allowed to talk to anyone or make a pleasant conversation anymore? She is begging for the attention, what with her sexy, plain back t-shirt and jeans! Ugh.

Here is the thing, as many have already pointed out, far more eloquently than I, women know, women feel, that it isn’t just a pleasant comment. For example, recently I was heading to a meeting at around 7pm on a Thursday, just five blocks from my apartment. I reasoned that taking my car could lead to parking five blocks away anyway in a different direction, looking for a cab would mean standing on the street for a long time, and there were plenty of street lights so it wouldn’t be that dark. So off I set on foot. Halfway there, I turned down a block and the only other person on it was a man coming the other way. I assumed the usual woman walking alone in the city position, hands in my pockets and eyes on the ground. I assumed we would pass silently, maybe with a friendly nod, or at most a ‘good evening.’ Feet in front of me, he suddenly ducked to look into my face and yelled “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?”

This is what gets me about this whole debate on street harassment… context can be everything. The words “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?” are, in and of themselves, fine. Uttered at a bar, they may be a bit cheesy. Sent via text from a boyfriend or close friend they are sweet. Accompanying a guitar in G major and you have a pop hit. But on the street, when I’m alone, they is scary.

The internet is clogged with opinions about why such an interaction shouldn’t be considered harassment. For example, what was I wearing and was I seeking attention through my outfit? There is a blog, But What Was She Wearing dedicated to this ridiculous idea, where women can share their stories. For the record, I was wearing business casual slacks, button down, boxy jacket and my glasses. It isn’t about what women are wearing, but about so much more. Besides being annoying, being yelled at/followed/aggressively come on to in the street reminds women that they are vulnerable, that they may not be safe, because there are many women who have not been safe walking alone in the street. At least in my experience, a woman will not think ‘Gee, that guys thinks I’m sexy, how nice!’ upon hearing comments growled behind her about her posterior. Rather, she may think ‘I hope someone else starts walking here so I won’t be alone in this situation” while clutching her keys and quickening her pace.

But men are just trying to be friendly and connect… WHY IS NO ONE ALLOWED TO BE FRIENDLY ANYMORE?! I’m not saying this is never true, just that it is rarely true. I have never had a man on the street stop me to talk to me, comment on my outfit, tell me to smile, introduce himself, opine on my appearance, or whistle while I’m walking with my husband. So, either there is a hole in this argument, or men on the street are only trying to “connect” to women walking alone, because they don’t yell at women in couples and they don’t make comments at other men.

The sad thing is, it is possible to be friendly and interact with strangers without being creepy. Yet some creepers just ruin it for the rest of us. Obviously, even though I use the general term ‘men’ for this post, street harassment applies only to some men. And some men talk to women they don’t know, give them a compliment and it is taken as such – but again, context matters. To contrast my story above, I was walking to an appointment one morning in the same city when I stopped at a traffic light. There was a man sitting alone at a cafe table on the corner, feet from where I was standing, drinking a cup of coffee and apparently enjoying the morning. We were the only people on that particular corner, but there were people bustling along the other sidewalks. He smiled and said good morning, so I smiled back. He asked if I was headed somewhere important because I was dressed very sharply (in a suit), then told me to knock ’em dead and have a great week. I said thanks, also wished him a nice day. The traffic light turned, and away I went. Now I know that these stories have similarities – I’m alone both times, the man is alone both times, he comments about my appearance. But, the second interaction felt different because it started with just a smile, he didn’t get in my face, he only continued to talk to me after I responded, his comment about my appearance (although I could have done without it) was not sexual in nature but about being dressed to impress (in the business world) and looking confident. There was no lasciviousness, no mention of beauty or any of my body parts, no move to follow me, no intrusion into my personal space to force me to interact with him. It felt like a friendly conversation on a street corner on a sunny fall morning.

Obviously some women/people do not want to be talked to at all while out going about their day. That should be respected. Personally, I do enjoy saying hello to people, at the post office, in a store, or in an elevator – always nice to be nice, ya know? If, however, you can’t see the difference in these interactions described above, can’t tell that one of them is invasive, and imposes on me instead of an interaction with me, then maybe don’t try to talk to women walking alone on the street. It’s about respect.

 

*I’m not talking about the comments that pointed out the possible racial bias in the editing, even Hollaback has acknowledged the point and promised to do better.

 

When Sexism Becomes a Joke

“It’s just a joke” is one of the most watertight defenses for a discourteous comment. You can say a lot of things under the guise of a shrug and a smile, claiming it’s just funny. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but making jokes about the opposite gender is a delicate business.

Recently Emma Watson addressed the U.N. on the issue of gender equality, promoting the new HeForShe campaign. One of her many salient points touched on the need to get men on board with gender equality discussions. As with any complex societal topic – often eliciting impassioned responses – there are a variety of attitudes toward forwarding discussion. The impression that issues affecting women must evoke an “anti-man” response from proponents of gender equality in order to further an agenda, is bantied about with regularity on twitter/comment boards/the internet generally. Ms. Watson’s speech directly targeted this idea, and instead invited men and boys to join the conversation. She posited that in so doing, they become better men by helping the world become better for women and thus better for everyone. With all due respect to the many approaches over time toward bringing women’s issues to the fore, I am inclined to agree that bringing men into the discussion can only help.

I was fortunate to grow up under circumstances where I was encouraged to do or be  anything. I not only had the encouragement, but the means through my parents’ support (both personal and economic) to thrive in whatever direction I chose. As Emma Watson discussed, she had the privilege to be raised in a place and a family where gender did not matter. I too experienced this privilege. Perhaps that is why I am always taken aback when I see, or feel, a ripple of the sexism that still pervades in areas of the world as a whole, or my own personal world. Just as an example, I was working on an issue with three male colleagues in my same field of work. (I’ve touched in the past on the occasional disparity  in the ratio of men to women in my field). For the record, we had all met each other for the first time about twenty minutes prior, and they were older than I. Needing someone to take notes as we came to a resolution, the man heading up the project asked me to take down our progress, adding “I didn’t ask you to do that because you are the woman.” Followed by a feeble joke about maybe asking me to run and get them coffees when I was done taking notes. Everyone chuckled.

I, too, laughed off the comment and finished up the project, but later I began thinking about the encounter. Perhaps it was just a tasteless comment, an attempt at humor, from an otherwise, seemingly, pleasant and respectful man. Likely he had just randomly assigned the dictation to me, then perceived that it may have given the wrong impression. In which case, his comments were an apology of sorts. Whatever the intention, I found it all a little uncomfortable.

Here is why the comment made me squirm. First, I had the same credentials as the men in the room and was contributing equally to the conversation, yet drawing attention to my gender dredged up the madmen-esque stereotypes of the past where men were professionals and women were their assistants. Suddenly we were all thinking that 40 years ago, in this setting, I would have been his secretary. Second, making a joke about taking dictation and doing coffee runs, feels patronizing toward those types of assistant roles, which by the way, are valuable in their own right. Third, talking in jest about a more “traditional” role of a woman in the workplace, to a woman working in a profession that, only a mere few decades ago was dominated by men… well, I’m not sure what kind of message that is supposed to send. Are you trying to tell me that you are okay with my presence? Are you still working through the transition from the assumption (safe decades ago) that women are ‘only’ secretaries, to the reality of professional life today?

Through this very small, hardly-worth-mentioning example, I’d just like to point out that even in situations where women are provided equal opportunity, there is still room for a conversation. Jokes like the one directed at me take us from a group of colleagues to a group of men and one woman. We may not speak up at the time, because we feel outnumbered, or don’t want to “make a scene,” or be perceived as sensitive or difficult, but such comments still make an impression.

I remember in middle school, when boys were first noticing girls, and girls were noticing boys. It became very popular to tell somewhat naughty jokes, and some of them were downright sexist. But the girls always laughed, because they liked the boys, and the boys told more jokes because the girls were laughing. Now, of course I love a good joke as much as the next guy (or gal)! There is plenty of humor to be derived from the differences between men and women. But the context, the intention, and the taste level of the joke matter. And just because a woman is smiling at a joke about antiquated gender roles doesn’t mean she thinks it’s funny.