Tuesday, May 23, 2006

From the NY Times: Changing a Feminist Mind

(Cross-Posted at Feminist Law Professors)

From the NY Times, "Changing My Feminist Mind, One Man At a Time":

FOR the past decade, I have struggled with two competing images of the opposite sex: oppressor, and dream date.

[W]ith my working mother as a role model and an influential teacher as my guide, I started to identify as a feminist. I read, re-read, and underlined "Backlash," "The Beauty Myth" and "The Feminine Mystique." I grew enraged by what I learned. Enraged, and utterly confused. Who was keeping women down? Men. But who were just so cute that I couldn't sleep at night for thinking and writing and obsessing about them? You guessed it, the self-same.

Then I went off to an all-women's college, Smith, where I didn't see a whole lot of men. I joined the campus women's group and studied up on gender issues. My rage toward men in general grew ever stronger, as did my desire to meet that one specific man who could make my dreams come true.

Friends wondered why I couldn't leave my politics at the door and just go on a date for goodness sake. My uncles joked that perhaps I'd be happy if I could find a nice Irish girl to settle down with.

All of my relationships, or lack thereof, began to take the same shape. I would meet a man, and our first date would consist of that lovely unraveling of mundane details. Then would come the second date. With our vital stats out of the way, we'd begin to discuss other, seemingly benign, topics. But somehow, every road led to sexism. Soon I began to recognize a familiar look on the faces of the men I went out with, the physical incarnation of Check, please. I knew that I could be too harsh, too quick to judge and probably guilty of the very sexism I railed against. But I couldn't back down.

I couldn't because the stakes are too high, and the large-scale issues of sexual inequality remain: Women still don't make equal money for equal work; we are still the victims of rape and domestic violence; we are, for the most part, still solely responsible for child-rearing and cooking and cleaning, no matter what our career choices.

And now I have fallen for a man who understands and respects my feminist beliefs, and who also takes me to dinner, holds the door, calls me Babydoll in a slow Southern drawl. Embracing those contradictions has led me to discover a world between the harsh reality of sexism and the airy wishes of my love-drenched fantasies.

It's true what my Smith professor said about progress depending upon one individual changing another for the better. What she didn't say was that, inevitably, the change goes both ways.

An article entitled "Changing My Feminist Mind, One Man At a Time" is not something I would normally expect to like--but I kind of did, at least the end. Mainly because it seems similar to, and then wildly diverges from my own complicated views about love, marriage, and feminism. Maybe it's because author and I are so different. For one thing, I didn't have a working mom (although she definitely is a role model), and I didn't have very strong female role models growing up. My father is as authoritarian and, well, just plain mean with my mother as he is with us kids. It's not easy being an Asian American feminist, particularly if you were raised in a very traditional and restrictive household.

But somehow I too became a feminist, read those books, and joined all-women organizations at my co-ed large state university. But I didn't become particularly enraged at men per se. It's not like I meet men and think "you sperm-wielding oppressors!" I became angry at the system of patriarchy that keeps women in second class citizen status--the wage discrepancies, the failure of the ERA, the failure of comparable worth theory, the de minimis family leave policies, the late-coming to the equal vote party (and the pregnancy discrimination act party), the culture war over women's sexuality, bodies, and reproduction--just a lot to be angry at and hate. But it's hard to explain how I can be angry at this amorphous concept of The System and disaggregate that from any animus I can feel towards the class of men in general, or a man in particular. It's the same way I believe that racism is real and deeply embedded into our legal system and social structure--I hate everything about that. But I don't hate all "white" people or think every white person I meet is consciously racist.

I guess this is why I wanted to be a lawyer–I see things in terms of laws and institutions that must be changed as much as individual minds. There really is so much at stake–and it is important to change minds, one mind at a time. But it is also important to recognize that it the individual is different (in size, power, workings) from the larger social structure in which the individual exists, and that both must be worked on to effect change. It’s not like you either change a mind or change a law–try both! Both efforts will yield different types of results, owing to the fact that the individual and the institution are two different types of things. Also, it is dangerous to always conflate an unknown individual with the despised meta-affliction plaguing society. I know that it is individuals with either conscious or unconscious bias who perpetuate the biases of the institutions and larger social structure–but when I’m meeting someone for the first time, whether a regular joe or a lawmaker, I try to disaggregate the resentment I feel towards the “system” and try to recognize the individual (and as yet unknown) humanity of the person.

In fact, I rather dislike the author's perpetuation of the stereotype of the man-hating feminazi. It is not wrong to hate patriarchy--but it is just as stereotypizing and close-minded to hate every man for his gender. Also, if you read the article, the author makes this bewildering generalization about men--she loves their "linear and decisive" thinking--what's up with that? I know lots of men who meander and I know lots of women (including myself) who are pretty quick decision makers. She also kind of describes men as cuddly, body warmth giving pets. I agree, many bonuses on a cold night, particularly if you want to save on your energy costs this winter--but it seems so strange to both hate men in general and like them for being aftershave-scented hug providers. Not that it doesn't make sense, I like aftershave scented hugs--but it's just a bit twisted to have so much animus and an almost condescending, objectifying affection. In a way, it's like the misogynistic tendency to disregard the intellectual and productive value of women, but like their cute asses and racks. When you think of members of the other gender as anything less than the whole person, when you start liking stereotypical abstractions ("domestic goddess," "madonna," "knight in shining armor") or break them down to body parts (boobs, muscular arms)--it smacks of being equal-opportunity sexism. So these are the differences between myself and the author. But in the end, we are both feminists, and we both can happily, proudly, and rightly call ourselves feminists. I am glad to read an article by a "feminist" and not a "post-feminist," or say, Caitlin Flanagan. And besides, what I liked most was the end of the article.

I too have had my share of bad dates, or boyfriends that would have been but for our disagreement over _____. So I felt a kind of kinship with the author over her description that dates that went bad over a discussion of ____. Those little date-breakers, like the time I found out a guy I liked was into guns and I'm all about gun-control (and no, I don't mean holding the gun with both hands). For her, all roads led to sexism. For me, it's usually a disagreement over welfare reform, affirmative action, and gay rights. That's just on the pre-dating stages or the first date though--I won't sleep with a guy who's not pro-choice, although I never know how to raise that subject delicately. I just figure that if a guy wants to touch my body, he should recognize that it's my body--and respect that. But back to dates that go bad--I liked that the article ended with a date and relationship that went well. One that taught both partners to compromise, have respectful disagreements, and recognize that each is more than the sum of his or her political beliefs.

In many ways, I've been lucky. Even though I've been raised in a very inhospitable environment for feminists, I've managed to become my own woman and find my own political beliefs--and hold on to them for this many years. And though I have a rather anti-feminist father, I've met many liberal and feminist men. I've met my share of anti-feminist men and women, believe me--particularly in my college "Biomedical Ethics" class, half of which was devoted to the subject of abortion and sexuality. But best of all, I have been able to have deep friendships, all the while respectfully disagreeing with, pro-choice, very conservative men and women--mainly because we've both been able to see past the immediate issue and consider each other in our full and diverse humanity. I haven't yet found "the one" yet, but this article, and this post about SUNY Dean Michelle Anderson's surprise at finding herself a happily married feminist gives me much hope for that.

(I probably will get some flak from casual readers or trolls for yet another post containing "bubblegum moralisms," ardent feminism, and prattlings about choice and sexuality--but in the end, this is my blog post, and there is no sense in self-censoring and bowing to the heckler's veto)