A few years back, I found myself surprised to discover that all of the problems of equity in the U.S. had been fixed, right under my nose. Somehow, this had happened despite the rather apparent issues of racial profiling, sex discrimination, and the growing socioeconomic gaps that I observed in my day-to-day life.
Not surprisingly, this assertion of already-established equality came from a group of white, middle-class 16-year-olds in a suburban school where I was guest teaching a lesson on Fahrenheit 451. We were discussing the obvious discrimination and suppression of the non-conforming individuals in the book and how and why this suppression worked, and then I asked them if they could think of any non-mainstream identities or lifestyles that were particularly discouraged or even actively suppressed by American culture.
Now, I should not have been surprised at the blank stares I received when I asked that question, nor should I have been surprised when the better part of the class emphatically insisted that “we were all equal” and that we “all had equal rights” and “everybody can do what they want,” but it did catch me momentarily off guard. (As uncomfortable as those moments are in the classroom, they are amazingly “teachable,” and often lead to the most interested and insightful discussions, if the teacher is willing and able to follow them.)
After a couple of failed attempts at different lines of discussion, I finally struck on a question that seemed to resonate and illustrated the problem with their assertion. I simply asked a boy in the front row if he would wear an outfit like mine — a tailored black dress, patterned black pantyhose, and black stilettos — to school, since everyone “can do what they want” without repercussion in an “equal” society. After all, a male wearing a dress shouldn’t cause any controversy, if we’re all “equal” regardless of who we are, what we wear, and what we choose to do in our lives. Right?
The proverbial light switch clicked on, and I could see the befuddlement in their faces. Here they had thought they had it all figured out, and with just a few questions I could see them turn the question over in their minds. Success! Not a horrible job in only forty minutes, as someone with, at the time, no professional experience in the classroom.
The interesting thing about that experience, for me, was the reminder of just how blind we can be to privilege, if we’re lucky enough to have it. Privilege is a funny thing — it’s invisible, colorless, and odorless when you have it, yet it is blatantly obvious when you lack it. My Brightest Diamond said it more concisely (and in a much more flamboyant outfit) in the lyrics to this song:
“When you’re privileged you don’t even know you’re privileged
When you’re not, you know”
The same is true for feminism; when I saw this now-iconic photo from last week’s Congressional Oversight Committee regarding religious institutions and exemptions for birth control coverage, my immediate reaction was “what a perfect, visual example of the patriarchy.”
It deeply unsettles me when I hear atheists, in person or online, deny the existence of the patriarchy or declare feminism “irrelevant” and “outdated.” There is a significant portion of the online atheist community that not only rejects feminism (cough*The Not-So-Amazing Atheist incident*cough), but actively disparages it. If the word “feminism” is so much as whispered on Pharyngula, the Horde is faced with a deluge of comments, some simply misinformed, some with arguably more vitriol and sexism. R/GodlessWomen spends half its time posting interesting things, some related directly to feminism, some not, and the other half fighting off unfriendly visitors.
Interestingly enough, I feel that “seeing” the need for feminism requires the same kind of eyes as “seeing” the need for atheism — it’s not a response to what actually exists, but rather what doesn’t. If there is one thing that atheists are really, really good at, it’s talking up the lack of the supernatural in the world. No miracles, no answered prayers, no divine intervention… no god. But the same logic doesn’t seem to apply to the lack of women in positions of economic or intellectual power, the lack of representation in government, the pay gap that still very much exists, and the increased risk of sexual violence that women face.
The patriarchy exists. It’s as plain as the nose on your face, the image of five older, celibate men speaking for the rights of all women leaping out from your monitor.
So why is the atheist and skeptical community, espousers of all things intellectual and rational, so hostile to feminism? In no way, shape, or form does feminism require a person to “only” focus on women’s issues, or hate or neglect men (although there have certainly been some proponents of feminism that have, merely proving that every group of people have their crazies), or to subscribe to a specific, militant lifestyle. Feminism, in its most stripped-down form, is simply the belief that women are and should be equal to men. Feminism is the understanding that we must advocate for women, as they occupy an underprivileged spot in the social strata, in order to achieve equity. How you go about doing that… well, that’s as diverse a possibility as how to live your life as an atheist.
In the U.S., it seems as though contraception is going to be on the table as a moral issue for the upcoming elections, as all of the GOP frontrunners have voiced their opposition in one way or another. These are “feminist” issues that are very, very real, that could have a potentially devastating effect on women’s lives, were they to be implemented.
So, how about it, atheists? We can see religious privilege, and we really, really like to point it out, but can’t we take a look a gender privilege as well? Let’s make nice, and put away our bra-burning strawfeminist, and work together to make feminism actually irrelevant.