Tilting at Straw Feminists

A couple of weeks ago I posted about seeing an offensive sexist shirt at my local YMCA, and then speaking with the staff about developing a policy on sexist, etc., messaging on clothing. As I read through the comments left by the variety of self-ascribed Men’s Rights Activists and their supporters that descended on that post, I was struck by how thoroughly they misunderstand feminists like myself. It’s almost like they’re too busy creating a straw-feminist effigy of me to actually read what I write. Actually, no, it’s just like that.

Several commenters offered some variation of this:

I’m sorry but getting so upset over a joke T-Shirt is just idiotic. You need to step away from your radical feminism blogs if you are getting that sensitive over these issues. I would put money if the shirt was on a woman and was aimed at criticising men you wouldn’t have complained or done anything. In fact you would of probably laughed and complimented the woman for buying it.

Get a grip woman.

This is utterly false. I am not okay with degrading men any more than I am with degrading women. For god’s sake, I have a son. I support an egalitarian society in which neither gender bashes or degrades the other gender. Seriously, search my blog for an example of me bashing men or applauding other women for bashing men. I don’t do that.

Note the characterization of the shirt I saw as simple “criticism.” Not so. The shirt suggested that women’s place is to be subservient to men, waiting on their every need. That’s not “criticism.” This is something I’ve seen a lot, actually—the claim that feminists “can’t take” criticism, when in fact what they “can’t take”—or, rather, won’t take—is sexism.

Here’s another comment:

Just one look at the papers with all the adult women raping young boys is incredible. And yet feminism is fine with that.

What. What even is this? Where in the world did this reader get the idea that feminism is fine with adult women raping young boys? Good gracious, feminists like myself oppose rape in any form, whether it is perpetrated against people of any gender (or any age). Has this reader never heard a feminist talk about consent? And I am going to start sounding like a broken record here, but I have a son. Think you that I laugh at the idea of him being raped, by anyone? That would be a no.

My son is part of the reason I am a feminist. Currently, sexist ideas about men as sexually active and women as sexually passive create a climate where adolescent males are seen as sexual predators and where there is a lack of awareness that adolescent males, too, should be able to set their own sexual boundaries and say “no” as well as “yes.” I want to break this all down and move toward a society where people are seen as people first rather than being shoved into gendered categories with all of the assumptions that go along with them. I don’t want Sally pushed into having sex before she is ready—and I don’t want Bobby pushed into having sex before he is ready, either.

Okay, moving on.

A regular commenter offered a personal anecdote from her own life:

I never realized how sexist the average person is until I started my current job. Part of my job is helping customers load their vehicles when they buy heavy items (appliance, lumber, stone, furniture, etc.). Now, I am a short young woman, and while I am not super skinny or anything, I am in the “healthy” BMI range, and I don’t look like I am strong. But I totally am. However, my customers never think so. They see me and immediately dismiss me. Some of them kind of chuckle when I show up to help them, and say stuff like “Oh no, this isn’t a job for you” or “I don’t think you should try lifting that”. Others get irritated and rude when I show up; I have had people say to me outright, “No, I need a man to do this job”. No, no you do not. And I prove them wrong every time, and usually they seem sort of shocked. I hope that at least one of my customers comes away from that having learned that women are not these fragile flowers that we are often thought to be.

One of the drive-by commenters responded with this:

I would be willing to bet as many of those people saying they “need a man to do this job” are women; if any part of that story is true. Unfortunately it’s another side effect of the culture which feminism contributes to, that women are special and need extra protection.

Um . . . no.

Feminism actually seeks to break down the idea that women are helpless and unable to take care of themselves. The idea that men should open doors for women, or carry boxes for them, and so on, actually stems from our culture’s patriarchal roots. It is closely related to the idea that the husband is to be the provider and protector while the wife is to be the caregiver and nurturer. And then there is also the idea that women are weak and need to be taken care of. Now, do some women take advantage of this idea to ask the men in their lives to do the heavy lifting, etc.? Sure. But that is actually the opposite of feminism.

But I suspect I know what this commenter is referring to when he speaks of feminism contributing to the idea that women need extra protection. I suspect he’s actually talking about things like laws protecting women from sexual harassment. I’ve seen it argued that when women ask for policies against sexual harassment rather than just dealing, they’re asking for special protections and stating that women can’t take care of themselves without extra help. This is false. The law should protect every individual, male or female, from sexual harassment in the same way it protects them from assault or battery. If men had to live with the same level of sexual harassment that women do, they’d be clamoring for laws and policies too.

Once again, I have a son. I don’t want him subjected to sexual harassment anymore than I want my daughter subjected to sexual harassment. This is not about “special protections.” It’s about creating a healthy society, one where individuals’ rights are protected. Oh, and if we’re including maternity leave as a “special protection,” guess what? I think men should have the right to take paternity leave too.

This leads nicely into the next comment:

Actually the “joke” is that society panders to womens emotions and babies them on a daily cultural basis. It is funny, because to refer to women with anything but reverence is seen as “defiling the sacred mother goddess”. The fact that YOU don’t understand the joke is PART of the joke. Hahahahah. Keep on crying ladies. It’s a shame we have to spell out how privileged you are.

I have never heard anyone refer to “defiling the sacred mother goddess.” I don’t actually know any feminists who believe in a mother goddess. Most Americans, if they believe in a god, tend to believe in a male father god, not a “mother goddess.”

More to the point, most feminists tend to want to deconstruct the mother image that is so prevalent in our society and move toward egalitarian families and egalitarian parenting. This “woman = mother = sacrificial caregiver” ideal is actually one of the things preserving the patriarchal underpinning of our society today. It is assumed that women will sacrifice their careers to raise their children while men are not faced with the same choice. Now yes, not all feminisms are the same. But here on my blog, I have time and again argued in favor of moving away from mothering and toward parenting.

Let me bring up my son one last time here. I would like to hope that someday, should he have children, he will be just as involved as a parent as his wife will be. I would also like to hope that, should he and his hypothetical wife get divorced, they would share custody of their hypothetical children. I hope the same for my daughter. I want to both of my children to be able to fulfill their dreams and ambitions and, should they have children, parent with the help of a supportive and active partner.

I have actually never felt like my beliefs were so misunderstood as I did when reading through the comments on that post. There was no attempt to understand my actual positions, no interest in doing anything but make up things I do not in fact believe. This is actually something I feel whenever I look around websites run by Men’s Rights Activists—their articles are a combination of blatant sexism and misogyny and a complete misunderstanding of feminists’ positions and beliefs.

Yes, I am a feminist. And guess what? I have a son, and my son needs feminism too.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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