Reconsidering a Focus on Feminist Advocacy.

I have a several areas of my life that I’m looking hard at and reexamining right now. If this blogging experiment proves helpful, maybe I’ll follow up with a couple more personal explorations. I know I’m going to feel a little exposed, but here goes:

During my last few years in Mormonism, I self-identified as a feminist, and worked hard to highlight sexism. But during the past couple of years I’ve come to realize that no matter how hard I try:

  1. I’m a man, in a society in which men are the privileged gender.
  2. I’m a poor feminist. I feel I do as much to perpetuate sexism as I do to fight it. As a result, I feel like a hypocrite, which makes it difficult to advocate with sincerity and passion.
  3. I’m not the best or most appropriate spokesperson for women’s issues
  4. I’m afraid of critically exploring various expressions of feminism (e.g., “that’s very much a second-wave approach, embedded in a upper-middle class Euro-centric perspective, and ignores many of the needs of minority women and women in developing nations,” etc.)

The practical impact of this combined awareness is that I’ve become much quieter. I still consider myself a feminist, but I’ve shifted my advocacy more towards encouraging understanding and acceptance of a range of sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions. I’m not entirely happy with this shift away from fighting sexism (though I don’t regret my recent emphasis on gay rights).

Granted, we have to be selective about our causes (or perhaps they pick us); no one has the time to advocate, with equal passion, for the victims of or raise awareness of:

AIDS : poverty in Haiti or Bhutan or Sierra Leone : the persecution of gays in Uganda : education of Afghani women : acid attacks in Bangladesh : legalization of gay marriage in US states : sex trafficking in Cambodia : suppression of human rights in Burma : Native American rights in the US : child labor : climate change : illiteracy in US : crack babies : legalization of abortion in Central America : malaria : DPT immunizations : drug-resistant TB : animals in cosmetic testing : universal health care : overfishing in the Atlantic : creationist agenda in Texan public education : cancer : destruction of rain forests : the mistreatment of Koreans born in Japan : the suicide rate of closet gays among LDS men : nuclear test ban treaty : Child’s Play (a fave gamer’s charity) : immigration reform : the murder of women in Ciudad Juarez : etc.

But I feel like a part of me is giving up, throwing in the towel a bit on the feminist cause. I feel more and more that my place is to cheer my feminist female friends from the sidelines, and to do my best to root sexism out of myself, and in my immediate life experience. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about abandoning my feminist values or my fight against sexism–this is about setting priorities in vocal advocacy.

I’m not sure what kind of response I expect to this post. I guess I’m seeking for a reality check. Maybe I need encouragement. I’m worried as I write that this post itself will be taken as whining rooted in my male privilege. Or maybe I need confirmation that, yes, I’m not a good fit for this cause, and it’s time for me to move on. I hope that you’ll take into account that this is something I’m sincerely wrestling with, and asking for help with. Thanks for listening.

10 Comments

  1. Meryl

    I’m interested that you feel you need to have a clear set of causes. Do you feel unfocused, like taking on too many topics weakens your advocacy? Alternatively, are you looking for a way to talk about the contradictions in being a man advocating women’s issues?

    If the latter, I hope you’ll discuss your thoughts in more detail. For example, I haven’t noticed you being a poor feminist… have you been getting comments to that effect? Or are there key issues you feel unqualified to discuss?

  2. John

    Meryl, thank you so much for posing these questions. I think they’re exactly what I need to figure this out.

    I don’t have a problem with focusing my advocacy. What bothers me more is this sense that I’m not just switching emphasis, I’m giving up in some way.

    I have tried to think about what I’m qualified to comment on within feminism, and it kind of leads me towards masculinity issues, and the cost/negative impact of patriarchy on men. But this gets back to a criticism of men who enter feminist dialogue, that we make it about us. (which I’m doing here in this post as well)

    Sometimes I feel like I replaced my Mormon orthodoxy with a feminist one, and use it to beat myself with the guilt-stick. But I’m heartened that you especially haven’t noticed me being a poor feminist.

  3. leisurelyviking

    *hugs*

    This is a tough issue. There are so many things that deserve committed advocates, but keeping that commitment strong can be stressful and overwhelming. How does one pick what causes to be actively involved in, and which to fight for on a small scale just by speaking up for equality when something comes up in conversation? As someone with strong environmental concerns, I’ve been wrestling with how to get involved in the environmental justice movement, what I can do, and how a privileged white person living in a fairly wealthy neighborhood can help out without acting horribly racist/classist. I wish you luck with your struggle.

  4. 1. Women do not have a monopoly on “feminism”. We (all of society) need men who are feminists just as much as we need women who are feminists. And men—as you noted when discussing gay rights—are also harmed by patriarchy. You should not feel that “just because you’re a man” your voice is not important or necessary; your position of privilege gives you a certain power.

    2. You are a great feminist. No one is perfect—even if they’re feminists. We all live in a broken system and those of us who try, try constantly to fix it—and fail regularly. Failure doesn’t mean one has to stop trying. Nor does inconsistency = hypocracy. You are sincere and you are passionate. I don’t see that changing anytime soon; and so I don’t see much in conflict with your turn toward gay rights (for example), especially since gay rights are important feminist rights.

    3. Who is? The best spokesperson is the one who speaks. And you’ve done that very well in the past.

    4. Critical thinking is exactly what’s necessary. In fact, I would argue that critical thinking is the only means of “overcoming” privilege.

    5. I didn’t intend this to be a list of refutation points but rather a list of support points. You’re a great guy and, unless you start oppressing women, I think you’ll always be a feminist on some level. Even if you’re a [gay rights activist, dad, friend, neighbor, programmer] first.

  5. I’ve never doubted your feminism because you’re a man. That would be completely foolish, a waste of talent and passion. My highest goal for my own feminism is seeking every opportunity to create male-female-other alliances. Divisions will never help. Men are essential. And I’ve long held the belief that patriarchy punishes men just as much as women. I see this in Jeremy, and my son. Feminism elevates all of us.

    As for being a “poor feminist,” I feel the same way. I worry that I’ve devalued “traditionally” female things and become my own breed of misogynist. I don’t know what the fuck I am, in terms of gender or sexuality. So I don’t know where my attention should be drawn. I don’t know what to support or promote. I work hardest at rooting out my own prejudices even as I point out those of others. I don’t feel like I can do much more than that. It has to be enough – every little piece. I hope that I’m at least having a positive effect on my kids by modeling egalitarian language and relationships, supporting, encouraging, and demonstrating a spectrum of gender-free behavior and personality. But I fail even in this. And I’m up against so much in the culture at large. It feels futile more often than not.

    I also feel ill-equipped to approach feminism academically. I leave it to the academics. I doubt that that sort of discussion is useful in the trenches, so to speak. Is it practical or helpful to low-income or minority women that some academic is defending their honor against upper-middle class white feminists? That being said, I’m glad the discussion is there – we need that piece, too. We need the discussion at every level.

    As for the other causes you named…just reading that list made me tired. My sphere of influence is very small. I’ve deliberately tightened my circle of concern because it’s so dispiriting and exhausting to constantly raise awareness without ANY practical impact or application.

    I support and admire people who actually WORK on an international level. But for those of us who cannot actually WORK internationally aside from spending money, it almost seems like its own form of dehumanizing an “other” to have so many international concerns – however well-intended.

    I’ve accepted that, as much as international issues tear me up, my activist focus will not be international. As worthy as those causes may be, I know that I can’t have any real impact on those problems other than throwing money at them, and minuscule amounts of money at that. So I’ve made a conscious effort to localize my activism. I think it’s better for me to focus on small, local efforts that require real action on my part – clinics, shelters, food banks.

    This is running on a lot. I just…agree with you, and understand, and I’m trying to sort it out, too. For what it’s worth, I don’t find ANY of your efforts unworthy, and I think one of your greatest strengths is right here, in your writing.

  6. (Just one more thing. It was masculinity studies that really brought me around to feminism. Before I understood how patriarchy affected men, I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for feminism. Maybe it’s weird, but that’s how it worked for me. When I realized that it was a problem for everyone, and how essential it is to work WITH men, I was able to embrace feminism without reservation. So I wouldn’t write your interests off as unhelpful or insignificant.)

  7. Melissa

    John, I love that you’re so damned honest. Okay, is the fact that your male somehow a problem? Well, if you’re trying to dialogue with Kate Millet, maybe. But being a feminist (as xJane pointed out) has nothing to do with body parts. I’d say you’re a better feminist than some of my undergraduate women. Just saying.
    Oh, and just so you know…if you tried to solve all the world’s problems yourself, you’d end up frustrated and tired. Pick your battles, and pick where your energy goes. If you aren’t feeling a need to be ‘feminist’ then don’t be. Conversely, if you feel strongly about it, then be one. Don’t let all the wrong in the world keep you from doing nothing.
    Oh, and I have some really great stuff on the construction of masculinity… 🙂

  8. This post just took me back a few years to when we first met (online anyways) via your posts at fMh (the Lonely Male Feminist)

    Your activism and intensity in fighting for what you feel is right has always ALWAYS been an inspiration to me. I do not get a sense of you “throwing in the towel” concerning this issue.
    A re-sorting a labels perhaps.
    A natural evolution of discovering the battles that are best for you to fight.

    I think you are an awesome human being. And am very glad to call you friend (and advocate)

  9. I ardently disagree you are not an appropriate spokesperson for feminism. If you want to be “the” spokesperson, it’s hard to imagine who would be “the best” or “the most appropriate.” You are not an appropriate spokesperson for women, I agree. But that is not the same thing. Feminism is dead to me if only women can carry and represent it. We must all do our best to be its spokespeople.

  10. Maybe what you need to think about, John, is that in anything you can only do what you can do. Sometimes, that means going out and advocating vocally on an issue, and sometimes it just means being true to your values in the way you live your life every day.

    I honestly don’t think that one is superior to the other; sometimes being quitely true to your values and being an example to those around you can do more good than trying to speak up on a wider scale and influence the world. So, I don’t really see your quieter approach to feminism as “giving up” or “throwing in the towel”.

    Now, this is not to say that I have any problem with you, or any man, being a vocal advocate for feminism. It just seems too me that each of us must do what we feel most comfortable doing, and if you feel more comfortable as a quieter feminist at the moment, then that is what you should be doing.

    Another thing you mention is your feeling of hypocracy. I agree that it is troubling when one finds themselves being hypocritical, espeically about values we hold dear. But hypocracy is essentially about being consistent, I think, and which one of us is truly consistent? I think it was Ocsar Wilde who said something to the effect that the only people who are truly consistent are dead. I think that is true, and while I believe that each of us should be as consistent to our values as we can manage, I also don’t think we should “beat ourselves with the guilt-stick” every time we perceive some slight inconsistency between our values and our behavior. We’re human. While we should pay attention when we see your behavior going far astray of our values, feeling guilty over every perceived inconsitency just isn’t healthy. You know that, I know, but I know that I need reminding of it sometimes; we all do.

    My, I’m sounding preachy here, aren’t I? I don’t mean to. But I value your friendship and I worry about you sometimes as I worry about all of my friends, and I think you might be being a little too hard on yourself on this one.

    Says the one who is probably too hard on herself most of the time. 🙂

    Elaine

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