Feminism Revisited: Reflections on My Gender Journey
A few years ago, I wrote a popular essay about why I decided I was no longer comfortable with the label 'feminist'. This is a sequel to that article. It was also published with my permission on the men's rights page 'The Red Pill', and finding that site led me to learn more about men's rights issues.
I learned that there are very real men's issues that feminists don't address because their focus is on women entirely. I decided I did not want to be a part of either men's rights movement or feminism completely, but I am interested in how gender, which is cultural, and sex-based difference, which is physical, causes suffering to both men and women.
Recently I have also educated myself more about the issues associated with being transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, agender, and intersex. In a world that focuses on men vs. women so much, these people feel like they don't belong in either box. Some believe the idea of gender itself is oppressive, and perhaps it is harmful to people, of both physical sexes, to be labeled at birth according to very small differences in genitals.
So maybe instead of calling myself a feminist or a men's rights activist, I could call myself a gender warrior. Someone who wants to champion the rights of anyone oppressed by gender; whether it's a man getting drafted, a woman getting condescended to and interrupted, or a transgender person who is being discriminated against because there are sometimes fewer legal protections against that. I want society to get rid of gender.
No, I don't mean pretending there are not physical differences between the sexes. I mean that gender is not a useful tool anymore. It was once used as a strategy to divide the labor done by (physical) males and females in hunter-gatherer societies. It was necessary to have mostly males leave the home to hunt, and mostly females stay home, where they could raise infants. In simple agrarian civilizations, it still made sense for women to stay home and raise babies while men did farm work and building work outside the home. When the trumpets of war sounded, it was men who were expected to fight and sacrifice themselves to defend women and children at home.
Gender was extremely oppressive. To go against it during ancient times was almost a death sentence. It had to be that way for the survival of the human race. Women were precious and could not be risked, so they were cloistered and defended as a valuable resource. Men were the ones expected to do the risk.
But now, with the help of technology, humanity is moving beyond gender. We no longer have to shelter women so much, or insist on treating them like their only purpose is to give birth. They are able to do more because, well, we have too many people on Earth right now, not too few. More women can now choose not to procreate, freeing them for occupations once only reserved for men, for only men could devote themselves fully to before. More men can also choose the traditional women's role and stay home with their children, if they so desire. Thus, gender roles which were once thought to be divinely ordained and absolute are now flexible. I look forward to a world where people really are treated equally, and are judged based on personality, abilities, and merit, not gender.
I Learned to Stop Taking Feminism as a Given
Growing up, I lived in a very Christian small town. People didn't ask what religion you were, they asked what church you went to. Divorced women and single mothers were shunned. Rape and harassment was blamed on the victim's outfit and behavior (she was out late, why was she alone, why was she drinking) more often than on the men. You didn't talk about certain things. You didn't use certain words. But, that Monica Lewinski, she was a whore. Girls on TV were often called whores, for dancing, for showing skin. There was shame surrounding the experience of puberty.
I saw my mother living in opposition to all that negativity in our culture. She believed women should be free, to pursue careers, to end unhealthy marriages. She believed having a baby with someone didn't mean you should be stuck with each other forever. She spoke out against the sexism, racism, and extreme nationalism of her elders. She believed in God, but wondered if the men who wrote the books of the Bible snuck in a few self-serving sexist passages, wondered if such things were really from the Lord or from men. She became more interested in the philosophy of Taoism, wherein male and female are opposite energies that complement, but are equal to, each other. This is different from the Christian belief that femininity is a realm that must be governed by masculinity.
So siding with my mother, around middle school age, I had already settled the question. You were either a feminist, like her or like my professional go-getter grandma Phyllis, or you were adding your voice to the sexist bullies such great women always had to combat. Obviously you had to be a feminist, because feminism gave women the right to vote and the right to work outside the home. I spent my teen years believing that, that you were either a feminist or a woman hater. I even slid away from Christianity, mostly on the grounds that it was rooted in patriarchal misogyny. It being non-scientific was of secondary importance to that problem.
Part of educating myself more was being open to dissenting opinions on feminism. I realized that, as grateful as I was for the vote, I wasn't finding much if I asked feminists, "what have you done for me lately?". I also had to realize there were real reasons behind female oppression in the past, real physical reasons. The naive feminist view of history is that women were able to be equal to men in the ancient past, and came to be oppressed by men, forced into an unnatural state of slavery on the basis of gender. Certainly, things got worse for women when pantheons that included male and female representations of divinity were torn down, replaced with a dominant religion that more actively hated femininity, and more actively excluded women from religious authority. But that's not to say there was not sexism in cultures that held goddesses in high regard, but had less respect for real women. In The Illead for example, women are treated as literal prizes, trophies from war. Conflict arises because the hero of the war, Achilles, and Agamemnon the king, both feel more entitled to the best prize woman than the other. Attainment of beautiful women as status symbols was a driving motivator for recruiting men to go to war at all in those days. This is a thing in many cultures.
So the myth that we went from goddess-worshiping, nature-respecting, peaceful hippies to war-like and tyrannical only after the spread of Abrahamic religion is, well, a myth. But it's a myth feminism seems to stubbornly cling to. You made up God so I would have to do the dishes, complain the feminists raised as Christians, Jews, or Muslims.
But gaining knowledge meant realizing that there was no distant past pagan feminist utopia to look back to. It meant acknowledging that the female gender role as baby-maker, and the male gender role as breadwinner and warrior, both arose out of physical necessity and common sense. Both could be gotten rid of in a modern future, but there was no real past where sexism did not make sense, at least to some extent. History was not a conspiracy by men to rule over women, but a story of men and women trying the strategies that best maximized the survival of the species, even if the means to do so were not always fair or pretty.
So, I went from thinking feminism was a given unless you really were a misogynist, to having a more nuanced view. Feminism, as a mythology, was no more rooted in historical fact than Christian myths. You did not have to label yourself a feminist to combat sexism.
I Started Listening to MRAs and Anti-Feminists - Instead of Dismissing Them
If you asked me in 2007 how I might respond to someone calling themselves a men's rights activist or anti-feminist, it would have been to either laugh them off or get angry at them for existing, depending on my mood. I didn't think that any of them could actually be serious. I thought they were just psychologically unbalanced internet trolls who were lashing out at women anonymously online because they got dumped or can't get a date. I saw them as sad, pathetic losers. I lamented that you couldn't say anything feminist on the internet, outside of specifically feminist websites, without getting hateful replies.
I wondered, why are these people so angry at feminism? I started to wonder about some of the things they said about gender. I had trained myself to see gender biases in everything; sports, advertising, product design, toy design, fashion. I knew that there was sexism woven into the fabric of society - sexism that supposedly harmed women and girls and helped men and boys. But what I came to learn by reading some writings from the other side was that sexism in society hurts men and boys too. The myth of the pagan egalitarian past was shattered for me, but so later was the myth of a patriarchy in the present. We have a society that is incredibly unjust when it comes to gender, but it doesn't benefit all men - it only benefits a few rich and powerful people, who are mostly men, at the top of society's pyramid. If you're born at the bottom of the pyramid, gender roles benefit them. They want to keep the women squirting out babies, or in supporting roles to men, or in the sex industry serving them, and they want the men fighting endless wars for their oil money, and fixing their golden bathtubs.
But oppressive gender roles are not entirely top-down, either. Part of learning more about economics and how markets work helped me see it. People don't mark pink toys as "girly" because of some kind of diabolical conspiracy to keep girls out of serious subjects like science, they do it because they test products before putting them on store shelves. And test audiences show a gendered preference - girls tend to like pink. Thus I've come to see the market as not something those with power impose upon people without the power to resist them, but as the consequence of our own wants and desires. What shows up on store shelves is a reflection of what society generally wants, or those stores would be out of business quickly.
I've learned not to see men as the antagonists and women as the protagonists in a heroic struggle for female liberation and female rights. Instead, through talking to MRA's, I've come to see that gender as a social construct has negative effects on women, men, and people who don't identify as a traditional binary gender. Men are hurt by sexism in many ways, from custody hearing discrimination, the assumption of guilt in a rape or domestic violence case, to being expected to go to war and do the more physically risky jobs society requires. Traditional cultures reward men for this with honor and female subservience and loyalty, such that women are relegated to that ancient but familiar role - the trophy. But a better way of doing things is to get more women into those dangerous jobs, taking the pressure off of men. This move will also hopefully force leaders to make more wise decisions about how we manage the risk of war and the most dangerous jobs. Maybe there will be more peace if they have more women in the infantry, because people have a biological bias towards protecting women. The solution I'm hoping for is a society based on merit and desire, not sex. For one, sex is an imperfect category that leaves out a lot of people (collectively termed intersex). But we need to move away from making assumptions about people based on sex or gender expression, and towards inclusivity.
I would definitely urge feminists to listen to what MRAs have said about how men suffer from their gender role and gender-based assumption. I'd also encourage MRAs to listen to feminists and take women more seriously when they talk about how bad it is to deal with the pressures and struggles of being a woman, too. The gender grass is not always greener on the other side.
My Vision for a Genderless World
When I talk about a word without gender, I can hear the inevitable objections born out of a misunderstanding of what that actually means. When average laypeople talk about gender, they're talking about the sum total of physical and non-physical differences between the sexes. So a world without gender is absurd because you're never going to have a world without testosterone and estrogen, without high and low voices, without penises and vaginas.
But when sociologists talk about gender, they use it to mean only the cultural baggage associated with being perceived as a man or a woman. It is a role individuals are supposed to carry out. Every person defined by society as a woman is supposed to embody the "woman" role, and every person defined by society as a man is supposed to embody the "man" role. Everyone has to fit into one of two categories, but they're not based on real sex, but on perceived sex. For example, a female baby with a larger-than-average clitoris at birth may be mistakenly identified by a doctor as a boy. Or, a transgender woman who "passes" well will be treated much the same way as a naturally female woman. Society guesses people's sex, and assigns their corresponding perceived gender role, based on often fuzzy assumptions.
So, what I mean by a genderless society is one wherein nobody does any assigning or assuming. It may take a while to get there, and I expect the push back from conservatives while trying to fight gender. But I've realized I'm not interested in being a champion of men or a champion of women. I just want to protest the whole concept of gender. Gender based rules and expectations had a place in humanity's primitive, difficult to survive in past. They come to us not from heaven, but from a time when life was mercilessly punitive, when food was scarce, and disease and war abundant. In ancient times, it was necessary for women to stay home and have no role other than giving birth. It was also necessary for men to venture out, to kill enemies or work the fields, to ensure the survival of the women and babies.
But we don't live in those times anymore. We don't need every woman to be a baby maker. We don't need every man to be a warrior. We now fight wars with bombs, ships, and planes, that don't require the manly strength of using bows or spears. Men and women can both work on, maintain, and use such things. Men and women can both use guns to fight people. Similarly, innovation in the domestic realm, breast pumping, formula, and numerous time-saving inventions allow for women to work outside the home even after having a baby, and they allow men to take on many of the domestic responsibilities we used to assume had to be left to women. It's a brave new world, and maybe someday it will be a world without gender, or where gender's importance is minimized. As technology seems ready to automate a lot of jobs, including some that are highly gendered like physical labor, driving, and care-giving, it's only a matter of time before gender roles are no longer forced on the next generation.
Instead, gender can become just a way people choose to express themselves, without any cultural expectations attached. So not a world where nobody wears sparkly pink tutus, but where the act of wearing one doesn't mean anything other than that. It doesn't mean you won't grow up to be a construction worker. It doesn't mean you want to also play with dolls. People will just stop assuming there are connections between things when a connection is not there.
© 2019 Rachael Lefler