Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The New F-Word

Her Bad Mother collected some of the discussions bloggers are having about feminism, both the concepts and the labels, raising daughters and sons in this scary world, and how to tackle the issues of sex and violence and our children. She pointed me to a post by Girl's Gone Child about how she would never call herself a feminist, and instead calls herself a masculist. GGC has also written some great posts on sex and violence and I thank her for finally separating them. I wholeheartedly agree with her that women are not victims and that individual men and women are not to blame for the work that remains for gender equality. I agree that generalizations of any kind suck and we must question them for the sake of our children. But the rest of her post about being a masculist troubles me.

This type of argument reminds me of things I heard in South Africa when we were there in 2005. First, a preface: This is likely a more inflammatory analogy than the thing itself but I think it will make my point better. Writing this makes me feel uncomfortable because in North America we generally try to avoid talking about race or acknowledging that it exists. Also because who am I to comment on these things as a tourist who was in SA for three weeks? But I think sometimes discomfort signals something worth doing. And sometimes an outsider's perspective can be worth considering. In South Africa there is strict affirmative action, called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). I believe there are quotas to fill at all levels of employment. BEE has resulted in people getting jobs who are not the most qualified for the job. After all, when a generation of Africans didn't have good access to education, how can they be qualified to edit a magazine or be CEO of a bank? The problem of healing the many wounds of apartheid is a big one, and the solutions are imperfect.

There is a 40% unemployment rate and not enough decent job opportunities for everyone. Many young people (the ones whose parents can afford it) are leaving the country to pursue careers in Europe and North America. Most of the white people we spoke to attribute this to BEE. They don't know that in here in Canada young people face the same challenges. Most of the people I went to university with are seriously underemployed. Maybe I just hung out with people who had no ambition but I think it's more about just how hard it is to get a job in your chosen field. I think this is a global trend that is compounded in South Africa by an obscenely high unemployment rate, BEE and by the privilege that white people have known for generations. Even though many of these people didn't ask for the privilege, didn't believe that it was just, and fought against it, they still got used to being privileged. In Canada you have to go back a generation to a time when a person could work in their chosen field just by having an education. In South Africa I think this is more recent.

So my point: When a previously privileged group of people loses that privilege, they may feel unfairly persecuted. Not because they are individually evil or feel entitled to that privilege but just because it requires huge adjustment. Some people could try to deny that men have been privileged. But you can't deny that white people were privileged under apartheid in South Africa. And I believe that the lost boys Girl's Gone Child talks about are the result of the pendulum of privilege swinging. Don't get me wrong. I have a son too and I certainly want him to feel confident and to feel that he can pursue any path of life he chooses, the same as I would a daughter. I don't blame individual men for for the changes that still need to be made to achieve gender equality. Men are subject to the same cultural messages we women are. To me, feminism is about equality for all and about challenges our beliefs about gender; not about disempowering men to empower women.

I've already made clear that if asked, I would call myself a feminist. But it is a title that does not sit comfortably on my shoulders. Primarily because I don't really do anything to earn that label outside of my thoughts; I'm too lazy to be an activist. But the fact that feminist is a dirty word really bothers me and I feel the need to reclaim the word, to show people that there are all kinds of feminists that range from hardcore militant, marching the streets carrying signs, to nearly complacent but occasional critical thinkers like me.

My Flashback Fridays: Feminist Edition is an effort to reclaim the word. When I mentioned to a friend Sugar Daddy's question of "if you're not a feminist, what are you?" she said, "yeah, it's better to give a name to those who don't want equality," and essentially let feminist die a natural death, left to the history books. But every time a person calls him or herself a feminist today, it evokes the important work of the last century or so and helps to mitigate our complacency. And I think it's essential to acknowledge that implied history today. To me, it's like poppies on Remembrance Day; it's important not to take our choices and opportunities for granted.


Violet said...

I think it's such a bummer that the word feminist has so many negative connotations, but it's more the fault of ignorance on the part of those who don't consider themselves feminists. They're the ones who equate the word with bra-burning, hirsute-ness and man-hating. Do we blame the media for encouraging this, or people themselves for not bothering to get the facts?

Her Bad Mother said...

Such an interesting and refreshing take on the subject, CinnamonGurl - I think that you're right that we need to be careful about how we balance empowerment with even-handedness in our dealings with each other, woman to woman and women to men and vice versa.

As you know, I've had my moments of ambivalence about feminism. But I really feel now that I owe it to myself and my daughter to come to terms with it, on my own terms.

bubandpie said...

I love your point about the period of adjustment following a loss of privilege. Like you, I socialize primarily with people who have found it very difficult to make that transition from school into a meaningful full-time job in their field. To the point that it feels like a fairy-tale to me. I spent ten years in school; I graduated and now work part-time in my field with no hope of advancement. My husband took a degree in computer science and ended up working retail for two years. That's the norm that I see when I look around at people of our generation (though not necessarily the norm in Toronto, from what I understand - but if you don't want to live in T.O, that's what it is). My dad started working for a big accounting firm straight out of high school, completing his C.A. qualifications by correspondence while he worked, and he eventually became a partner and continued working there until he was 50 (at which point he switched into financial advising on a part-time basis, a very gradual semi-retirement). That kind of stability can be stifling - but it's just light years away from what anyone I know has experienced.

It is a big adjustment of expectations, and it creates a generation gap. When my husband was thinking of starting law school, my dad's lawyer friends all said not to do it because there's no money in law anymore. And my reaction was, what's he supposed to do? Stay in his lucrative retail career? It's a different world, all right.

Divinator said...

It's a difficult time to be a man or a woman. Deconstruction of any and all assumed historical roles has so suffused our society that it's like trying to drive at rush hour with all the roads are closed due to ... deconstruction. If you haven't already "made it" financially, then you're in deep #$%@.

As a young-ish male from a matriarchal, highly-educated family, I'd like to say that the dating scene is untenable. As a gender, women seem to feel insecure and defensive despite the numerous media, cultural, legal and educational privileges they now enjoy that surpass the general thresholds of men. In other words, despite usually making more money than me, the women I dated in the past still expected me to pay for both of us, open doors (a courtesy I try to extend to both genders), etc. Also, and I am not alone in this perspective, it's impossible to please someone who on one hand wants you to be a chest-pounding gorilla with a ravenous appetite for sex and a six figure income and on the other, wants you to listen like Oprah and comply like putty. That double standard is held by the majority of women with whom I've attempted romance. Very few women seem to realize that they're asking for the impossible.

Finally, the Marriage Strike is happening. Men are beginning to realize that marriage as an institution, and divorce laws in particular, are unfavorable for them. To paraphrase, some men would prefer to buy a house for a lady they don't like - at least that way, they'd still get to see their kids.

Please visit my blog and contribute your perspective, as I try to take a balanced approach and consider all viewpoints.