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Reflection uncomfortable yet necessary for gender equity

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I thought I’d already had my feminist awakening. I had identified as a feminist for years, proudly displayed a “Support Planned Parenthood” sticker on my phone case and considered myself quite outspoken about my views.  Now, almost a month post-Kavanaugh confirmation, my eyes have been opened to how women often internalize the patriarchy, and feel that it is their responsibility to help men feel better. I’m unshackling myself from that sense of responsibility. Assuaging male guilt and discomfort is not our job. 

On the night of the Kavanaugh confirmation, I was in my dorm with my friends.

“God damn it,” my friend said as I passed her my phone, the headline stretching across the screen. “I hate men.”

Another friend grabbed my hand, and I rested my head on her shoulder. “Thank God I got my birth control last summer,” she joked, laughing because it was easier than thinking too hard about what the confirmation might mean for us. 

Soon we were sharing our frustrations with Congress’s refusal to acknowledge Dr. Ford’s testimony and our fears for a future that might not include Roe v. Wade.

Another friend, who identifies as a male, then said situations like these are difficult because he tries to be a good guy, and reject toxic masculinity. However, he also said it is hard when we say we hate men.

My friends challenged him, and he got more frustrated.  I didn’t say anything. Weren’t they being a little harsh?  Shouldn’t we be more inclusive?  Shouldn’t we validate what he’s feeling?

Right there – did you catch it?  A moment of women sharing their experiences, and suddenly the focus is centered onto the one man in the room.  Instead of being able to focus on what this historic moment would mean for me as a woman, I was thrust into feeling like I should be sympathizing with my male friend.  But why?   

In retrospect, that instinct towards sympathy was the internalized patriarchy rearing up inside me.  As women, we’re told to share, to make ourselves small, to put the needs of others before our own.  We’re told we should push down our pain to make room for the discomfort men feel when we give voice to that pain – as if we aren’t taught to make ourselves small enough already.  To speak out, to refuse to make room – now that would be selfish. 

Messages like these can easily cause even the most empowered women to find themselves awash in himpathy, a term coined by philosopher Kate Manne in her book “Down Girl.”  Manne writes that “himpathy describes a whole set of ways that we tend to be overly focused on, and tend to give sympathetic attention to, men and boys in ways that are systematically distorting.” 

We can see himpathy in action every time a man is accused of sexual assault and people focus on the potential damage to his future, rather than on the woman he assaulted. It’s not just men who participate in himpathy, though.  Patriarchal gender roles dictate that women are inherently more emotional and empathetic, and the internalization of those roles leads to women feeling an obligation to step up and be the empathetic ones, even in moments when it is the men who should be.

Many people view this female tendency toward empathy as one of the most positive elements of feminism.  In his op-ed “Two Cheers For Feminism,” David Brooks, a critic of the feminist movement, applauded that “many feminists are figuring out practically how to teach empathy,” and claimed that this is “what girls and women get right.”  While it’s true that feminism operates on a base of empathy for the struggles experienced under the patriarchy, to claim that feminists have some kind of monopoly on empathy is damaging and unnecessary.  Why should it be my job as a feminist to teach men how to be empathetic? 

If it is the job of feminists to teach empathy, men are absolved of any responsibility to learn to be good allies on their own.  Assuming that women should be the ones teaching empathy also reinforces patriarchal gender roles that place emotion solely in the hands of women.  If feminists have to teach empathy, it follows that we should also be the more empathetic group, even though women are the group being oppressed.  The result is that women often feel an obligation to take time away from their own struggles to focus on those of men.  Sure, empathy is a nice byproduct of feminism, but I am tired of only being “nice” instead of speaking out.

I’m not trying to say that patriarchy isn’t damaging for men, too.  It passes down gender roles telling men that to engage with their emotions is weak. It promotes images of toxic masculinity as the only way to be a man.  However, men benefit from patriarchy far more than they are hurt by it, and they certainly are not hurt more than women are. 

As I navigated my way through campus life during the Kavanaugh hearings, I spoke with numerous men who fully believed Dr. Ford and were disgusted that Kavanaugh was confirmed regardless.  But I also heard from many women (students and professors) who were experiencing trauma as a result of the hearings. Watching Dr. Ford denied justice on such a public stage, many of the women around me were being forced to relive their own experiences with sexual assault. 

I haven’t encountered a single man in my life with the same experience.

If men are feeling a bit uncomfortable as a result of feminist resistance to the patriarchy, that is great. That is simply the price of acknowledging that men have raped us, abused us and built a society that holds us back – and gotten away with this behavior for centuries.  That is the price for all men, even the ones who make an honest effort to do better.  That is the price of change.  All change, all growth, all education involves some level of discomfort. 

Being a good ally is simple: listen more.  Ignore the false teaching that says men shouldn’t be emotional, and learn empathy yourself.  Then use it.  Know that feminists understand that men have their own legitimate struggles, but a feminist space is not the place to voice them.

We shouldn’t have to push our own experiences and concerns aside to make room for yours when the world still gives men the upper hand in nearly every situation.  We do not have to be quiet because the men in our lives are experiencing consequences on behalf of their gender for the first time.  So ladies, let’s take up space.  Let’s stop apologizing. I, for one, am done with being a nice feminist. What about you?



Grace Hermes ’21 (hermes1@stolaf.edu) is from Portland, Ore. Her major is English and History.