Until I moved to San Francisco, I thought very little about gender. Not in a malicious way, as if I’d made a conscious effort to ignore the statistical differences in treatment of men and women, or turned a blind eye to the almost daily news stories about campus rape. Retrospectively, I view it as the type of naive ignorance that leads a person to state “I’m not racist” but say nothing when their friend makes a demonstrably racist joke.
Shortly after arriving in the city and starting a new job, I was given a subtle call to action by a female coworker, who asked everybody in our office to consider using the word “woman” in place of “girl”, and to rethink saying “hi guys” when addressing a group of people that includes women as well. At the surface, this linguistic distinction is often seen as one of the more banal and nuanced requests of feminism. But the more I considered it, the more I realized the unhealthy implications of confusing these words.
At the beginning of this year, I started making, in earnest, an effort to read more writing by women; both fiction and non-fiction, about feminism or not. One of the effects of this — though certainly the most impactful one — has been a clarification of feminism through the lens of our gender: men.
Today I read We Should All Be Feminists, an essay by the author Chimamanda Adichie. Last month I read (and adored) her new novel Americanah, and I was eager to hear more from her. She begins the essay with this proposal:
It seems to me that the word feminist, and the idea of feminism itself, is also limited by stereotypes.
And with this in mind, she lays out her reasoning — through stories of her youth, personal experiences, and cultural examples — for why, concisely, we should all be feminists. While I would encourage all of you to read it (or watch it; more on that below), I wanted to cite a few passages that I feel pertain strongly to men.
Why give it a name?
Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.
By now we have all heard the illogic behind the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a retort to those protesting in the name of “Black Lives Matter”. If you haven’t, this comic by Kris Straub illustrates it with hilarious precision.
To understand what Chimamanda is saying about the distinction between “feminism” and “human rights”, replace “all lives matter” with “all genders matter” in the first pane of the comic.
But I’m a man. Why should I call myself a feminist? Isn’t it sexist to assume that I, too, can be a feminist?
Some men feel threatened by the idea of feminism. This comes, I think, from the insecurity triggered by how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not ‘naturally’ in charge as men.
Other men might respond by saying, ‘Okay, this is interesting, but I don’t think like that. I don’t even think about gender.’
And that is part of the problem. That many men do not actively think about gender or notice gender. That many men say […] that things might have been bad in the past but everything is fine now. And that many men do nothing to change it. If you are a man and you walk into a restaurant and the waiter greets just you, does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’ Men need to speak out in all these ostensibly small situations.
Months ago, I was walking with two friends, both of them women, to pick up takeout food from a restaurant. After a short wait, the server — a man — walked out carrying three plastic bags. They were laden with boxes, as we had ordered food for a large group. As he exited the building, he looked directly at the two women — they were closest to him by far — and then, spotting me, stepped past them, reaching out to hand me the bags.
But it’s not just men to blame.
On another occasion, I was going out to kayak on the Bay with two friends: one a man, the other a woman. It was a windy day; so windy, in fact, that the woman renting us the kayaks told us that some kayakers were being blown out into the harbor. She asked us to verbally confirm that we were strong enough to paddle against a powerful current; we all said “yes”. And then, very intentionally, she looked my friend Devan in the eye and repeated to her: “you are sure you’re strong enough?”
In the first instance I directly addressed the server and asked why he thought I was more qualified than either of my two friends to carry the bags. In the second scenario, Devan stood up for herself, asking the woman why she had singled her out. In both cases, the person at fault responded with a look of horror; my sexist interpretation was not their intent. Yet their response illustrates the exact naiveté I alluded to at the beginning of this piece.
In the essay, Chimamanda provides an example of her own:
Each time I walk into a Nigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores me. The waiters are products of a society that has taught them that men are more important than women, and I know that they don’t intend harm, but it is one thing to know something intellectually and quite another to feel it emotionally. Each time they ignore me, I feel invisible. I feel upset. I want to tell them that I am just as human as the man, just as worthy of acknowledgement. These are little things, but sometimes it is the little things that sting the most.
My appeal to you
Firstly, read the essay. It’s short, and will take you about an hour. If reading isn’t for you, you can also watch it, as the essay is very nearly a transcript of what was originally presented as a TEDx talk given by Chimamanda. It is thirty minutes long. Watch it. Pay attention; really listen to it. Take notes, even.
Secondly, we need to think about gender more. Not just to empathize with the treatment of women, but to acknowledge and call out the actions of others. Once you start looking for it, you begin to see subtle undermining of women in unlikely places. It is partly our responsibility to speak up as witness to such offenses. Feminism is not exclusively a movement that women must advance; we can and must be openly, proudly, unapologetically feminist.