Please Stop Fighting Straw Feminists (they’re not real)

As a feminist who is interested in one day having a family, I tend to spend a decent amount of time thinking about the values my husband and I will teach our future children, and the ways in which our ingrained ideas about gender will or won’t affect the natural expressions of our kids’ personalities.

So I was naturally curious about a blog post I came across recently, called,  “I’m a Mother of 2 Boys, and I Can’t (and Won’t) Support Feminism” by Tara Kennedy-Kline. Of course, my heart sank the minute I read the title of the post, but I have recently been having an interior conversation with myself about NOT disengaging from those who disagree with me, so I clicked on the link and read through to the end.

Not being a parent myself, and not knowing Ms. Kennedy-Kline and her children personally, it is fair to critique ONLY her views on feminism and otherwise assume that Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s two children are well-cared-for and loved. I have no reason to believe this is not the case. The author’s parenting abilities are not what I am taking issue with here.

What discourages, and frustrates, and occasionally enrages me, is the number of otherwise educated and well-meaning people out there who argue against and thereby continue to perpetuate the view the of sinister, man-hating feminism that doesn’t exist. As TC commented to me after reading Kennedy-Kline’s post, “Good thing no one has a lighted match because there are a LOT of straw men in there.” [Of course, perhaps as a spooky angry  feminist I should take offense to this and call them “straw persons“. But I digress.]

Throughout her post, Kennedy-Kline insists that she is raising her sons to be “gentlemen”, to be “dedicated providers”, and to tell the women in their lives that they are beautiful. She also insists that feminism would punish, label as predatory, and otherwise be offended by her boys for doing these things. These fears are overblown and misguided. Alyssa Rose, writing at the Good Men Project, has a thoughtful and logically laid-out response detailing exactly why Kennedy-Kline’s arguments are irrational. I’m not going to repeat her work here, but I am going to point out two things:

  1. Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s fears that feminism will punish her sons for being stereotypically manly assumes her sons want to grow up to be stereotypically manly. How does she know? What does “stereotypically manly” even mean in this day and age, where households containing two working adults are the norm? How does she even know her sons will want to date the “princesses” she encourages her sons to provide for?
  2. When Kennedy-Kline posits that it is not only her sons’ right, but that it is normal and good for them to grab a woman’s hand or tell a woman she’s beautiful because they’re gentlemen, she completely ignores context (how would she feel if, say, a strange man grabbed her hand in a shopping mall or on a dark street?). Some women might not WANT to be touched, or might not appreciate being told they’re beautiful if they aren’t interested in talking to her sons (see my post on how to meet women without being a creep). True gentlemen care not about their gestures, but about the intended recipient of those gestures. If there is any indication that their mother’s so-called chivalrous act will make a woman uncomfortable or even afraid, they shouldn’t do it (alternatively, if it seems that the woman in question would appreciate the gesture, go for it). This is a principle we all learn as kids–it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and if your playmate says they don’t like what you’re doing, even if you’re having fun, you stop doing it. It’s not feminist ideology. It’s just being a decent human being and respecting other peoples’ boundaries.

The post is not the worst take-down of feminism I’ve ever read, or even the worst written by a woman (MRA sites enjoy waving around posts by women who, it seems, hate other women, or at the very least hate feminist women). So why did it bother me?

It bothered me because Ms. Kennedy-Kline is obviously not some wingnut, and it’s distressing that a rational, loving parent can believe such silly things about a movement that, as Alyssa Rose points out, can only benefit boys and men as it improves the lives of girls and women. Her argument is not only misguided (because she’s arguing against something that doesn’t really exist)–it’s harmful. The more feminism is painted as something a “normal” parent, or a woman who loves her sons or husband, could not, in good conscience, ascribe to, the more these completely false myths equating feminism with hating, harming, or revoking the rights of men are perpetuated. And when people believe these myths they stop believing in the things feminism really stands for, like equal pay, and the rights of people to have their physical boundaries respected, and the rights of both women and men to be whoever they want to be, regardless of whether their identity is traditionally considered the purview of one gender or the other.

I hate repeating this, but I feel I have to: FEMINISM IS NOT MISANDRY. Just like being Christian doesn’t automatically mean you’re a member of the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, being a feminist does NOT mean you ascribe to the views of those extreme but rare persons who DO hate men and use the feminist label as their justification (my dear friend, performance artist Frankie Vandellous, has written a beautiful post about some of the various, and even the harmful, interpretations of feminism that are out there). Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not speak for Christians (and cant’ really, considering they seem to have completely missed that “love thy neighbour” bit), misandrists do not speak for feminists.

Contrary to the belief of many, feminism doesn’t mean you have to “tow the line” either. I don’t expect Ms. Kennedy-Kline to be a feminist just because she’s a woman. I don’t expect people who believe in equal pay and equal rights to control over one’s own body to call themselves feminists if they don’t want to. And I don’t expect every woman to want what I want. But that doesn’t make smearing feminism appropriate, and it doesn’t mean that women who don’t want certain rights for themselves have the right to prevent me, or any other woman, from accessing these rights, nor do these women have the right to tell their sons, or anyone else, that certain behaviours are appropriate only for certain genders.

As feminists (and other like-minded people) work hard to change perceptions about gender and about what is and isn’t appropriate for human beings living together in a society, there will be, as Kennedy-Kline’s post makes clear, some discomfort. It’s awkward to have to change the way you’ve always treated or spoken to/about certain people. It’s uncomfortable when familiar tropes are demonstrated to be false or hurtful (I’m sure many folks in past generations were a little confused when racial slurs became not okay anymore). You know you’re not trying to be hurtful with your choice of words/actions/opinions, and you’re not out there assaulting anyone, so what’s the big damn deal? Isn’t everything fine the way it is?

Well, it may be fine for you, but when 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it’s obvious that things are NOT fine for a LOT of people. Just because I personally haven’t been raped (and hopefully never will be), that doesn’t mean I should prevent rape victims from seeking justice, or should willfully perpetuate rape culture.

When you say, “I think things are fine the way they are,” what you’re really saying is, “It’s never happened to me, so I’ve chosen not to care about it.”

When you say, “Why should I have to experience change just because SOME people don’t like the way things are working?” you’re really saying, “Being comfortable is more important to me than the physical and emotional pain experienced by a very large number of people.”

And when you go out of your way to say, “I can’t (and won’t) support feminism,” you are saying, “It’s okay with me that half of the population have less rights than the other half.”

If you don’t want to be a feminist that is 100% your choice. But please, PLEASE, don’t actively work against feminism by spreading false perceptions about it. Humanity has nothing, absolutely NOTHING to lose by the success of feminism. The only “rights” which could be lost by men would be the ones they never actually legally had in the first place (like the right to touch another person without their permission, or the right to make more money than someone else doing the same job). Feminism is inclusive, egalitarian, and ultimately freeing. Isn’t that the kind of environment a parent would want for their children?