Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Lonely Feminist

Thinking back to my Master's degree, one of the accomplishments I still reflect on is my A+ final paper in Feminist Social Work Practice (with an A in the course overall). Not bad for a guy who was attending two fully packed days of classes a week (plus an evening), raising a toddler and a crawler on the remaining days, and only finding time for undisturbed study and writing between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m each day.

It wasn't my first time treading water in the subject: I'd been learning about feminist theory for 16 years by the time I enrolled in that course. I anticipated that—as had occurred in the past—I'd be in the gender minority, that my opinions would be subject to greater scrutiny and criticism, but that I'd walk away enriched from the experience. I was; they were; I did. But what I didn't anticipate is how much of a shit-disturber I'd be perceived to be.

There's something about returning to school as an adult student. While the rebellious certainty of your teens may be in the distant past, your confidence in yourself as a result of your learnings and experiences can come to resemble a functionally similar personality. And so it was with me. I wasn't disrespectful, but I was far from an empty vessel, ready to receive everything as it was poured and decant it back in exactly the same colour and flavour. I returned to school with strong opinions, and for some these probably tasted like Tabasco in the margaritas. They weren't intended to be, but this is what happens when thinking, feeling people have differing views on foundational beliefs.

My primary contention then, as always, was over the definition of feminist: specifically, that a man can't be a feminist. We can be pro-feminist or egalitarian, but the title of feminist is reserved for women. The thinking person that is me can appreciate the reasoning behind this, but for the whole of me, including the feeling person, this distinction only serves to underscore my status as a permanent outsider.

When I have been present at gatherings of feminists, I have always perceived my status as somewhere between an invited guest and tolerated observer, depending on the group. Even one of my closest friends, an active feminist and (at the time) an emerging lesbian, once reminded me that I could never have a role as a member, but only a supporter of womens' causes.

When I think about this from time to time I am still caught between the idealism that men should be able to be have an equal and active role in female organizations, and the realism that there are areas of practice and intervention where a male presence is both unwanted and counterproductive—possibly even harmful. I have never observed any initiatives to hire male therapists for women's shelters or rape crisis centres, and not without good reason. How much therapeutic good can a person do when they resemble the perpetrator?

While it may be simple to accept the obvious limitations of social work practice as a male, it is less comfortable to be excluded in other areas where the rationale is less clear, such as in an organization's membership, or even in one's self-identity. Given that feminism seeks to end the subjugation of women by overthrowing patriarchy, is it valid that men must be subjugated by restricting their role within feminist organizations, involvement in feminist events, and the use of titles like “feminist"? If feminist practice is defined by political and cultural meaning and not actions, then why restrict the internal processes and self-identity of a group who shares feminist beliefs?

For patriarchy to be defeatable, we must assume that it is an arbitrary way of thinking, feeling, and behaving—a constructed, artificial reality. For men to be changed from patriarchal thinking (as feminist therapy accepts as possible), we must assume that patriarchy is not some inherently biologically determined male tendency, but rather the effect of social learning, which can be replaced in current and future generations by education in a new feminist model of gender.

Furthermore, if men and women are ultimately capable of embracing feminist philosophy and putting it into practice in the same way, then the primary difference between men and women remains biological. Is a biological difference sufficient to justify a stratification between women and men using a philosophy that denies the validity of the currently existing socially-created (not biologically determined) stratification between women and men?

In Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy, Laura Brown describes feminist practice as being equally beneficial to both women and men—for women in an educationally empowering way, and for men in an educationally enlightening way—in showing them how patriarchy in society and within themselves affects women. Given that, men have an important role to fulfill in education and enlightenment. Is it reasonable to assume that a male client would be more receptive in receiving critical, identity-challenging commentary from a female feminist therapist, versus a man whose beliefs are identical to his female counterpart, but whom the client can relate to as someone resembling a member of his peer group?

While shared philosophical beliefs may bind together unlike people, it is physical and biological similarities that are still most initially salient. While this prevents men from offering any assistance to women in counselling female victims of male violence, it makes them essential agent-collaborators in the revision the male species from within. If patriarchy is to be overthrown, it must be done with men and women with arms linked, not at arm's length—which leads me to one of my most distressing experiences in feminism.

As I touched upon earlier, many times it has been demonstrated that my questions and opinions are invariably interpreted more negatively than neutrally because of my gender, and not strictly by the merit of the ideas themselves. I do not deny that as a human being I have areas of ignorance and prejudice—anyone who would claim themselves free of these is not being honest with themselves. My complaint is not over my legitimate missteps, but for being chided over ideas that would have been taken seriously had another person expressed them.

This is never more clear than when I witness a female peer question an aspect of feminism I have questioned, or disagree with something I have disagreed with, and receive positive support when my own reaction from others was negative and dismissive. Since nearly the beginning of my university career over 20 years ago, I have witnessed female peers following the same paths of thought that I and others have followed, but not receive the backlash—but instead vocal support from some, polite silence from others. Whenever this has occurred I have felt a surge of empowerment in hearing another person express a belief that I hold, but then felt sad that my own expression of the idea was not similarly valued. When identical ideas can result in widely varying reactions depending on the person expressing them—whether a different coloured skin or a different gendered mind—it empowers one group and silences another. In that regard, it breathes new life into one of patriarchy's worst characteristics.

My experiences have not made me question the truth of feminist thought, nor the legitimacy of feminist goals. They do not make me second-guess my desire to try to remain cognizant of feminist theory in the way that I write and think. Feminist theory is irrevocably linked to responsible social work practice and (in my current career) balanced policy analysis: from an understanding of the structural inequalities in society, to the non-sexist language that we all should endeavour to write and speak in.

As for my A+ final paper in Feminist Social Work Practice, my thoughts are bittersweet. I'm pleased that I endured a tough year and did very well in the degree overall. I genuinely liked my feminism professor, despite the rough start to our relationship. But I realized after my first paper that a classroom—even one teaching feminism in a university teaching structural social work—can be just as structurally flawed as the society it exists within. Being a student in a classroom is tantamount to existence within an entrenched system founded on constructed ideas, where change is nearly impossible and co-option is inevitable, if not necessary for success and advancement. To that end, I coped in that environment just as I've done before in similar circumstances, by avoiding further mention of contentious issues and concentrating on my similarity to the controlling power.

I am a feminist—but one that is experienced enough to understand that I can't always self-identify as such, or critique central concepts in all environments. For that kind of freedom, you need a blog.


See also:

Edgell, Chelsea. (2011, March 9). Dropping the F bomb. The Fulcrum, 17(22), pp. 12-13. Retrieved from http://thefulcrum.ca/system/fulcrum/issues/000/005/097/TheFulcrum-Mar10-16_screen_quality.pdf (PDF) and http://thefulcrum.ca/articles/43801 (HTML)