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Friday, August 14, 2009

Sing it, (Shakespeare's) Sister [Or, Empathy; Try it sometime]

posted by Silvana
Melissa McEwan has a fantastic post about what it's like to deal with men when you're a feminist. Particularly an assertive, argumentative feminist like she is, and I am. This part I found especially striking:
There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women's Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.
If I've had one conversation like this, I've had a hundred. And I consider it a major accomplishment, and a testament to us both, that my boyfriend—nay, fiance (whoa, using that word is weird)—doesn't really do this as much anymore. He still probes my arguments for weaknesses and wrestles over details and creates abstract hypotheticals, but he sure as fuck doesn't play "devil's advocate" (hatehatehate that term and the behaviors it describes) and he doesn't wonder why I get so goddamn emotional about it.

A couple nights ago, I had gone over to the house of my dear friends to celebrate my engagement and was coming home late. I was almost home, standing at the corner waiting for the light to change, when a man approached me.

Guy: Excuse me?
Me: Yes? What?
Guy: What's your name again?
Me: I didn't tell you my name.
Guy: Oh, well, hi. What's your name? [holds out hand]
Me: Look, I don't want to tell you my name, and I don't want to talk.
Guy: Why not?
Me: It's late. [looks at phone] It's 12:30 am. I don't want to talk to you.
Guy: But I'm just being friendly. [holds out hand again] What's your name?
Me: Do you have any idea what it's like to be walking around as a woman in this city, late at night? It's scary. It's late and I want to get home and I don't want to talk to you.
Guy: [stares at me]

[stares some more]
[backs away]
[retracts his hand]

Guy: I can respect that.
Me: Thank you. Have a good night. [light changes, I cross the street and go home]

It was really bizarre—I could really see him actually considering, what is it like to be a woman walking around late at night in the city, trying to get home? Answer: it's scary, and it scary enough that you don't want to talk to anyone you don't know, no matter who they are or what they're about.

I had a heated discussion with a friend of mine a few weeks ago about why I put so much effort into proselytizing feminism, anti-sexism, and the theory of patriarchy every time I have the chance. With friends, with family, at work, on my blog. He maintained that no amount of convincing and arguing and logic is going to convince people to change their minds, to rid themselves of the deep and insidious sexism and misogyny that pervades our culture. Although I stridently rejected that at the time, I think he's partially right. I think that logic alone and reasoned argument doesn't do it. But what I failed to articulate on that day is that a huge part of what I'm trying to do is teach people empathy. To consider, for a minute or an hour or a week, what it's like to be a woman, what it's like to grow up as one, to live as one. To not think of "women's issues" as some abstract philosophical question to be toyed with, but as a part of lived experience.

I truly believe that even in my short life, I've been able to do that for a fairly large number of people, and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.


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