My Kind of Feminism

This is what a feminist looks like. (Photo: Chris Radcliffe)

Women and men are different, and it’s high time for the feminism story to gain a degree of nuance that I simply haven’t heard yet. Maybe I’m a humanist, and not a feminist —I just can’t summon that level of pedantry these days. I just don’t think the benchmark should be “treat women like men”, it should be “treat women and men like humans”.

Women and men, on average, have different ways of communicating, different ways of relating to people, different ways of prioritizing their lives. This is not broken, this is simply the reality. Sure, it might be cultural, but who cares? From where I stand, the worst thing for us to do is to say, “women should be treated more like men” and/or “women should be more like men”. We should be striving towards an ideal that is in between, treating humans like humans. Men should be taking notes at the best parts of femininity. Women should be taking notes at the best parts of masculinity.

I use the concepts of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ in a way that might be offensive or confusing. I use them because in my experience, women tend to have more of the feminine traits, and men have more of the masculine ones. I think that the ideal human, of either gender, has access to all of these traits whenever they are useful — it just seems like we come at them from different directions. I think each of these strengths is a weakness if it’s missing or generally inaccessible. Some of them are opposites, where both extremes have tremendous value, with the most value is really in between.

Femininity, the good parts:

The world is not a zero-sum game.

Emotional awareness: knowing and valuing the internal and external context and lifecycle of emotions.

Nurturing: helping others become the best they can be — sacrificing oneself for the benefits of others.

Community: groups of humans can benefit from the strengths of every member, and work to minimize the weaknesses of every member.

Flexibility: the capability to comfortably assume many physical and psychological positions.

Masculinity, the good parts:

We can make that happen.

Independence: self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the ability to make decisions without consultation and delay.

Strength: the ability to be make difficult changes, both in a physical and psychological situations.

Perseverance: Ignoring physical and nonphysical obstacles and in the pursuit of a goal.

At this point, you might be saying something along the lines of “childbirth requires strength and perseverance — how can those possibly be masculine traits?”, at which point, I put my face in my palms and sigh, and try to think of a different way to explain what I’m trying to get at.

I want to get to the point where we can admit that some of these things do not come naturally to us. Without admitting this, learning these things is impossible. You’re never going to learn any of these things without discomfort, and we need to figure out how to be OK with that, and make it as easy as it can be. The reason why men have a harder time with emotional understanding has a root in the Y chromosome, perhaps, but I think the bulk of it comes from somewhere else: culture. Women’s harder time gaining strength has roots in their lower levels of testosterone, but the bigger deal (and the thing we have control over) is cultural. The reason most women aren’t stronger isn’t that they’re women, it’s that they don’t lift weights. The reason most men don’t have more emotional awareness is not that they’re men, it’s that they don’t practice or care.

Without emotional awareness, a person is not as effective as she or he could be. Without strength and independence, they are likely to be swayed by bad arguments, be scammed, or follow someone else’s dreams. We can easily drop the “masculine” and “feminine” labels, but I find them useful — because they point a finger in a more obvious way at the things that any given individual should probably pay attention to. If you’re male, you probably would get more out of time working on emotional awareness than strength training. If you’re female, you probably will get more out of time spent lifting weights than cultivating nurturing and empathy. Exceptions? Of course; sigh.

Until we get in the habit of identifying and practicing things we’re bad at, we’ll be trapped in a world where people are terrible at a lot of important things. Filled with strong, independent, but violent and emotionally brain-dead men. Filled with emotionally intelligent, nurturing, compassionate, but ineffective and depressed women. I want to live in a world where we do not undervalue women because they’re compassionate, and where we don’t overvalue men because on average they’re strong and independent. I want to live in a world where we see the value in both feminine and masculine traits.

Note: In the original copy of this post, I exclusively used the phrase “men and women” (as opposed to “women and men”, as it currently reads). This is a great example of unintentionally giving away subconscious patterns and biases. Thanks for pointing this out, Liz, and giving me the opportunity to grow.