Misogyny’s Roots Run Deep, Men; it’s Time to Dig— Pt. 5

Everyday Examples and Actions in the Home and in the Community

[To myself and to men who look like me: much work lies ahead to help repair systemic damage to all those long-excluded from full equity in every area of public and private society, particularly women]

Fathers out there, we often have a low bar to clear. If you have never heard a woman lament both the glaring double-standard between mothers and fathers vis-à-vis parenting effectiveness and the extent to which strangers will bluntly reinforce said double-standard, then you need to speak more honestly with (or maybe first just have more) female friends.

A perfect distillation of this is on display every day at grocery stores. A mother could be managing a number of children perfectly well and yet get sidelong glances or even vocal criticism from people who feel they can judge her and intervene if they see one parenting action (stern, flexible, verbal, nonverbal, etc.) that they question. Meanwhile—in the same store—a father with just one child (and less to juggle) receives bright smiles and comments of “what a good dad you are” and “you sure are lucky to have a dad like this” from cashiers and fellow shoppers.

This happens just as frequently at schools, coffee shops, museums, park, randomly on the street, and just about everywhere. Men, there is no way that you don’t know a woman who deals with this annoying, denigrating, yet socially acceptable behavior. And, as I have been told, this is mild compared to bigger social examples. I think this one is a pretty accessible, universal and indisputable example, though. Oh, and I know it is true because, as a stay-at-home father, I am on the platitude-receiving/low-expectation-having side of this equation every day. It would feel better to be praised, as a parent, if being built up wasn’t inherently tied to people dismissing the glamourless and taken-for-granted solid parenting that women are expected to do—and have largely always done—on a daily basis. Men, it is fashionable for us to decry how excelling doesn’t matter anymore and bemoan the death of meritocracy in how a generation of Americans have gotten “Participation Ribbons for every little thing they do.” There is anecdotal truth to this argument. But we, in parenting and other “domestic” realms, get that ribbon, too—a privilege women do not.

This is, I admit, a subtler example of inherent double-standards and unleveled playing fields than, say, the caricatured (but still very real) construction workers whistling at and propositioning women on the street. The vast majority of men, I believe, don’t imitate such blatant behavior anymore, and that’s a good thing. However, we can still display with ease and impunity the same seemingly consequence-free notions conveying the station of women vis-à-vis men with:

  • our off-hand jokes “with the boys,”
  • our unsolicited comments to female acquaintances and strangers on their looks,
  • our leering glances and top-to-bottom-to-top scanning, our casual use of “babe” and “chick” and “girl” when talking about (or even directly to) grown women,
  • our widespread lowered expectations of female competency in anything mechanical, scientific, athletic or mathematic,
  • our relationship crutch of thinking it is “charming” to tease and chide our romantic partners because it is easier than showing vulnerability. This is the not-much-more-grown-up version of pulling the hair of or knocking down the girl you liked on the elementary school playground (and probably appreciated, deep down, just as little),
  • our gender double-standards in terms of one’s upkeep of physical appearance, whose sexual satisfaction matters most, and how acceptable it is or isn’t to “age naturally.”

If the above scenarios of such socially-normalized examples of “the way things are” aren’t compelling you to maybe have more honest dialogue with women in your life, let’s place them alongside similar situations of racial tension. Again, going back to something as mundane as going to a store on any old day, have you every heard a friend of color talk about how they feel scrutinized, distrusted, or viewed as a threat when they shop? (I remember light bulbs turning on in people’s heads when President Obama recounted in 2013 his experiences of being followed by store personnel, having doors locked early and women clutching their purses as he approached). This goes on everywhere, in supposedly “progressive” northern cities and supposedly “backward” southern ones. Have any of these same friends told you about how they have asked and been told in polite (or often impolite) fibs that “the bathroom is for staff only,” or that “we can’t hold that item for you to pick up later,” or that “we can’t have you sit at the table outside the coffee shop unless you order something,” or that “we can’t just give people a glass of water,” or that “you can’t take that many items in the dressing room” when they have seen these rules be bent for (or just not apply to) white people? I’m not talking about the Jim Crow times. This happens countless times to people in my neighborhood every day.

Maybe a bigger question than “Have you been told this?” is “Have you noticed this?” If so, did you say something, either to the person slighted or the person doing the slighting? If the answer is no, then you need to look more at what is happening and ACT (with your voice, your wallet, and your vote), because prejudice, misogyny and suppression are at their worst when they’ve truly saturated the ground beneath our feet in revealing themselves not only in headline-grabbing exposés but in the tiniest, most silencing and socially accepted banalities.

[By the way, I’m trying to neither exactly equate nor pit against each other the realities of sexism and racism — just pointing out the commonalities in both where they stem and how they present]

Now, if these examples don’t seem like such a big deal, I ask you to please consider both the scope of such slights and the effect of their accumulation on someone’s sense of identity day in and day out. Just how deep and ingrained in culture are the differences in expectation between men and women? Even when women have power, it often comes with strings attached, caveats letting them know their equality isn’t quite earned and that they shouldn’t confuse their technically-legal equivalent standing with true and equal respect or belief that they can do everything men can. To wit, in the US Senate, the upper chamber of one of three co-equal branches of government, female senators were barred from wearing pants (“No skirt, No dress, No service”) until 1933…er, I mean 1963…um, actually 1993 (uggh).

That may seem like a random or even quirky historical aside to you. Agreed, it is not the most glaring violation of rights in modern history. Precisely because of that, though, Men, we need to fine-tune our vision to see today’s less-glaring yet deeply-permeated examples of how misogyny and lowered expectations betray our systemic and historic reluctance to erase the barriers between white male privilege and shared power and respect for all.

Again, to hammer home the point of that example, the United States Senate, the highest legislature in the land, working home to sixteen future Presidents, wouldn’t let the rare woman it did welcome into its ranks walk the Senate floor in front of her overwhelming-male colleagues unless she conformed to the softer, more attractive, less intimidating, less-emasculating dress code long-preferred by those who, en masse, have always had their hands on the levers of power.

By the way, our first female Senator was elected waaaaaaaaaaaaay back in 1932 (my still-living grandfather was in high school then), and women weren’t even allowed to VOTE until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 (he was still alive then, too). The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted—in theory, thought not in practice for another century—African-American men the right to vote in 1870, eight years after Emancipation and a full 94 years after the Declaration of Independence proclaimed all men “equal.” I bring up and correlate these historical examples to, again, show both how policies reflect a deep-seeded belief in the un-equal standing between white males and all others going back to our nation’s founding and how, even when progress IS made, it often is either half-way done, or not enforced, or undermined in large and small ways that, over time, make marginalized people distrust the real safety in their standing, no matter what the fine print says in our most revered documents and institutions.

So what are today’s equivalents to the “No Women in Pants”-type norms in pubic and private America? If you can’t think of any, I’m sure your wife, girlfriend, sister, or mom could. If you see something anachronistically sexist or bigoted in an old sitcom or movie that makes you cringe, do you then wonder what you’re going to look back on in today’s pop culture someday that will lead you to say “look how backward we were”?

More importantly, do you fear what your family will look back on when it comes to the decisions you made, the language you used, the expectations you lowered, the advantages you exploited? I do, sometimes. No matter how post-racial, post-gender, post-anything some think we are, it displays an astonishingly poor understanding of history and social dynamics to think that this is the one generation exempt from ignorance and callousness and greed. We may be a way’s off from the Mad Men era, and farther still from social strictures of the horse-and-buggy age, but you better believe we’re far from living in a true meritocracy. If you want to dismiss my words as overly sensitive, leftist, or victim entitling, I ask you to do do two things:

  • Ask yourself if you have an absolutist view of misogyny. How glaring do the inequities have to be for it be justified for someone to “make a big deal about it”? If you feel society, or the men in your orbit, or you, yourself, have come so far compared to examples X and Y, is your reflexive response (though not necessarily your voiced one) “Isn’t that enough?”
  • Ask the women in your lives if they deal with any of the systemic issues raised herewith. Again, this isn’t medieval Europe — heads of state aren’t routinely selling their daughters to foreign leaders to buy peace treaties — so just because your wife or sister or mom hasn’t specifically been the victim of the worst example of violence or degradation doesn’t mean that she hasn’t dealt for decades with the more nuanced and acceptable indignities and attacks animated by those same entrenched spirits of violence or degradation.

I struggle with these issues, myself. It is so easy to judge oneself against the lowest common denominator and say, “Hey, I’m not THAT guy!” and then feel you’re off the hook. Even if you feel confident that you will be on the right side of history some day (and care about such a thing, which not all people do), it doesn’t mean that your job is done, that our job is done, that my job is done.

We can be questioning our assumptions. We can be acknowledging that the currents really do keep moving despite our opinions or protests. We can be asking ourselves how we would feel if we were the ones getting judged more on our appearances and regularly physically intimidated by the opposite sex. We can be imagining the state of our confidence and ambition if we were the ones vastly outnumbered in almost every board room, legislature, university faculty, laboratory, pulpit, hospital, construction site, TV news studio, engineering firm, police force, and military unit. We can stop sneering at empathy when it is asked of us and stop thinking that we as a group have “done enough” just because we hold only most of the cards now, instead of all of them.

I have to check myself on these fronts, too. I have to admit that, deep down, I have some differing assumptions when I contemplate the futures of my daughters versus that of my son. I have to admit that I parent them differently (in unenlightened, unintentional ways). I have to admit that I expect things from my wife that I don’t expect of myself. I have to admit that, as much as our marriage is not a CBS sitcom where the all-everything woman gleefully puts up with her charming slob of a husband, there are discrepancies in our responsibilities, efforts and standards that are not models of equality.

As I stated in Pt. 1, this is not a listicle with easily repeatable solutions. With such an issue that touches everyone — directly or indirectly — we’d be fooling ourselves to believe in a “magic bullet” solution. We’d be similarly unwise to think that just because headway has been made over the centuries (and in some areas, very significant headway), that the disease has been eradicated. On the contrary, the virus has adapted and mutated; some symptoms may be harder to identify, but that doesn’t mean they don’t real damage to the patient.

I believe that decency and empathy stand the test of time and that our culture values them ever-so-incrementally. But misogyny (like suppression of all types) is pervasive. If we don’t discuss and battle its subtle and overt forms in our institutional and private lives, it will continue to be countered at a glacial pace. Men and women are dependent on each other. If we let this fight be waged almost exclusively by those only most direly affected by it, we will continue to shortchange all of society. That includes us, too, brothers.

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