5 Lessons I’ve Learned Talking to Men About Feminism

Photography by Lauren Mazzotta

Let me start this by saying that I am by no means an expert at talking about feminism. I’m probably barely an activist. That being said, I’ve had enough conversations about the issues to have at least a few tips to share on the topic.

Realistically, I’ve had at least as many negative interactions talking from a feminist perspective as I’ve had positive…

From people just not understanding what I was trying to explain, to having my male boss bring up (during an employee review) how much I had offended him during a conversation about feminism.

I’m not going to begin to understand or condone the way many men react when briefly faced with the idea that the world can’t revolve around them anymore, but I also admit that it’s a real reaction that we can’t change.

(I mean, think about how white people reacted to the Black Panthers. This isn’t a reaction that’s specific to men, but really anyone confronted with losing their privilege!)

No matter what, we do need allies of all genders to help us with these issues. So, as with most of the other conversations women have in life, we often need to finesse the way that we discuss feminism.

Because it’s easy to get wound up in “extreme” (quote, unquote) points of view, which is great when you’re talking to like-minded people, but won’t get you far with folks who are already scared off by basic feminist ideals.

I like to think about it in the same way a (clever) boss/coworker would bring up an issue they’re having (with you), but make it seem like the resulting changes were your idea in the first place. It’s smart, makes everyone happy, and gets you where you’re trying to go. It also can require leaving your ego at the door.

1. Don’t start at 100%

For example, maybe don’t start with the line “you can’t be racist against white people or sexist against men”.

See, I learned this concept in college when I was a Resident Assistant, so I assumed it was a pretty well-known philosophy. It turns out, however, that white men (surprise, surprise) get super offended by this statement.

To them, it sounds like you’re saying that their suffering doesn’t matter, when what you’re trying to say is their suffering DOES matter, but isn’t an institutionalized issue that impacts their quality of life because of their race or gender.

Regardless, definitive statements like that can require a lot of discussion and explanation, which you might not have the opportunity to give if you start with it.

2. Utilize the right time and place

That issue I mentioned up top about my boss being upset with something I said about feminism occurred because, 1. I probably should have refrained from discussing the particular issue in an after-work social with my boss, and 2. because I said something “controversial” as I was headed out the door — without giving myself a lot of time to explain it.

When you start a conversation encompassing privilege, gender, race, etc. you want to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to discuss the topic at length — otherwise, you leave them coming up with their own explanation of what they thought you meant. (And I can guarantee that it’s not what you meant.)

Additionally, know that you don’t have to be “on” all the time — I used to think that was kind of a requirement of feminism, an obligation to convert as many people as possible to the cause. But I’ve learned for my own self-care that sometimes the conversation isn’t worth having at that moment in that setting, i.e. work, family get-togethers, etc.

3. Know your facts

When you first learn about an injustice in the world, it fires you up and you want to talk about it. Unfortunately, if you don’t know the facts about the injustice, people may not believe you — especially when it comes to the nuances of sexism in this country.

Another issue that arises is people think they have a fact that disproves your point.

For example, you state that women get paid less than men. The person you’re talking to immediately comes back at you with “that’s because women work in lower-earning fields” or “that’s because women don’t ask for raises”. Now, you know you’ve read articles about studies that prove women make less than men even when working in the same fields, that even when women do ask for raises or promotions, they’re less likely to receive them than their (less qualified) male counterparts AND that these issues are significantly worse for women of color. Unfortunately, you can’t remember the stats, and when you search later you can’t find the source.

Honestly, I’m really often in this situation because I have a terrible memory.

It’s a shitty double standard that a dude can cite a study he heard from his friend while they were smoking weed one time, while you need to have a freaking MLA citation ready to pass off, but take it from personal experience: it really can help your cause. Especially considering this is the first thing that shows up when you google the wage gap:

4. But don’t be afraid to use personal experiences

That being said, folks can be responsive to you speaking from experience. This can make it feel real for people, because until then they may feel like they’re discussing theories rather than reality.

As always, there’s a fine line between this acting as an effective way of opening someone’s eyes, or it feeling like you’re just complaining about something that happened to you once. That’s where it can be handy to both speak about your personal experience, and tie it back to the stats and experiences of others.

5. And know when to walk away

Not everyone is going to be receptive to what you have to say, and that may mean that you change your tactic, but it may also mean that you end the conversation.

Try to notice the difference between someone who is truly engaging in the conversation but just not getting what you’re saying — a cue to try a different tactic — and someone who is at a total red-light with communication and can’t be reached no matter what else you say.

Seeing this difference is really more of a self-preservation technique than anything, because it’s impossible not to get worked up or frustrated when you have the same conversation over and over again. Especially when that conversation discusses your rights as a human being.

Sometimes stopping that conversation is the difference between having the opportunity to open it up again at another time, and making that person feel like this “feminism thing” is totally against them.

In reality, we know feminism is for everyone, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that we aren’t all just going to become as privileged as men — men (and white people at large) are going to need to relinquish their privilege over to women and people of color in order to even the scales.

Does this transfer benefit everyone in the end? Absolutely! No one likes toxic masculinity! But does it always feel like a fair deal to the folks giving up their privilege? Absolutely not. And that’s why we need to be commanding and considerate in getting folks over to our side.

This article was originally published on Silver Linings Society.