It’s Time For The Left’s ‘Progressive’ Men To Start Listening
The inability of progressive men to listen to women’s feedback is a troubling issue that threatens the entire progressive movement.
O n a blustery Sunday, I walked into the basement of a public library in Northwest Washington D.C. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was organizing its first D.C. socialist feminist committee since the 1990s. Roughly 25 people sat at a long white table. A third of the people present were men, and the meeting was orderly. No one spoke over or disrespected the woman who led the meeting, and the men present rarely interjected.
Women’s voices were amplified and respected; each comment brought organizers closer to their goals — the organization of various events and educational outreach campaigns. It was, on the whole, an example of what inclusion for women in activism should look like.
Yet, according to my own personal experiences and the ones other leftist activist women have shared with me, such a scene is abysmally rare. Far too often, whether in local town meetings, legislative hearings, or editorial meetings, women are spoken over, or listened to briefly, then ignored. I’ve also witnessed how their contributions are erased or, worse, claimed by men. More disturbing is the abuse and sexual harassment women and nonbinary people face when they attempt to participate in events and actions. As a journalist, I only spent a few hours at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street and was repeatedly harassed and touched without my permission. It was not unusual for women to experience harassment or sexual assault at the park.
The situation online is similarly bleak. During the election — and even now — many women were attacked on social media for daring to criticize Bernie Sanders for what they called his class-first, race- and gender-second approach. I received tweets accusing me of slandering Sanders for simply sharing an article that was critical of him. The issue though, of course, is far larger than one former presidential candidate, and far more nuanced than the term “Bernie bro” encompasses.
Far too often, whether in local town meetings, legislative hearings, or editorial meetings, women are spoken over, or listened to briefly, then ignored.
At its core, the underlying — and deeply destructive — issue is the inability of men to listen to women’s feedback. And it’s an issue that threatens the success of the entire progressive movement.
While definitions and debates surrounding the meaning of the terms “leftist” and “progressive” continue to evolve, generally speaking, a core tenet of the political left is a commitment to equality. Thus, many assume leftist men are inherently aligned with feminism and supportive of women — especially given the glaring contrast with the GOP’s misogyny. One would think that progressive men would at least listen to what women and nonbinary people have to say and consider how the social, cultural, and political limitations women face are tied to our collective class struggle.
Too often, men are unwilling to sacrifice their voices even for just a few minutes of listening to women, and are seemingly unable to prioritize women’s concerns. A notable example: When women suggest that movements for class equity should stop sidelining issues that affect people who can get pregnant — such as abortion rights and access to birth control — their voices are often dismissed outright. In fact, the tendency to speak about reproductive rights, domestic abuse, racial justice, and queer and trans rights as separate from economic issues — or sometimes even as tertiary, or “bourgeois” concerns — runs rampant in activist circles.
This is all despite the fact that discrimination, marginalization, and abuse directly contribute to economic disenfranchisement.
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Christine Riddiough, a Washington D.C.-based socialist activist who has been involved in activism since the 1960s anti-war movement, said that although women have made strides in representation, there is still a long way to go to eliminate misogyny and sexism on the left.
Although she sees women in leadership positions at the DSA and elsewhere — unlike at the beginning of the DSA’s history, when she said young women were discouraged from pursuing leadership roles — everyday sexism persists in all forms of activism, from men stealing women’s ideas, to ignoring the large share of minimum wage workers and immigrants who are women, to harassing women over their appearance.
Moreover, men frequently approach women as teachers and authority figures, condescending to women in attempts to teach them how activism really works. Not only do I experience various forms of economic marginalization, I’ve also studied economic inequality for years — and yet, conversations with male activist friends reveal that some of them believe they are responsible for the knowledge I have, despite my having held many of my beliefs for years before I met them. Riddiough said her experience throughout decades of activism work has been similar: It’s men’s job to explain to us how inequality and social injustice work, and for us to react in wide-eyed and grateful admiration.
I watched another version of this play out during the election, when men attempted to explain to women how misogyny worked, and why women had no reason to vote for Hillary Clinton besides their gender. And while such overt dismissiveness is appalling, it gets much, much worse. Many men harass, threaten, and wholly discredit women for merely expressing their views.
From abusive insults to swarming internet mobs making graphic rape and death threats, the cost of women asserting any kind of political opinions online can be terrifying. Erika Heidewald, an actor and political activist who has been critical of Bernie Sanders, recently shared her experiences as a target of harassment by men on the left. Heidewald tweeted, “They sent me threatening messages, found me on Facebook, and no matter what I did they wouldn’t stop…Women are telling you, and have been telling you, that there is rampant harassment among leftist men. Believe us.”
More than just hurting women and nonbinary people, this abuse and mistreatment result in a much weaker and less effective movement. As Riddiough continued to point out during our interview, it’s women who are most affected by labor and immigration issues — yet women are seen as tangential to the very activism that should be benefitting them.
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Ariana Ascherl, one of the women present at the DSA meeting, said that she has observed that when women are truly included in activism, issues such as accommodating the needs of parents or organizing discussions so that everyone can be included are raised more often than if women didn’t “have a seat at the table.” When allies fail to show up in activist spaces, it’s the most marginalized people who have to raise and fight for issues specific to their groups; far too often, LGBTQ people, people of color, and disabled people are left to do all of the work of bringing attention to issues affecting their communities:
“It seems that often people from marginalized groups tend to do a lot of the heavy lifting in representing concerns from their communities. Although it is a good thing those views and concerns are frequently sought out, and people are trying their utmost to be truly inclusive, I know for some that can become a burden if they don’t have others within their group to help them carry that load.”
Organizing shouldn’t revolve around the egos of the organizers, but it often does, and when men are overwhelmingly the people leading the work, that means they want to continue centering themselves.
And frequently, when men have an opportunity to lift up women’s voices or silently stand beside them, they choose not to. The absence of men’s support was blatant during the women’s strike on March 8, International Women’s Day. Where countless men participated in the Women’s Marches in January, by contrast, I noticed many men on the left either simply did not acknowledge the strike, or if they did, minimized its importance. (Some men either explicitly said or signaled that they did not support the strike because not all women could participate in it, but this kind of analysis is suspect when the same men support actions that will not work for a number of groups — women included — either.)
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To their credit, a few progressive media outlets—The Nation and Jacobin, for instance—published pieces that defended the purpose of the women’s strike. But I think there is a reason that most white progressive men did not feel moved to write or promote such pieces, despite the action’s focus on the meaning of labor and worker exploitation. Men with female partners had to recognize the unpaid work their girlfriends and wives do every day. Male bosses had to make decisions about whether they could tolerate lost productivity. Put bluntly, the difference was that men had more to lose. When the stakes are lower, it’s easier for men to support women.
This is why the women’s march and women’s strike, while flawed in their own right, were so necessary. If men can’t consider women’s labor rights and emotional labor within existing labor and justice movements — emotional labor that often makes it possible for men to participate — it is necessary for women to create a committee, plan an action, or form an organization specifically designating it as for women.
Too often, men assume that women don’t know the history of labor movements — because it is considered a purely white working class male history — and that it is the job of experienced white straight cis men to impart their understanding of the right kind of activism onto women. But now is the time for men — especially ones who claim themselves to be allies — to learn about the history of activism from women of color, trans women, and queer women that has been erased for so long. It is time for men to step back and consider whether their understanding of “identity politics” is fundamentally flawed.
Simply put: It is time for men to stop talking and start listening.