I’m currently studying at the University of Cambridge. Perhaps I was wrong in assuming that my fellow students would all have a basic knowledge and appreciation for feminism. Or perhaps I’ve just grown too accustomed to my interactions with the other WomanStats coders, where I so often feel like I am the least informed about the gender issues we discuss. Either way, I was woefully unprepared for the following exchange:
Anonymous male friend (AMF): What are you reading?
Me: Oh just some homework for my Politics of Gender class.
AMF: What’s that about?
Me: It’s an overview of the history of feminism in the UK.
AMF: Feminism? When I think of feminists I think of sour-faced, crusty, shriveled, old ladies who spend their whole lives bitter and alone.
Me: Well, I’m a feminist and I don’t feel like I fit that description.
AMF: You’re not a feminist!
Me: Uh… yeah, I am…..
AMF: (long, rather uncomfortable silence) Well then tell me about it, why do you consider yourself a feminist? Heck, maybe I’m one!
This is the point in the conversation where I cracked. I’ve since forgiven myself, considering the enormous amount of pressure I was under. There he was, staring at me, expectantly waiting for a five-minutes-or-less summary of the world’s history of gender relations. I faltered under the weighty responsibility of dispelling all the misconceptions that what is flippantly called the “f-word” immediately invokes. I kicked myself for being lazy about shaving that morning, for that was only evidence against my case. Perhaps it was the imaginary ticking of the egg-timer I could hear in his voice and see in his eyes. Or perhaps it was the sudden self-conscious itch of my leg hair against my pants. Either way, I choked.
My body’s initial response to his invitation was an eager tenseness as a fireworks show of WomanStats data began to explode in my brain. I jumped from variable to variable, debating over which fact would be the most colorful and striking. Should I open with female infanticide practice in China? Or maybe maternal mortality rates in Ghana. I might even start with a recent article I read on a Moroccan girl committing suicide after being forced to marry her rapist. It was a toss up. There was so much horrific evidence running around in my head, that it was hard to choose my lead-in. Yet his interest soon began to wane and I was only able to desperately spout out a few vague testimonials before my window of opportunity had passed.
I’ve since then replayed the scene many a time in my head, wondering what I could/would/should have done differently. How exactly do you go about discussing gender issues with a person who does not yet recognize the existence of these many inequalities? What is the best way to facilitate this usually drastic paradigm shift?
It’s tricky business. However, I think next time, if there is a next time, I will take a more personal approach. Something like FGM, for example, is indeed both a shocking and terribly damaging practice to women all over the world. However, it can sometimes be difficult to envision truly understanding, let alone alleviating these types problems for women that seem frequently so very distant due to either cultural differences or a mere matter of geography. Maybe it might have been more effective to point to something that is harmful for women in AMF’s society, something that might possibly be more tangible and pertinent for him.
Another tip of advice I’m giving my future self is to at all costs avoid being condescending or testy. Although it can at times be frustrating when someone casually refers to something you really care about as “crusty”, a lot can be said for the advantages of calm and candid conversation. The more and more I’ve talked with this AMF I’ve come to realize that he’s truly a bit scared of feminism. For him, it mostly just represents a men-hating belligerence. An opportunity like this can either add or take away from his negative perception, with a lot riding on things as simple as the tone of responses. Sometimes it’s easy for me to pretend that I have always been aware of and cared a lot about the problems of women around the world. But that is simply not the case and therefore not a fair expectation for me to have for others.
These feelings were echoed in a letter I found written in 1978 to the UK feminist magazine, Spare Rib.
Trying to be a Tree
Dear Spare Rib,
How many more letters do you get which are written on Mondays? It was a good weekend and now the kids are back at school and the man has gone to work and I am left washing sheets in the bath and eating all the left overs and feeling, let’s face it, “sorry for myself”.
We moved here two months ago from London. It is beautiful and healthy and friendly and unpretentious – the people are like trees, they have their roots solidly planted in their own history. I love it and respect it, but it’s probably part of my “problem”. It’s difficult to suddenly become a tree. Round here the ancient, gnarled socialists, who marched with Kier Hardie, wouldn’t vote for a woman if she stood at any election.
While living in Hornsey I flirted with women’s groups and gave the movement nominal if self satisfied support. But now I need you. I have always been a little nervous of the real hard-liners in the movement, because they tend to be impatient, even unintentionally arrogant (or maybe it’s my touchy nature) with the doubting, the half-hearted, the uncertain – for all those who march unerringly into the promised land, aren’t there just as many who could stumble in by accident if given a hand?
As I read Janet’s wonderfully honest words, the last line rang in my ears. This week’s encounter reminded me that even thirty years later, there is still a lot of similar doubt and uncertainty surrounding the dialogue of gender issues. While I do not by any means profess to be a tree, I have become more acutely aware of my responsibility as a WomanStats coder to try and plant seeds. While our research is both a powerful and essential force for change, I do not believe it is enough. We must simultaneously try and plant seeds, or in other words, share what we learn so that attitudes will change and trees will grow.