The Fem Spot

Privilege, shmivilege

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays by femspotter on May 12, 2010

May 12, 2010

Over the past two years as I have blogged about my feminist concerns and read those of others, I have become increasingly wary of the word “privilege.” It gets wielded an awful lot in feminist circles, most commonly attached to the word “male.” “Male privilege” is the go-to term when a feminist doesn’t have a fact-based argument to oppose one made by a man, feminist or otherwise. “Oh, there you go inflicting your male privilege on us,” is not uncommon to read in the feminist blogosphere. (Incidentally, for making this observation, I shall now endure scrutiny from other feminists who will call me an “MRA” – Men’s Rights Activist.)

I am not interested in eroding the rights of men; merely enhancing the rights of women.

I was asked to leave one feminist blog and have been blocked from two threads on another. How did this happen? I thought we all wanted the same things. In each case, it seems that two concepts of privilege became wedge issues between me – strange, proactive feminist that I am – and others: male privilege and United States privilege. Let’s define privilege for clarity’s sake:

priv·i·lege

a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most

I find that privilege is something that is often unique to each individual, unless you’re talking about privileges granted a class or faction under the law. For instance: I am privileged to give $20 to this charity, while he is privileged to give only $15 because he makes less money than I do.

In the first case, I accused a blogger of “hating men.” She spammed me. Okay. It wasn’t good for me to stay there anyway. I had just learned I was pregnant and had simultaneously observed some very negative attitudes about motherhood in that arena. Additionally, the group of radical feminists who frequented that blog seemed convinced that transsexuals (male to female) are ruining feminism for ciswomen (born women). I found this hateful and counterproductive to the feminist cause. One particular argument back and forth consisted of a “you have more privilege than I have” war, which is ultimately futile because it’s simply impossible to prove which group (cis or non-cis) has more privilege than the other; it’s subjective. The transsexual women were arguing that to be cis is to be privileged, while the ciswomen were arguing that transsexual women wield leftover male privilege from before surgery. The ciswomen demanded that transwomen stay out of women’s public restrooms because they are a rape threat to women with original vaginas. And they also claimed that being a born woman comes with no privileges in and of itself, hence the constant use of the term male privilege. (I have decided that motherhood is the ultimate privilege of women; and even if one can’t physically give birth, serving as a mother – step-, caregiver, etc. – is a privilege of our sex because it is an endeared and exalted position amongst our class. I never felt more empowered as a woman than the day I took my first pre-natal yoga class with a group of mothers-to-be. We are goddesses!) I think that being a feminist and also hating being a woman cannot coexist in one body. Ergo, you either learn to love your womanhood, or you give up your claim to feminism. This is one reason I welcome transwomen into the fold: hey, you want to be a woman, more power to ya!

All of this warring over privilege read as completely absurd to me and I found myself crying several times because of the lack of tolerance being executed by the so-called radical feminists writing into that blog. Hate, hate, hate… When the moderator sent me an email and asked me to leave, I complied without hesitation, especially considering the contradiction: she had spammed me on a thread for accusing her of misandry, and yet her blog’s sub headline is “a nice cool sip of misandry, on a hot day” and she had confessed in one thread (emphasis supplied):

frankly, i think that if my partner and i ever broke up, that i would probably not be able to be with another man due to my increasingly “radical” feminist beliefs. we have both changed over the years and are still compatible for the most part, and he also hates men which is to his credit! he knows what i mean when i say that men, as a group, suck. he doesnt take it personally. he is also a first-generation american raised in abject poverty so has more compassion and didnt/doesnt have a lot of the privileges normally associated with white men. which works for me, as i dont think i could tolerate most “normal” (entitled) men anymore. but i am pretty much resolved to having him has my last male partner, no matter what happens to him, or to me, or to us as a couple in the future.

I fully respect this statement as something one ruminates about during a voyage of self discovery. I do that here in my space and am entitled to do so as she is in her space. What’s of particular interest to me about this revelation – aside from the fact that it proves I am right about this blogger hating men – is the use of the concept of privilege to justify worth. “Men, as a group, suck,” she claims, but she exempts her partner because he has the least amount of male privilege that men inherently come with because of his lowly economic status, and thus has greater human worth. Because this group believes that cis womanhood contains no privilege over manhood, to them, even a man suffering economically, physically, socially, mentally, etc. still has more inherent privilege than does any woman, even the most economically, physically, socially or mentally elite woman.  And because women lack privilege, they have greater worth than men. It’s an interesting theory, but I reject its practical usage because it is just that: a theory. It makes assumptions about personal goodness based on wealth; and I’m sure we can all agree that poor people aren’t inadvertently good and giving to others without conscious intent just as wealthy people aren’t heartless by default. I believe that theories such as this keep healthy, happy women from helping women who are less fortunate. More than a few times, I witnessed radical feminists on this blog declaring that it is the job of men to fix the world for women because women have no real power/privilege (paraphrase). I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to wait for men to rescue me and other women from any place of abuse or subjugation. Men really don’t have as great an incentive to “rescue” women, as a class, as I do.

That’s the first banning from a feminist forum I endured. I’m intrigued by it and it’s good to vent now, but ultimately, this experience did not damage me. I’m no victim, but I have carried around a lot of anger about my second negative online experience in the feminist blogosphere (as follows), and that isn’t good for me – especially pregnant me.

In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that many disabled people don’t like the use of the term “healthy” because they think it is a judgment upon them: they can’t be healthy by certain standards because of their disabilities. So when I commented on a blog post on another site – a heavy traffic site to boot – about what’s wrong with skinny, and suggested that a healthy standard rather than a too skinny standard in Hollywood would benefit the whole of American, and perhaps international, womanhood, I was surprised to find myself accused of ableism. Another commenter and I tried to explain that “healthy” for our purposes simply meant not starving to fit the standard of beauty, but the damage was done. One writer even accused me of personally attacking her because she is very thin and cannot gain weight; and I must have responded at least three times that if she’s not starving herself she’s not perpetuating a negative standard for women. It got very hostile over there even though I had the best of intentions, as did others, I’m sure.

An insult like “you’re an MRA” is easy enough to laugh at. It’s ridiculous. But, considering my professional status as a special needs writer, the accusation that I am ableist hit me pretty hard, especially since I didn’t know if it were true, entirely or in part. There are many schools of thought on this: all able-bodied people are ableist until they become disabled; all people, disabled or otherwise, should try to make healthy choices to maximize health whenever possible (don’t smoke, don’t eat fatty foods in excess, etc.); the idea of “health” is a judgment, and more. Somehow, even with the best of intentions, I had come across as prejudiced against the disabled…and I know that to be untrue even though I am still struggling to understand the various approaches to the concept of health. I did a lot of soul-searching to make sure I was earnest in my commenting. I researched heavily the “healthy” debate and brought my findings to my boss. This experience was one to learn from: not because the accusers were right and I was wrong, but because I was not making my points clearly and instead was causing offense.

I began to get angry in this second feminist space when the thin woman wrote:

I also made the mistake of reading part of your blog. Apparently you also believe women who get raped while drunk are at least partly responsible for getting raped. Quite nice. Not only are women responsible for having eating disorders, but we’re responsible for men committing sexual violence against us.

Alright, that fact that she claimed to have read “part of” my blog should have red flagged for me right there. But I got really angry at being misrepresented yet again by this same poster. I wrote in to defend myself:

You are totally wrong again about me with regard to rape. TOTALLY! And I’ll thank you to STOP misrepresenting me. I do not believe that a woman who gets raped is ever at fault for her rape. EVER. I do believe in telling young women to avoid becoming intoxicated in environments where they are with men they do not know. I do tell the young women I know to protect themselves. This is not equivalent to telling women it’s their fault. Getting drunk in an unsafe environment is a mistake I made many times in college. And I repeat for the last time: women are not to blame for their eating disorders, only for starving by choice to fit the rigid standard of beauty our planet upholds, as I have done (starve) as well. I am not some sanctimonious asshole who sits in front of a computer screen without experience and blames women for all of our woes. I am a real woman with real issues and real ideas. If you misunderstand them because I have been unable to express myself clearly, try asking me questions about them rather than condemning me.

However, this comment was never published. I wrote to the moderators asking them to publish it. I received no response. Again, I question the relevance of the “feminist” label if you are prone to silencing women in feminist forums.

In another thread, “Dear USians on the Internet,” one of the moderators banned me for making a tone argument. I think that means that I dared to infer tone from posted comments. (Shrug.) But this didn’t happen until the U.S. privilege debate began. The post was a complaint from an Australian feminist about how (some) Americans are rude to foreigners online – and “USian” is apparently the politically correct term per this writer because the U.S. has robbed other (North and South) American nations like Mexico and Canada of the “American” designation; personally, I didn’t realize Canadians for instance were desperate to be called American and I had always taken for granted that we call ourselves Americans in the U.S. because the word America actually appears in our country’s name (U.S. of A.). I’m sure some Americans are very rude online. But what shocked me about this, especially juxtaposed next to the skinny thread, was how offended the writer of the post was when comments came in complaining about how closed-minded this post was. Were we possibly just in the middle of a misunderstanding again, jumping to conclusions about people’s beliefs rather than asking them to clarify them?

ME: I just think this kind of negative posting leads to a mob/ganging up commenting spree. We all have valid perspectives. We all have good intentions, don’t we? Sometimes we misunderstand each other. But we shouldn’t be hateful in this forum, which, as I understood it when it was recommended to me, is a safe place to discuss women’s issues and concerns.

THIRD PARTY: Also, it’s amazing how people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. when there is never the same volume of reaction to nonprivileged folks being treated the same. It is an outrage for the privileged person to be given an ounce of the same treatment that they drench nonprivileged people with every single day.

ME: “people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. ” (Third Party), not all Americans are privileged folks and their ignorant declarations on the Internet may result from their lack of financial or educational privilege.

THIRD PARTY: Actually, yes, if you are from the US, you have a privilege. US privilege.

What I make of this privilege argument is the same as what I make of the other: all men of all levels in the socioeconomic structure in which they live have more inherent privilege than all women, and likewise all Americans of all levels in the American socioeconomic structure have more inherent privilege than all or most other countries on Earth. This reeks of ignorance and prejudice in both cases. While I can somewhat wrap my mind around and even agree with the male vs. female assessment of privilege because it is universal and historically true that men have ruled the world – even though, as I’ve written, I think this argument is problematic and useless beyond academia; I need to make a very important distinction between classifying men and women as distinct collectives versus classifying Americans as a collective: there is way too much diversity involved amongst designated “USians” to simply blanket us with possessing a U.S. privilege. For starters, the statistic that 25 – 40,000 people die in the U.S. every year simply from lack of health insurance, which was thrown about during the healthcare reform debates of 2009, already divides us into strikingly different levels of privilege: the insured (read: privileged to receive medical care as needed and desired) and the uninsured (read: not privileged to receive medical care as needed). So when we’re talking about health and the right to live one’s life, already we’ve come to a point where we can clearly state that not all Americans possess “U.S. privilege.” Another example: if you’re a fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico, your livelihood has just been wiped out for perhaps years by the recent oil spill. Where’s your U.S. privilege now? (Probably, in the same place as that of the Katrina victims still residing in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers: up the asses of our wealthiest one percent!)

Speaking of healthcare, you might be surprised to know that American expectant mothers such as myself also find themselves disadvantaged below other countries when it comes to our motherhood privilege. According to Save the Children, the U.S. ranks as only the 28th best place on Earth in which to be a mother:

Why doesn’t the United States do better in the rankings?
The United States ranked 28th this year based on several factors:
•• One of the key indicators used to calculate well-being for mothers is lifetime risk of maternal death. The United States’ rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 4,800 – one of the highest in the developed world. Thirty-five out of 43 developed countries performed better than the United States on this indicator, including all the Western, Northern and Southern European countries (except Estonia and Albania) as well as Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. A woman in the Unites States is more than five times as likely as a woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece or Italy to die from pregnancy-related causes in her lifetime and her risk of maternal death is nearly 10-fold that of a woman in Ireland.
•• Similarly, the United States does not do as well as many other countries with regard to under-5 mortality. The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is 8 per 1,000 births. This is on par with rates in Slovakia and Montenegro. Thirty-eight countries performed better than the U.S. on this indicator. At this rate, a child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a child in Finland, Iceland, Sweden or Singapore to die before his or her fifth birthday.
•• Only 61 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool – making it the seventh lowest country in the developed world on this indicator.
•• The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy – both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid – of any wealthy nation.
•• The United States is also lagging behind with regard to the political status of women. Only 17 percent of seats in the House of Representatives are held by women, compared to 46 percent of seats in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.

Now, I’ll admit that perhaps the only reason Save the Children bothered to explain why the U.S. came in as low as it did is because we have a great public relations machine at work: the U.S. and yes! certain “USians” claim that the U.S. is a superpower, militarily, socioeconomically, etc. This is a bit of a fraud: image conquering truth for all the world to witness. As an American mother-to-be, I confess that I am hiring birthing help (a doula) outside of the health insurance network (to the tune of $1,400) to help avoid many of the surgical impositions placed on women during childbirth automatically by the Western medical establishment; I am not receiving any maternity leave pay during my “disability” leave from work, though I am entitled to collect disability insurance for up to six weeks; and my job is not protected by federal law, which means that my company can choose to downsize me during my absence, putting me in the position of having to find a new job and raise a newborn baby simultaneously.

Now, before you send me hate mail about what a big, whiny baby I am – a white “USian” with truckloads of socioeconomic privilege, know this: I know I’m privileged. I don’t claim to be less privileged than Afghan or African women, etc. I don’t spend much time making the comparison because I think it’s a useless comparison to make. I had a great education – apart from an appalling lack of herstory, always enough food and a roof over my head, loving support from family and friends, opportunities to work and earn my living as well as give some of it away to charities I am compassionate toward, and access to medical care at every stage of my life. I’m not complaining about labels of privilege being forced upon me; I am complaining that some people would try and force the assumption of my privilege onto others. Just because I am a privileged American doesn’t mean that ALL Americans are privileged. I am perhaps one of the last of a dying breed: the American middle class. So, when Save the Children, decides that Norway is the best place on Earth to be a mother, I don’t immediately assume that all Norwegian mothers have Norway privilege… I just strongly consider moving there. (Hey, I’m no patriot! I too think the U.S. at large is full of itself.) That doesn’t mean, however, that hating the U.S. or any of its ill-mannered online representatives is what should pass for feminism in the blogosphere.

It is undeniably safe to use the term privilege when you are speaking about yourself; but beyond that you run the risk of making a lot of assumptions and those assumptions can often lead to prejudicial treatment of others. I wonder if you’ll agree with me that the greatest privilege that a person can ever experience is knowing the value of him- or herself to be equal to that of others. And the real value of feminism is that it can ensure that every woman knows her worth and her right to a happy life – that she is entitled to human egalitarian privilege, which is greater than the rights known by other forms of life; not by begrudgingly taking away the rights of others – of men and transsexuals or members of other races or dwellers of other countries, etc. – but by raising up the wonderful aspects of her self and her femaleness, those aspects that make her a valuable member of collective society: her motherhood, her sisterhood and her ability to love and care for others.

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Why “gender” must go

Posted in Feminist Theory, Pop Culture, queer theory by femspotter on November 21, 2009

November 21, 2009

I am speaking about gender as a distinct concept from sex: gender is masculine/feminine and sex is male/female.

The two weren’t originally distinct. As language evolved, as it continues to do, the concepts of male/female gender said to be “masculine”/”feminine” arose as adjectives inclusive of traits traditionally exhibited by either sex. But as the eras morphed and gave way to one another – and with women’s liberation advancing women’s choices in behavior – the concept of gender became archaic. While masculine and not feminine might originally have been thought to include athletic agility, certainly we have seen women accumulate a myriad of athletic achievements. And while feminine and not masculine might originally have encompassed all things, activities, attitudes and behaviors relating to the sphere of the home, we have seen men take over housework and child rearing in the absence of and occasionally as the preference to women. Ergo, gender as masculine/feminine doesn’t mean anything anymore, really…but we still use these words. For the purposes of this and all my essays, my use of the word gender will always refer to traditional masculinity or traditional femininity. (What is traditional? That’s my point.)

Because Americans are often inhibited by public mention of private, personal things – such as sex and other bodily functions like flatulence – we have learned to substitute the word “gender” for the word “sex.” We fear that we might confuse people with the word “sex,” making them think of the act of sexual intercourse rather than the differences between its heterosexual participants.

When making an academic argument about the members of one sex or the other and their inherent traits, we must remember to use the word “sex” and not the word “gender.” Be clear: are you talking about men and woman and their differences/similarities, or are you talking about the traditionally held attitudes toward what each sex’s sphere encompasses? If it’s the latter, feel free to utilize the term gender. For instance, my sex is female, but many of my traits are traditionally masculine: I have a job outside my home, I drive a car, I speak my mind, I wear pants, etc.

Actress Rachel McAdams was recently quoted by Entertainment Weekly (Nov. 27, 2009) as summing up her character Irene in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie by saying: “She’s not a typical woman of her time. (Portraying Irene) was a matter of balancing her femininity with what was masculine like being a weapons expert.”

McAdams is correct in this wielding of masculine/feminine concepts (gender) in referring to her 19th Century muse as a woman (sex) with traditionally male (sex) qualities. But until we get far enough away to look back on the period we inhabit now (2009), we can’t clearly distinguish the overlying characteristics attributed to either sex. In other words, we don’t know what gender is today because we can’t objectively examine all of its parts or predict what its outcome will mean for the next generation. McAdams is only correct in saying Irene was not typical because the women who came before and after Irene were not weapons experts as a general rule. That skill did not pervade our sex. Does it today or will it tomorrow? We don’t know yet. And someday, when men and women aren’t restricted by expectations of gender, it won’t matter.

“Gender,” when used as a verbal stand in for the collective of men or women, has got to go. We need the term to represent the collective traits long believed to be inclusive in groupings of people of the same sex. If we are specific with this language, then we will be able to examine how gender is really meaningless and detrimental. To believe that women (sex) are only as strong as our femininity (traditional gender) would limit our potential to advance ourselves in society. And to believe that men are all as stoic as traditionally masculine men would limit their potential to assume some of the roles traditionally undertaken by women, thus limiting our potential to advance in roles traditionally held by men. If my husband and I have children, and I am subsequently offered the career opportunity of a lifetime, I might choose to abandon the traditional wifely and motherly duties for a “male” career model leaving my husband to pick up the slack in the arenas of cooking, cleaning and child rearing. He would have to let go of his fear of being judged feminine by other men and women just as I would have to prepare to receive and shrug off any criticism about abandoning my children for long hours at the office. Working mothers often have guilty consciences because the world has long believed they are selfish for pursuing their dreams and leaving their children to be cared for by others.

In my utopia, gender is gone: both the word and what it really means. It is reductive and restrictive and…inaccurate in this day and age.

I could list hundreds of examples of how gender restricts females from doing the things they want in life, but I’d like to turn the tables for a second and talk about one instance where males are being restricted: fashion. It is the privilege of my sex in America to wear ruffles, boas, elaborate costume jewelry, outrageous shoes, make-up and hair accessories. Of course, this isn’t a universal privilege. Some men get away with it right here in the New York City metro area where I live. And certainly, women are restricted from the fun of dressing as they please in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus, I also must mention that women do painful often terrible things to their bodies sometimes to feel worthy of the adornments I hereby champion including but not limited to surgery and eating disorders. But for the purposes of this argument, we can hopefully agree that some females in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia are having fun with fashion, basking in the soft and colorful feminine decorations that males are not allowed.

We must agree that there is a privilege of our sex in these locales because we are allowed to beautify ourselves in ways that males are not, and this can be an enjoyable activity. Earlier this month, Houston’s O’Rhonde Chapman, a 17 year-old high school senior, wore a long wig and stiletto heels to school because they make him feel good. But the school’s dress code restricts males from growing their hair past their shirt collars or wearing wigs to conceal an unruly hair length. Females are not subject to the same hair length restriction. A video interview with Chapman is available online.

Boo hoo, right? Well, dress is a form of self-expression, whether it includes wearing sparkly barrettes in your hair or the name of your favorite sports team across your chest. Males should no more be restricted from expressing themselves in this way than females. The New York Times featured an interesting article about cross dressing rules for high school students and what it means to both sexes on Nov. 8 in the “Sunday Styles” section. This situation of restricting dress based on sex is unsettling at an all-male college in Georgia that has banned, according to CNN, “the wearing of women’s clothes, makeup, high heels and purses as part of a new crackdown on what the institution calls inappropriate attire.”

Oh my god… Does a messenger bag count as a purse? Does zit concealer count as make-up? What’s the reasoning behind this? “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,” said Morehouse College’s Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services.

Basically, what Bynum is saying is that the rest of the men at Morehouse College are homophobic and uncomfortable with men who exhibit other than masculine characteristics. The school’s resident gay organization supported the ban by a majority vote, presumably to protect its individual members from further ridicule, hatred or fear.

But why should this animosity exist? It exists because of gender, the concept that men should exhibit only a masculine demeanor and women only a feminine demeanor. And before anybody goes accusing men of being the sole perpetrators of this distinction, I’d like to point out that many women, including and embarrassingly myself, prefer to be feminine and look for largely masculine qualities in their partners. I believe this tendency is somewhat natural, and somewhat compounded by its constant reinforcement in the media. Either way, it’s a yearning of both sexes and neither sex can be exempted from its implications. (I’d like to point out here as an aside that, after rereading some of my older posts, I find it interesting that I used to write these essays for people who were unaware of a feminist perspective on choice issues; but now, after spending time with some radical feminists, I find myself writing these essays with them in mind, defending my “lesser” feminism that holds women partially responsible for our decreasingly subordinate position.)

For the minority of males who want the freedom and yes, privilege to dress with color and flair, I offer you some suggestions. You don’t have to wear women’s clothes to feel…er…feminine. Just adorn one of these outfits for men from other eras and varying cultures:

In case you don’t recognize them, these are depictions of Italy’s Julius Caesar (b. 100 BC, d. 44 BC), Mongolia’s Genghis Kahn (c. 1162, d. 1227), England’s Henry (Tudor) the VIII (b. 1491, d. 1547), France’s Louis (de Bourbon) XIV (b.1648, d. 1715) and America’s Sitting Bull (c.1831, d. 1890) respectively. Each of these men was a ruler or warrior in in his time and each is wearing a traditional “masculine” garb of that time. (You really do know what culture you’re in by checking out what people are wearing.) Yes, those are tights, feathers, ruffles, velvet and gold lame’. But those are men, right? Yes. Yes they are.

So have fun, you cross dressing men! Wearing these outfits, you really aren’t breaking any rules, but you might be able to achieve the femininity (by today’s standards) that you deserve. Don’t complain; get creative!

The biology that is sex and the romance that is gender are no longer always compatible, for either sex. We need to get rid of gender, but first we need to understand it and wield its meaning correctly so that one day we can let it go, celebrate the biological differences that exist between men and women yet not reduce either sex to the sum of his or her parts.

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