“Give me some credit,” he said to me, at least three times, after he told me several stories meant to establish his cred as Definitely Not Sexist. An older man, he has been quite open about his vote for the current president, so he’s a little touchy about such things in the politically and socially liberal community of writers we are both a part of. “Don’t worry,” he seemed to say, “I’m not a product of my generation.”
I knew as soon as I read Nora Ephron’s 1996 Wellesley graduation speech at the open mic we both frequent that this conversation would be coming. It’s what happens when you engage otherwise thoughtful men about gender issues. International Women’s Day was that week as well, so I actually had several conversations in that vein. The one that stuck out to me occurred when a 20-something woman wondered on social media about why there was an International Women’s Day. What about men? Aren’t they also great? Wasn’t this oppressive to them? (Quick answer to that last question: no).
Several women answered, reflexively, that every day is men’s day (one supplied the actual date of International Men’s Day) and a 20-something man took exception to that. “Give me some credit,” he seemed to say. “I am Definitely Not Sexist.” And because he was Definitely Not Sexist, he didn’t seem to see how he shut down the conversation with the patronizing comment, “I love you too much to argue with you,” or how inflammatory it was to assert that not only were women as privileged as men, some women were more privileged than men.
Another woman pointed out that this 20-something guy was a good guy and meant well (and didn’t he have a point about how men and women should be treated equally?). The problem with this response, though, is that his status as a good guy who meant well was not being challenged (neither was our shared understanding of the value of equality). There is a feeling that if you are ever uninformed, misinformed, or insensitive that you are Definitely Sexist (irredeemably so). It’s that crazy logic that leads people to scramble to establish themselves as Definitely Not Sexist. People (and issues) are not so very tidy, though. I know this because I am Definitely Not Racist and Definitely Not Homophobic.
I’m not always aware of my privilege as a white, middle class, straight, cisgender woman, and sometimes (ok, pretty much all the time) when someone points out some of these things, I get defensive, even if I don’t always voice it. I am, generally speaking, a thoughtful person. I’m empathetic and fair. I work for equality. Anyone who knows me could affirm that. Except my ex-husband. Don’t ask him. So why do I get defensive? Because for most people in the universe, I am one dimensional. I am “poetry lady” or that funny post or the church organist or the person who never ever ever volunteers to be Room Mom.
There are people out there who know me (and judge me) based on one experience or type of experience. That’s what our technological bonanza has done — our field has broadened, but we don’t have the time, energy, or brainpower to know everyone we come into contact with as a multi-dimensional, nuanced human being. So a sexist action becomes a sexist person, and the response invariably is, “Hey wait! I am Definitely Not Sexist!” That response just shuts down the conversation, though.
We have to create spaces where we understand and love each other, where the basic understanding is that we are not sexist, racist, or homophobic but that we do need to understand each other better and improve our behavior and language. This is a two-sided initiative. We need to stop jumping right to Definitely Not Sexist mode and thus miss out on valuable information. And we also need to stop talking about our issues and people who disagree with us in one-dimensional ways. I will admit that “every day is men’s day” was probably not the most helpful retort if my goal was to have a multi-dimensional discussion that actually makes a difference in the struggle for equality. I will also admit that that was not my goal at the time. It’s incredible that, over 20 years later, Nora Ephron’s speech about not being complacent about women’s issues is still timely. Twenty years after I was a 20-something who needed to hear that message, there are 20-somethings who mistake their privileged position as universal, who feel that because our struggle looks a little different from our mothers’ struggle it isn’t a struggle at all.
I didn’t have to quit my job when I became pregnant, but I did have a job offer rescinded once when a man applied (because he had a family to provide for, of course, and I was just a single woman). Sound like something out of 1959? That was 1999. And though it’s more likely they wouldn’t say it outright in 2017, don’t you doubt that this sort of thing goes on today, here in Utah for sure. The truth is, dear 20-somethings, that there is still no gender parity in pay, productions, and publications. And even more basic than that, when men come up against a romantic encounter gone wrong, they fear for their egos but women fear for their lives. Looking at a world filled with facts like that and still thinking that women’s issues are fixed because you are more enlightened than your father is like pretending it isn’t raining because you are standing under an umbrella.
But back to International Women’s Day, which has been around since 1911. How come it gets more ink than International Men’s Day, which was created in 1999 (presumably by people who are Definitely Not Sexist)? When you are culturally dominant, you don’t need extra effort to bring attention to your issues. It’s redundant. Last year, the Springville Library had a bingo-card-style reading program to encourage people to branch out and try books they might otherwise overlook. There were squares labeled “read a sci-fi novel” or “read a book by a local author,” and then, because they’re Definitely Not Sexist, there was a square labeled “read a book by a man.” Since you can’t spit in any direction in a library without hitting a book by a man, this gets nobody out of their comfort zone. This diversifies nothing. Maybe put that one in the center square, ok? That’s why International Men’s Day isn’t so terribly different from every other day and why International Women’s Day doesn’t oppress men. If all things were equal, we wouldn’t need to be reminded of all the ways things aren’t equal. And I have tons of man-loving cred, folks, so you can believe me on this one. I am Definitely Not Sexist.