The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.

The True Meaning of Misogyny

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani social media star and feminist)

So much gets thrown around these days in terms of what the word misogyny means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as “a hatred of women,” from the Greek misein to hate and gyne woman. Our own cultural connotations of this word in American society vary greatly. Is a man staring at an attractive woman on the street and example of misogyny? Or only when he makes a comment? Is the fact that we do not really encounter a female Mozart when studying European culture and music a sign of misogyny? I would argue that we have to be careful, when defining misogyny, not to negate or deny certain things that are naturally or even inherently masculine, certain things that may be harmless. Also, a male acting in traditionally masculine ways is not necessarily being misogynistic. I, like many women, love chivalry and find it charming when a man opens a door for me, whereas other women may find it demeaning. We need to distinguish between superficial misogyny and genuine, deep-rooted misogyny.

In the first example, a man staring on the street may be acting simply out of his own biology and own masculine nature; while it may be uncomfortable to some women, we have to be careful not to label this as misogynistic in all cases. Same for opening a door –a man may see himself as being a gentleman and doing his duty and a chivalric way. In the second example, we are dealing with a more complex situation. Indeed, our history books and curricula have often neglected women entirely, or minimized their contributions. (Hence the presence of this blog, and its title that seeks to honor women in cultural positions). And needless to say, in earlier centuries, women were not educated to the same level as men, if at all, and female Mozarts may have existed but were instead expected to do needlepoint and then be married off at age 16. But we cannot use our modern standards to evaluate the Canon and earlier eras; to do so would simply be ridiculous and anachronistic. I frequently take issue with modern politically correct scholarship and interpretations of earlier works and time periods, for it shows a deep ignorance of history and a certain shallow Americanism. Sometimes I even have to laugh when the whole issue of calling a woman a “girl” becomes a subject for debate, because some of the most old-fashioned men who call a woman a girl might be the ones who treat her with the most respect as opposed to the politically correct men who call a woman a woman but whose behavior is not respectful.

What, then, does misogyny mean? Because we can’t deny it exists, and on some level, we deal with it every day in America.

I would argue that true misogyny means denying things that are at the very unique essence of what it means to be a woman, things that are particular to our gender. Misogyny, at its deepest, means a denial of female emotion and female energy.

-Interpersonally, probably the worst example of misogyny is a man’s inability to accept and understand a woman’s emotions in a romantic context. Labeling women as “crazy,” or fearing that “she’s going to go out of control” are all ways in which the fundamental nature of a woman, to be emotional in a way that a man cannot be, is quashed and destroyed. Women are taught logic and rational thinking; men are seldom taught how to understand women’s emotions (though we have to understand that biologically there may be a limit to what they can comprehend). But the point is that this imbalance leads to a lot of anger and hostility in relationships. These days, with social media, it is easier for men to hide behind a screen rather than hear, see, and feel what his woman is experiencing.
These days, it seems that the more educated and professional the man is, the less he is able to deal with a woman’s emotions, and would not hesitate to end a relationship. Whereas a less educated man might be able to cope better, perhaps by going out for a beer with his friends and accepting he said something stupid and go back home, accepting to a certain degree that there are certain gender traits and one must accept them.

-Many women may criticize the above, but that proves the next point: women are not allowed to be women in all aspects of life. In order to do well in their careers, too many women have been forced to adopt masculine ways and to stifle their femininity. This is especially prominent in certain fields, such as finance, law, STEM fields, even academia. In order to get ahead, a woman has to play the game. And when our culture dictates that work life consumes most of our day, it becomes difficult for women to relax into their femininity when they are not at work. This has made gender roles difficult for both genders, and many men complain about masculine, controlling women. This is a legitimate complaint, but its origins come from a male-dominated society that has pushed women to be this way.

-Misogyny is patriarchy gone extreme. Notice that I did not say misogyny is patriarchy, but qualified it with an adjective phrase. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can say that there are certain aspects of a patriarchal society that could be beneficial to women–a male who is a provider, who will stay in a relationship, who will be a responsible father, and who will allow a woman to be her feminine self. It can provide a sort of social safety net. However, in too many countries and cultures, including America, this patriarchy can push women into unwanted or undesirable marriages, motherhood, deny them an adequate education or work opportunities, and worst of all, result in domestic violence. The latter is the most tragic example of men trying to maintain their power and values at all costs, but sometimes the cost is death.

-So much is discussed about abortion rights — something that indeed must be kept safe and legal – and birth control, but what about birth rights? If only a woman can give birth, and is capable of that magical creative act, why does our society fundamentally not support that? This is not a liberal-conservative debate, but simply one that asks to honor a woman’s ability to reproduce. Why do so many women opt to have abortions? The first reason is that the birth control has failed (again, a failure of effective birth control for women, and a lack of birth control for men), and so a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. But another reason is that she is not in a culture that supports her pregnancy. Financially, America is a very difficult place to raise a child. Many women may not wish to embrace motherhood, and that is an equally valid choice. But for others, they may want to but find themselves torn between earning a living, pursuing a career that will lead to her earning a living, or abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. Where is the support for these women who want to keep the child?

-And let us not forget the pathetic joke of maternity leave: a Forbes article from April 2016 presents the grim situation of how the U.S. is the worst in terms of maternity leave of developed countries. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave – if you and your workplace meet the criteria – is inhumane. We can’t even think about paternity leave until we get better maternity leave, which is a shame.

-Pressuring women to look a certain way – even unfeminine – in the workplace. Must a female attorney who clerks for a Supreme Court or federal judge be condemned to a lifetime of navy and black suits? Is an investment banker any less qualified if she wears shoes with stripes? Or if a woman wears a pink dress to give a speech when she is running for office, is she relegated to being “cute”? The problem should not be placed on women and their sartorial choices, but on the men who cannot understand them.

These are just some examples of everyday misogyny and a deep lack of appreciation for the female and feminine energy. What many men fail to recognize is that to deny the feminine externally is to also deny the feminine inside them. While men are not wired to be women – thank goodness – and it can be physiologically harmful for them to process emotion at the same level as women, they still need to accept that we all have our masculine and feminine elements within us. In turn, women need to relax into their feminine sides and accept certain elements of masculinity, however unpleasant or strange they may seem. Feminism cannot work without understanding men.

To conclude with a classic joke– isn’t it the ultimate misogyny when a man doesn’t understand that the woman is always right?!

Why American Feminism Has Failed

Much of my work on The Women of Letters has focused on bringing a cross-cultural/international perspective to American culture and institutions. It is time to turn our attention to American feminism and to see why, despite the United States being the most powerful country in the world and a leading developed nation, certain markers of progress for women still lag behind other developed nations.

Mine was the first American generation that was equal by law in terms of race and gender. I grew up feeling strong and capable of anything, unhindered by gender. However, at Stanford, I found that the definition of “feminist” was something entirely foreign to my own conception of feminism. I felt very alienated by the women who called themselves feminists, found their conception of feminism and women’s rights extremely militant and divisive. Once I entered the “real world,” I indeed encountered sexism on a concrete level that was often subtle and not easy to prove. I also saw how difficult it was for working women, especially married mothers, to balance career and family, to be able to afford childcare and to take time off from their jobs. I saw how this affected women across class and race, and how the law and health care system did not address women’s needs adequately. A woman’s co-pay to see a gynecologist, who is wrongly considered a “specialist,” costs more than a visit to a primary care physician.

The feminists of the 60’s and 70’s who laid the groundwork for my generation focused on the wrong perspectives or took the wrong approaches. Some academic feminists have contributed to the problem as well, focusing on esoterica and frivolity. Here are some reasons why I believe American feminism has not achieved enough:

-American feminism has focused on sexuality rather than economics. The Nordic countries have the lowest rates of economic inequality and the best policies for maternity leave, and rank highest on various global indices for “best countries for women.” American women can read about the best sex positions in Cosmo, enjoy the antics of “Sex and the City,” debate the use of the word “history” instead of “herstory” (which is ridiculous, as it reveals an ignorance of Latin etymology), sign petitions about being proud to have an abortion (is it really a source of pride, when it shows the failure of effective birth control for women?), go to endless performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” but in the end, a woman will have to put her baby in daycare at six weeks, if she can even afford it, because women are not paid as much as men. How is this progress?

If we use our rather short-sighted American criteria as for what is “progressive” for women (which usually means sexual freedom), then popular opinion has it that Nordic women are very open in their sexuality and sexually fulfilled (one study cited in “The Economist” showed that Finnish women are the most “promiscuous” in the world, having had the most number of sexual partners). Based on this simplistic American criterion, we would find that the country that is rated best for women on numerous indices, Iceland, had a lesbian prime minister. But this is overlooking the key point–if we attend to a woman’s economic needs, then she will be free to be whoever she is sexually. We have focused too much on sex, and now a woman can be sexually equal to a man. The problem is, he still won’t call you the next morning, and your insurance might not cover your birth control.

-American feminism has focused too much on individualism. We see individual women who have followed their paths and found success–the Hillary Clintons, Sheryl Sandbergs, Alice Walkers, Meryl Streeps of America have all been extraordinary women in their respective fields. Women like Gloria Steinem have been idolized for decades. While I certainly admire Ms. Steinem’s accomplishments, I feel that she and her 1970’s ilk have focused too much on their own positions, which are unlike that of the majority of American women who are concerned with getting good schooling for their kids, getting vacation time, and negotiating with their spouse about who is doing the vacuuming.

The problem comes because it raises the issue of marriage as the norm for society. Feminists who have opposed marriage have cited that it is oppressive as an institution, and that individual freedom is the antidote. We are in an era where women are free to make their choices as to their lifestyle and lovers, which is a healthy thing. But again, we have to look at the majority of American women who are wives and mothers, even lesbian couples, or single or married but childless women who help care for children or child relatives. American feminism has refused to see family as the normative unit, all under the name of “oppression.” How is it oppressive to a non-married woman, who is now free to live as she likes, and her society is able to care for her as well as families? The late Betty Friedan was aware of these things, and NOW was originally founded to help the ordinary woman. Unfortunately, things took a different turn and feminism lost its focus on helping the majority of women. This is not to say that a woman must be married or partnered in order to be whole and fulfilled, that she is any less than a married woman. It is simply saying we need to address the issues that will help as many women as possible.

-American feminism has not included men enough. This relates to the above point–even even women who have no intention of getting married or having children lament the irresponsibility of the modern American male who can’t even commit to a romantic relationship. This is the result of the lack of focus on feminism and its relation to human relationships, be it marriage or motherhood. Men have not been held responsible since women are free to be whomever they want as an individual. Many women say that men are not as “evolved” as they are, while men say that they do not feel like they can “be a man” anymore. We have not reevaluated male gender roles, nor taken their needs into account.

And yet, there still is a lot of deeply-ingrained sexism towards women: out-of-touch male politicians make decisions about women’s reproductive rights, rape and sexual assault are too prevalent on college campuses, and paid maternity leave is very inadequate. We still have a long way to go for institutional change.

-The LGBT community still suffers. While we see sensationalized girl-on-girl action in movies or an openly gay show host on TV, our LGBT friends are dealing with a host of issues: domestic violence among lesbian couples, transgender youth being beaten up, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes. If our society focused on collective welfare that began with taking care of women, I believe that people would be able to accept people who were not heterosexual. Certainly, women who are not straight would certainly accuse society of being “heteronormative.” This is a legitimate criticism. However, once again I cite the Nordic example of having the best cultures for women as well as gays, and also the fact that one of the key psychological issues many LGBT people suffer is being shunned by their families.

It is time that we look at American society as a bit aberrant compared to most other places in the world. It is time we reevaluate our definitions of feminism, our individualism that is both our greatest asset as well as, perhaps, our curse. It is time we truly, deeply respect women.