I came to my feminism through a strange path: Judaism.
This is a testimony. It’s my story of awakening.
I went to Western Illinois University with the intent of getting a degree so I could go on to Seminary and become a pastor. I took history as my major because I love history. I took education as my co-major because I wanted a marketable skill to fall back on. Then I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher. That meant I needed a minor. I chose religious studies because, well, duh.
I admit I was a little naïve. I thought about religious studies from the perspective of my Evangelical upbringing, when all education was built around reinforcing the students’ view of the Bible as central, infallible, and the only document that truly mattered. I wasn’t fully prepared for what I was about to learn as a history major with a religious studies minor.
I took a course on Judaism. One of the assigned books was about Jewish feminism and written by a female rabbi. It was the first time in my life I’d been forced to grapple with feminism on a personal level and as presented by someone who wasn’t offering a strawman interpretation of feminism.
I came away from that experience with a simple maxim: Women are people, too.
At the time I wasn’t even remotely conversant in or even aware of the common coin of what I think of as internet feminism. I wouldn’t confront ideas like rape culture or privilege for a few years. I’ll also admit that when I first confronted those terms I didn’t react in the best way possible. Still, I think my first experience grappling with feminism and my simple maxim helped me to adjust and understand.
I’d like to say that I figured everything out at that moment. I can’t, though. I realize now that my conception of women at the time was a combination of salvation and resentment. I expected a woman to come along and save me. I resented women because none of them seemed willing to do so.
That’s why I spent so much time attached to the idea of Amy. In my mind she was someone who could have made it all better. I expected to find in her some sort of synthesis of the religion I wanted to find and the abolishment of the religion I hated. I expected to find in her the forgiveness I couldn’t offer myself. I expected to find in her the meaning I couldn’t find in anything else I’d explored.
Amy was people, too. Amy was a person. She had her own shit to deal with. She had her own journey to take. She had her own failures to fear and successes to cheer. I couldn’t let her be people, though. Even after we stopped talking I couldn’t let that happen. Even after I left religion I couldn’t let that happen. I needed her to be something bigger, something greater. I needed her to be something lesser, something worse.
It’s why now, all these years later, I don’t know what I’d say to her if I suddenly found myself looking her in the eyes. It’s why I alternate between, “I hate you,” and “I’m sorry.”
The truth is that she hurt me.
The truth is that I hurt her.
The truth is that I hate her for hurting me like she did. The truth is that I hate me for hurting her like I did.
This is where the double standard comes into play. I can deal with what I did because I’m a person and I know that I fail. I can’t deal with what she did because she was supposed to be better.
Women are people, too. Amy was people. I hated her because she was supposed to be better than people.
So I suppose that if I were to find myself looking into her eyes right now I’d have to say, “I’m sorry.”
That’s the thing about drawing the line at “Women are people, too.” It’s easy, I suppose, for me to dismiss the assholes who think women are just pieces of meat to be ogled and hit on. It’s a lot harder for me to realize that my former default assumption that women are god-like beings who can offer absolution was just as wrong.
Maybe I flatter myself. Maybe I’m not as much of a feminist as I thought. Maybe that’s why I hesitate to apply the label. I know that somewhere deep down, or not so deep down, I still think women should be better and I know that I shouldn’t think that.
I’d started writing this post as an excuse to tell a story that illustrated how enlightened I am. I, um, I don’t feel I can do that with good conscience anymore. So that’s awkward.
One of the types of men who annoy me the most are the ones who just want a cookie. They’re the ones who say that they’re feminist allies, but who could never say they’re actually feminists because of those feminists who give all feminists a bad name. They then dredge up the worst straw feminists the internet has to offer as the type of woman who give feminism a bad name. That isn’t being an ally. That’s being an asshole who wants a cookie.
There’s a pattern I see in both the cookie-wanting “allies” and the anti-feminists who want to be seen as friends to women who say they really know what women need. They pick a particular woman or group of women. Generally that woman is their wife or their mother or their sister. If it’s a group it’s probably women they know at church. They then say, “I love all women, but I can’t be a feminist because not all women are like [insert exemplar here].”
That’s where “women are people, too” comes back into play.
It’s easy to see how bad it is to see women as meat and treat them as such. Act like women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, hold down jobs, or make decisions and it’s pretty obvious you don’t think of them as people. Act like women only exist to service men sexually and that service can be forcibly rendered at any time and in any way and it’s pretty obvious you don’t think of them as people. The opposite view is somewhat harder to see and interpret, however.
If you act like women are supposed to be better than men in all ways it’s easy to disguise that as a good thing. Positive stereotyping is easy to pass off as praise, after all. Saying that all women are better than men is just as bad.
So, I guess to try to bring this full circle, the lesson is that it’s best to remember that people are people. Applying a label to yourself doesn’t make you better than anyone else any more than applying a label to someone else makes them worse.
Meanwhile, I don’t think that this means you can’t disagree with or even dislike someone. You just need to find something beyond the most convenient label. Like, “I can’t stand Janet because she ran over my dog with her car and didn’t apologize,” is a bit more sensible than, “I can’t stand Janet because she’s a woman.” One of those is based on a defensible position.
Similarly, if you’re out in the realm of ideas you don’t have to agree with everything another person says. I think this is the hardest thing for the internet to figure out. For instance, I read Amanda Marcotte and I largely agree with her conclusions about stuff. I don’t agree with everything she says or every conclusion she draws, but when I read what she says and I disagree it’s because I’ve read her words in good faith and decided that she took something the wrong way or made a leap from Point A directly to Point D or lacked/ignored a key bit of information or whatever. Whenever she writes something, though, someone shows up in the comments section to tell her she’s wrong about everything and that she’s wrong because she’s a woman/feminist/both. That’s fucking stupid.
So…yeah. I should probably cut this short. I guess my point is this: it’s equally important for men to acknowledge that women will fuck up sometimes as it is to acknowledge that they will succeed. It’s more obvious to see the disservice done when we say that they’re just meat but saying they’re ascended beings who will magically make everything better doesn’t help even a tiny little bit.
Or, to put it another way: Women are people, too.
I have a confession to make at this juncture. I fear Bruce Gerencser’s most recent abrupt departure from the internet was my doing, precisely because of this. He’d put up some post about how he was an ally to women because he loved and respected his wife but couldn’t call himself a feminist because there were women out there who went out in short skirts and got drunk and then cried “feminism!” whenever men dared hit on them.
I called bullshit in the comment thread and asked him to stop perpetuating such things, since that’s the core of victim blaming that victims of rape receive. That, in turn, degenerated into a series of posts in which Bruce dug himself deeper into a hole, up to and including the old “if you get into a car accident the police will assign culpability and rape is exactly like a car accident” dodge.
Now, I’ve got nothing whatsoever against Bruce. But he’s been married longer than I’ve been alive and before getting married he was hanging out in a more conservative Evangelical subculture than I ever knew. I feel like I’m more of a subject matter expert than he is when it comes to hanging out in establishments that serve alcohol and observing the mating habits of humans. So I tried to convince him to back off and retract what he was saying, since he was showing his ass in public in a way that’s truly potentially harmful, especially coming from someone who has a fairly loud voice in a community I call home. It got pretty contentious, I’ll admit.
A couple hours later I went to check and see what had happened and his website was down. I suppose it’s possible that was a coincidence, but…well…
Actually, one of the most interesting things I ever, um, eavesdropped on, I guess, was between a gay man and his female friend on the L. He was telling her about some guy he’d met at a club who kept hitting on him and made him uncomfortable and then followed him after he left that club and went to some other place. When he was telling the story it was obvious he was freaked out by the whole thing.
That’s one of those moments of enlightenment. Harassment, assault, and rape and the accompanying fear of said activities by victims or potential victims truly isn’t an issue of short skirts and drunkenness and those damn bitches who want to be out drunk and in short skirts. It’s an issue of predators looking for prey and people who don’t take no for an answer.
To offer a different example, there’s the stereotype that all Asians are good at math. This sounds like a praise, at least coming from a white person, because it’s saying, “Hey, aren’t you good at this one thing,” instead of saying, “Hey, y’all are subhuman and we’re going to take all of your stuff.”
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an Asian person. First, you probably don’t think of yourself as “Asian,” but rather “Chinese” or “Japanese” or even, gasp, “American,” since you were born in fucking Munster, Indiana and you’re a third generation American who’s never been outside of the continental United States and your grandmother’s Australian. That’s even assuming you think of yourself in those terms (I, for instance, am Scandinavian but the child of many generations of Americans. I’d put those tags somewhere below “Doctor Who fan” on my list of self-identifiers), but that’s a whole different rant. Imagine your name is Joe and your ancestors came from, say, Japan. Imagine, further, that you absolutely suck at math. You have to pull out a calculator to figure out what happens if you subtract 2 from 3.
Anyway, back to the point. You’ve spent your entire life hearing, “Asians are good at math.” You suck at math in ways that can’t even be quantified by science (or math). How good does that “positive” stereotype make you feel when it gets passed around?
NK Jemisin has written some of my favorite fiction books of late. In The Shadowed Sun there’s a bit where two characters are talking about the treatment of women in the civilization that’s the focus of the Dreamblood books. One of the characters says that women are treated as goddesses and, as such, it’s impossible to say they’re repressed. The other character retorts that the depiction of women as goddesses seems to be the excuse for repression. It’s a really well done bit that illustrates the problem precisely.
Basically, I’m offering some book suggestions here. Give her money.
Also, oh my god, looking for links to NK Jemisin’s books brought me to this link about something Vox Day said about her. Vox Day is a shitstain on the underwear of humanity. Like, I don’t know how anyone can wake up and be as offensive to as many people as he is without spontaneously combusting. I was prepared for just about anything since I’ve seen his MRA bullshit on full display, but…wow. Just…wow.
NK Jemisin’s response was classy and…well, civilized. And it degenerated into the sort of argument the internet is supposed to facilitate.
This is the text of the speech that set off Vox Day’s subhuman diatribe.