Sunday, October 14, 2012

I'm A Feminist

By the time I was 15-years-old, I'd stopped simply accepting "society" at face value. As is natural for teenagers, I'd begun to question everything, to doubt, to see that there might be better ways. Even before leaving the nest for college, for instance, I was already bridling under the idea that simply by virtue of being born a middle class, white male I was "expected" to go out there and get a job to support a family. Mom and Dad said, "you can be anything you want," and they meant it, but it didn't occur to any of us, I don't think, that one of the things I could be was, say, a "house wife."

Of course, we'd all long known that there were people out there, "women's libbers," who were burning their bras, protesting the stereotypical, subservient, and low-paying pink collar roles into which they felt forced. Although it was on the front page of the newspapers, I don't recall us ever talking about what these women were up to, although as a pre-adolescent boy I just assumed that it was because we were all a little too embarrassed to be discussing underwear. Besides, I was too busy thinking about me, about what society was forcing upon me, to really take the time to understand that Billy Jean King and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and the rest of the era's pioneers were not just selfishly standing up for themselves, but for me as well.

Writing about gender is precarious and, I find, takes an incredible amount of concentration, both to be honest and to avoid those who would have their knives out.

By the time I was in college, there were already chapters on "libbers" in our history and sociology text books, but their core ideas were current, at least in my circles. I decided to earn a BS instead of a BA mainly because I wanted all those women's studies classes I was taking to count toward the science requirements needed for my degree.

When I graduated, my first job was with a woman-owned public relations firm, one of the partners being Jennifer, the woman to whom I've now been married for over a quarter century. When we first started dating we kept it a secret, but once the word got out, most of her girlfriends told her it could never work: I was too young, she was too powerful and intelligent, I would never be able to handle it. My male friends, those who were my age, all patted me on the back, but my older male business associates, the guys who knew Jennifer better than me, more or less attacked me as a pansy. I'll never forget one evening when a very drunk relative of her business partner repeated pushed his meaty finger into my chest, telling me, "We all wanted her, but you got her! You bastard . . . It must be because you're gay or something," while his friends stood by laughing. When Jennifer was pregnant with our daughter, both men and women sniggered that my genetics would obviously be completely recessive. To this day, when I'm outside of our preschool bubble and mention what I do for a living, there is often a palpable shift in how both men and women view me, a lifting of the eyebrows, a raising of the voice, a simplification in word choice, a sudden dropping of swear words. There is an assumption that I must be some sort of delicate, simple man; even a lesser man. When our family recently had financial troubles, some of Jennifer's business colleagues wondered when I was going to "step up" and get a real job.

My entire adult life has been lived in what most people would consider a gender role-reversal, with my wife being the high-powered business executive and entrepreneur, while I followed her around the world cooking, taking care of the home (i.e., being a "house wife") and holding down a series of part-time and freelance jobs. When our daughter Josephine was born, we didn't even have to discuss who was going to be the stay-at-home parent.  And now I teach preschool, a role that is normally reserved in our society for women. My wife is the chief executive of her own company, my mother-in-law is a self described "radical feminist" who holds a doctorate in women's studies, my sister is the doctor I trust the most in the world.  These are the strong, intelligent, self-made women with whom I chose to surround myself. I support them and they support me, not as men or women but as equal and free human beings. And I believe I've had a hand in raising another one. I will hold up my life as my feminist credentials, even while dozens women have told me to my face that men, by definition, can't be feminists.

I'm offering the preceding paragraphs as my feminist bona fides. I am a feminist and have lived my life as one from the moment I understood that those libbers burning bras were doing it for me. 

I have frequently written about gender-related topics on this blog, including a few days ago in a post entitled The "Boy" I'm Supposed To Be, in which I addressed what I consider to be "masculine" expressions of love. The post clearly struck a chord with many readers. It's been widely shared and is one of those rare posts that have caused parents both in our school and outside to tell me to my face, "I think you nailed it." Even a week later it's still getting dozens of hits a day.

In that post I wrote:

I've never known what to say to any of this and I'm quite uncomfortable writing about gender because almost everything you say is wrong. In fact, I would say it's actually impossible to write about gender because beyond genitals (and not even that sometimes) every statement you make is a false one, at least for someone.

And sure enough, there were some readers who read what I'd written, and between the lines found that I was "chauvinistic," "sexist," "privileged," and accused me of making "sweeping generalizations about "boy" behavior and "girl" behavior." I've read and re-read that piece and stand by every word . . . as a feminist and as a man. I was writing about love and a view of how to express love that is often dismissed or not understood. I did not say that girls or women are incapable of feeling love in this way. I did not say that men feel one way and women feel another. I was very careful, as I always am when writing about gender, to speak of "masculinity" and "femininity," while confessing "I'm not really even sure what that means." It's why I relied on music videos to make my point rather than eggheading my way into a cascade of sterile words.

I take comfort in the fact that most readers seemed to get it, but it sure hurts to have people twist my words and to assert that the only reason I'm a successful teacher is that I'm the "only boy in the drama class" or "some guy with a harem." I am not "a rooster." I'm a person who has lived his entire adult life as a proud feminist, surrounding himself, not with fawning female preschool parents, but by strong, able, intelligent, human beings. For the past 14 years I've worked every day to be the best teacher I can be -- not the best male teacher, nor the best masculine teacher, nor the best non-female teacher -- but the best preschool teacher I can be on that given day.

Maybe I should have saved all of this for the comments on that post, but for reasons no one has yet been able to figure out, I still can't leave comments on my own blog, so this is how I must respond. Several readers asked for clarification and for me to expand my thoughts. Here are links to a few of the dozens posts I've written with gender themes, which I believe pretty much cover everything I know or think I know on the subject. As I mentioned before, it's an impossible topic and I fully expect to be once more labeled by those with axes to grind. But I know what I am and I'm proud of it.

How To Be The Best Parent In The World (I've actually published versions of this 3 times)

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Amanda said...

Men and women both need to work together to combat rampant sexism, the rape culture that we live in, and the ideas of "gender roles" established by the patriarchal system we live in. If you haven't, I suggest both of bell hook's books, "All About Love: new visions" and "Communion: the female search for love". I think they would echo strongly for you.

Rowan said...

Hey Teacher Tom,
I'm sorry if my comment on your last post hurt you. It was not my intent. However, in my anti-oppression work, I have discovered that the most effective way to deal with being called out is to step back, apologize, and *then* explain yourself. I understand your defensiveness - we all have it, especially if we feel we are being falsely accused of something. Let me explain myself a little better, if you will. When I spoke of privilege, it was with a knowledge of what that means - it is not an insult, it is a description. Yes, you are in a traditionally female-dominated field, and yes that comes with problems for you, but it doesn't negate your privilege - and that's okay. I benefit from white privilege and occasionally male privilege and very occasionally passing privilege. It's not a failing, it's just something that I have to be careful about and use my words and actions carefully around so that I do not inadvertently hurt people who do not share my privileges. When I am aware of it, I can use it to help further progressive causes by speaking up. For example, when my female co-workers say that they feel that our male supervisor gives men preferential treatment, and I notice when he's doing it for me, I can say something. When I talk about the importance of male preschool teachers, I can also point out that I understand that we are viewed differently not only because some may see our profession as emasculating, but because we are considered "brave" and "exceptional" because of our choices.

I understand what you were trying to say in your post, but felt that it was important to note that it wasn't coming across clearly. When you state that people bring their children to you because you are a man, what comes across isn't that we need more male preschool teachers (which we do, and the way the teaching profession is stigmatized in our culture is harmful to all of us) but that male preschool teachers are somehow special, above and beyond female preschool teachers because of their (our) gender. It ties into the fact that most women have to work twice as hard to get the same amount of recognition as men do in the same field, and teaching is no exception. Whether or not you meant to evoke this, your words hit a very sore spot for many people. People weren't reacting to you, personally. We were responding to a cultural trend that is harmful to all of us. We would not have responded so strongly if we did not already respect you so much. Why waste time and energy arguing with someone you don't like? You have dedicated your life to this work and I hope to become half as good a teacher as you are. Because I respect your words and love your writing, I had to speak up when I saw something that hurt me deeply as a man and as a feminist, like you are.

Gender is very difficult to write or talk about, and it's important to do so, even though it can be a minefield. I really do appreciate all your efforts and your willingness to engage in a dialogue.

Rowan said...

That said, there was a lot of good I took out of your post. I've got a couple rough-and-tumble kids in my class (boys and girls) and it's made me look at them in a new light. I am watching them more closely and intervening less. Thank you for that.

Kerry said...

Who you are, and what you do, come across strongly in your words. People may disagree with you--from a position of understanding, or not--but no one could fail to see you for the man you are, I think, or to recognize your sincerity or dedication.

shanna258 said...

Hi Tom, what are the metal things in the pictures on this post? I'd love to get some. Thanks!

Floor Pie said...

"We would not have responded so strongly if we did not already respect you so much."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...


You wrote: repeated
You probably meant: repeatedly