I recently had a truly transformative feminist experience that I’ve been reflecting on for quite some time. On facebook, I posted a commentary and link praising Canada’s activehistory.ca for reposting an excellent and strongly worded piece by historian Veronica Strong-Boag. The piece, a commentary on International Women’s Day, had been commissioned as online content by the Canadian Human Rights Museum, but was deleted from the website because of a one line comment on the federal government’s “anti-woman” record. As a women’s historian, feminist, and Canadian citizen, I believed that this silencing was unacceptable, so I wanted to share what had happened with my facebook community.
Soon after, I was confronted by my “troll,” who used my post as an entry point to critique what he believed to be the “problem with modern feminism.” He suggested that feminists such as myself stop being “professional victims” who blame men for our perceived injustices. After all, he reasoned, the inequalities were all in our heads because we have “had equal rights for decades.” He brought up issues such as equal pay, insisting that “THERE IS NO PAY GAP,” (his capitalization, not mine) and then went on to insist that we stop “coddling” ourselves and ended by asking why, “If women are for equality why is there no International Men’s Day?” I was completely dumbfounded and upset that this person, who I knew, would, firstly, hold this opinion, and secondly, feel the need (and right) to express it so maliciously. I thought, how should I respond to this, if at all?
After some reflection, I came to the decision that I had a certain level of responsibility to confront what had just been written and to explain feminism and gender equality to someone who, to me, clearly did not understand these topics in the same way I did. I realized that he might never really understand feminism (or even want to) but I felt I had an obligation, and just as importantly, a right to articulate my perspective. I took an open, calm, non-confrontational approach, explaining my stance and encouraging him to have an open mind. As I wrote, he posted links to sites where he had read pieces regarding the “fallacy” of the pay gap, and the supposedly pro-woman stance of Canada’s Harper government. I insisted that I had spent the last decade studying women’s history and that as a historian of capitalism, I could assure him that there was indeed a pay gap, both historically and within contemporary society and therefore, like other crucial women’s issues, the pay gap was far from being a figment of the feminist imagination. I also noted that International Men’s Day is November 19th.
After a few more exchanges, he seemed to soften, having been open to my arguments, and apologizing for coming off as a “troll.” Because I know him (and ONLY because I know him) I offered to have a judgment-free conversation about the issues we had been posting about.
I was surprised when only minutes later my phone rang. I let him take the lead, asking him what exactly he wanted to talk about. He asked me what feminism actually is, so we started there. I explained that for me, feminism is fundamentally about human equality. It is a movement to end women’s inequality by remedying deeply ingrained sociocultural notions of gender, and real structural barriers that prevent women from having the same rights and opportunities as men. I also explained that while much progress has been made, there is still so much to be done.
Then, it was my turn to listen. Instead of relaying the same arguments he’d made about the fallacy of women’s inequality on facebook, he did something completely unexpected: he opened up about what it feels like to be a young man who is trying to negotiate his own identity in relation to the gendered expectations placed upon him by family, friends, co-workers, the media (both televised and online), and yes, by feminists. He admitted that sometimes he felt angry, sometime confused, and lately, simply exasperated by being a young man in contemporary society because the gendered expectations he encountered on a daily basis were mixed and often contradictory, especially online. He was expected to be a tough, emotionless “man’s man” with his friends, a loving and caring boyfriend who opened doors and paid for dates for his girlfriend, and a reliable and highly competitive employee who made it obvious that if someone were to get a promotion, he wanted it to be him. He felt that many of the messages he received online were highly critical of his lived experience and asked how everything he has been socialized to be could be so wrong. We continued to talk about issues of gender socialization and white privilege, and I gave him some suggested starting points. At the end of the conversation he told me that the only reason why he decided to engage in conversation was because I was the only non-judgmental feminist he had ever talked to. He also apologized, telling me he was truly sorry and that he hoped we could have more conversations as he wanted to learn more about gender issues and feminism.
As much as the conversation helped him understand feminism I really think it (and his willingness to be vulnerable) may have helped me more. As I’ve thought about the experience, I’ve realized that there are some really hard emotions that we have to deal with if we want to make change happen. Simply put, we need to listen, really listen, and validate difficult emotions including the insecurity and shame expressed by the young man I talked to. We need more men on board, and to achieve this aim we need to foster an open environment where their questions and concerns can be articulated without overt judgment. While online media is an ideal place to share ideas, we also have to engage in real conversations that humanize the cause and allow those who have misconceptions and doubts about feminism to ask questions so that they can learn about what feminism is, what feminists want, and how they can help make change. Perhaps not all conversations will be as positive as the one I had, some will likely be really hard, but we have to have them. I am confident that the Berkshire Conference to be held at the University of Toronto in May will be the ideal place to have some of these talks. The Berks provides feminists with a chance to share knowledge with each other and in welcoming academics from outside women’s history as well as the public, my hope is that we can seize this opportunity to really talk about feminism, listen to those who may be curious or unsure about it, and have some productive exchanges about the meanings and possibilities that wider understandings of feminism can offer.
Kristin Hall is a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo