Hardly anything bothers me more than women dismissing other women’s concerns.
“Oh, come on. You’re not that oppressed. No woman I know deals with that. Women and their victim complexes these days….”
And I get it. Sexism, misogyny, and oppression are not often words that describe my personal day to day experience as a woman.
I have never experienced workplace discrimination. I am paid the same wages as my male counterparts. I have never been catcalled, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped. I have never felt slut-shamed or body-shamed. My husband wouldn’t even think to tell me to submit or remember my place as his wife. I can think of only two guys in my life who treated me differently than they treated men (or perhaps I imagined it).
The only real sexist discrimination I faced came from a fundamentalist church that I no longer attend and ideologies from my past that I no longer submit to. I notice sexism around me, but it doesn’t cut too deep. I see that my Christian school asks only men to pray at our meetings, for instance, but I would guess they would welcome a woman praying in public as well. And I didn’t even attempt to look for a teaching position that corresponded to my major (Christian studies), simply because I’d never heard of a female religion or Bible teacher in a secondary school.
I don’t feel that I am actively oppressed. I don’t often blame the patriarchy or think of the patriarchy or discuss the patriarchy outside of critiquing explicitly patriarchal views circulating in fundamentalist Christianity. Except in the Christian community, I feel free to be who I am and do the work I’m called to do, .
So if you asked me, as a woman, to weigh in on whether my plight looks like the oppressed female life feminists bemoan, I’d have to say no, not really. I notice sexism around me, of course, and how it sometimes ripples up in my direction, but it’s not screaming in my face at all times in all places. (Except in the Christian community. Gosh, I hate having to clarify that.)
But if the theoretical you that asked for my experience as a woman stops there, you would get a very privileged, lopsided view of what women face in the world, your country, your state, your city, even your circle.
I am, after all, only one woman among billions. And women’s issues is comprised of more than my experience and the women who chime in, “Me too!”
Women have incredible power to shape discussions on women’s issues. They have the power to create empathy and awareness in men and other more privileged women, and they have the power to dismiss, deride, and distract from real issues women face.
Almost everybody nowadays is somewhat sensitive to minorities, somewhat aware that things weren’t always done right by minorities, that white, male, cis, and/or middle-to-upper class people need to tread a bit carefully before speaking authoritatively about what minorities experience.
People get it.
And at the same time they don’t, because they grab hold of the stories and the experiences that fit their narrative of how things are — usually a narrative that downplays or denies the experience loudly protested on the streets and social media.
If women aren’t careful or if the conversationalist is on the hunt to hijack narratives, one woman could end up representing the whole of female experience.
“Well, my wife gets paid even more than the men at her workplace.” “My female friend has never been catcalled in her life.” “Bailey’s a woman — a feminist, even! — and she doesn’t consider herself oppressed.”
But worse than a man using one woman’s experience to gloss over other women’s problems? A woman doing the same thing.
I’ve seen women use their minority status to completely dismiss real problems women face. You have too — every time a beautiful woman films herself giving an anti-feminist rant, every time a confident woman writes the why she doesn’t need feminism trope, every time a woman implies or says straight up, “Well, I’m a woman, and I don’t feel that way.”
I wrote a letter to that fundamentalist church about how it felt to see only men in visible church positions — greeting visitors at the door, passing out the offering plate, reading the announcements, leading worship — and how it felt to slowly realize that nobody ever asked me to read the Bible on Sunday morning like the other teen boys got to, not because I wasn’t capable or even more capable of doing so, but because I was a girl. (Yes, I do realize that the full rationale was “because you’re a girl and the Bible says only men should lead and God wouldn’t say something unless it’s for the best,” but that extra reasoning doesn’t negate the utter sexism of the first part.)
I expected the men to get upset about it. (They did.) What I didn’t expect was the women feeling just as offended and incredulous. Women do all kinds of things in the church! Here’s a list! And you failed to address these Bible passages! Here they are! And even if this was a real problem, there are so many bigger problems to worry about.
And a woman can say that.
A woman can say hurtful, sexist, dismissive things, she can openly support a patriarchal system in a way a man cannot. A woman can say them in an authoritative manner. A woman can say them bluntly, shamelessly.
She can say them, because she is a woman, and what woman would actively support her own oppression? She wouldn’t (the thinking goes), and so the thing that another woman (or many women) feels is sexist or oppressive is deemed acceptable. And if a man is looking for an excuse to keep his ideologies the way they are, he can gently point all “oppressed” women by the way of the women loudly and proudly defending his ideologies.
I truly believe that little will change in communities where women, speaking as women, shut down other women’s experiences.
There’s already incredible pressure to not look like a chauvinist pig, so men are careful. I’ve noticed that many complementarian or patriarchal men honest-to-God respect and honor their wives, daughters, and other prominent women in their communities. If every woman spoke up against complementarian or patriarchal views, men would have no choice but to listen and conform.
If their wives were opposing it, if their daughters and their sisters and their mothers and the woman next to them at church and the pastor’s wife and their liberal coworker and the conservative neighbor across the street — if everywhere men turned women were vocally opposing or questioning certain ideas and practices that discriminate against women, communities would change.
But that isn’t happening. Men, genuinely curious about women’s experiences, can hear a feminist painting a picture of female oppression and go home to his wife, who rolls her eyes at feminism and the modern victim complex.
That is the danger and the responsibility of speaking as a woman.