It may be even stranger to announce that I do not know if I am a feminist because I am a father raising an infant daughter with a partner who is a feminist, and I support equal rights, equal treatment, equal pay, and equal opportunity for all women. But I do not know if I am a feminist because I do not understand what ‘feminism’ is.
Feminism is an ‘ism’, i.e. a movement defined by a set of ideas that comprise a vision for social change.
As defined, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but as an ‘ism’, it is an abstraction, and I tend to eschew abstractions. An abstraction too easily becomes a conceptual vacuum, plucking unique circumstances from experience and shoehorning them into the pigeonhole of ready-made interpretations. To use a simple example, it’s like seeing every Donald Trump tweet as an example of delusional narcissism. Many of them undoubtedly are, but not every one of them. Like all abstractions, ‘isms’ tend to see their meaning diluted the more carelessly they are tossed around to describe social phenomena.
Feminism, for example, is associated with multiple agendas.
There is black feminism. There is intersectional feminism. There is libertarian feminism. Then there are critics like Rush Limbaugh who invoke the term ‘feminazi’ to refer to radical feminists who are too militant for their own good. There are also less caustic, more reasonable critics like Christina Hoff Somers, author of a book called Who Stole Feminism?, in which she distinguished between equity feminism and gender feminism, where equity feminism refers to the classical movement of an older generation of women’s rights advocates who pushed for things like women’s suffrage and access to education, while gender feminism refers to later-generation polemical agitation aimed at defining society as a repressive patriarchy which must be overturned. ‘Gender feminists’ are less likely to be fond of acclaimed works like Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, and are more inclined to argue that Katharina in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is a victim of male chauvinism rather than an equal and capable partner in the politics of a dynamic marriage (as I’ve argued here.)
Maybe if I were to devote a chunk of time to the study of feminism, I could wade through all these distinctions and come to an enlightened understanding of what feminism is. But like most people, I only have so much time, so I must content myself with what I know and understand. When it comes to raising my daughter, I don’t need ‘feminism’ to tell me that I am raising her in a man’s world. The glass ceiling. Double standards in what is expected of men and women in various social situations.
The workplace stigma associated with maternal leave. They are all examples of what women confront in the modern world. We may no longer live in a ‘Mad Men’ world where a man making a pass at his secretary in front of his boss is par for the course, but there are nevertheless many social and economic disparities that persist, and that come at the expense of women. For me, the most potent and conspicuous disparity is that we live in a country in which, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in five women have been raped in their lives, compared to one in seventy-one men; in which one in six women ‘have experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed,’ compared to one in nineteen men; and in which more than one in three women ‘have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime,’ compared to more than one in four men.
It is a fact of life that women must worry about the perennial threat of sexual assault.
Men are victims as well, but the odds are stacked against women far more than they are against men, and it does not seem controversial to say that a man typically does not walk down a dark alley or in an abandoned parking garage with the same degree of anxiety as a woman. It is with this consideration in mind that my partner Kara and I have devised five ways to prepare our daughter to live in a world in which the president of the United States is on record as saying that women let men ‘grab them by their pussy’:
Teach her how to shoot. We will teach our daughter to be comfortable with guns. Kara has kept a gun in her home her entire adult life, in part to protect herself in the event of a home invasion. Her father taught her to shoot when she was eight years old. She is keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with owning guns, and has been keen to share the lessons of responsible gun ownership with me, a city boy from a blue state who had never handled a gun before I met her. She has taught me how to shoot, and how to handle guns with care, as I wrote here. She plans to do the same with our daughter, with a heavy emphasis on safety, not only how to safely handle guns, but how to use guns to ensure her safety in situations we hope will never arise.
Enroll her in an MMA gym so that she gets trained in self-defense. The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has blossomed in the last decade, becoming a billion-dollar industry in which world-class athletes trained in multiple martial art disciplines compete in a fenced-in octagon where they try to submit, knock out, or out-point an opponent in a three-round fight (five rounds in a championship fight). I have been boxing and kickboxing since 2004. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship (the big leagues of MMA) rose to prominence in 2005 and afterward, I also became fascinated by the art of grappling, particularly Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). BJJ involves submitting an adversary by manipulating his body and limbs into insurmountable joint-locks or chokeholds that force him to ‘tap out’ or else get choked into unconsciousness, get an arm broken, get a knee snapped, or otherwise be incapacitated. BJJ is a combat sport which usually involves taking a fight to the ground, but also is a highly effective form of self-defense. It is not about strength and power, but about how to neutralize the strength and power of an adversary. While boxing and kickboxing can do much damage, they quickly lose their adequacy once an adversary who knows how to grapple closes the distances and grabs hold of you. In real-life situations, being trained in BJJ ground-fighting and self-defense techniques can, all else equal, mean the difference between fending off an attack and being the victim of a robbery, assault, or rape. We will encourage our daughter to join us at our local MMA gym where BJJ black belts are teaching the next generation of grappling and submission fighters.
Teach her to be aware of her surroundings. It is unfortunate that children must purchase their ticket into maturity and adulthood with the loss of innocence that comes with learning that the world is full of perils. There are threats and challenges that come from all corners of the earth. Those threats include sexual assault. One of the best ways to minimize the risk of assault, and one of the basic tenets of self-defense that does not include a resort to violence, is to be aware of one’s surroundings. Avoid dark alleys. Maintain distance from potential aggressors. Don’t be so easy to trust someone who says ‘trust me’. It also means recognizing the signs of ‘rape culture’ and being wary of the norms and attitudes that nurture and perpetuate it. Teach her to insist that ‘no means no’. Encourage her to seek out healthy relationships and avoid toxic ones. Emphasize the importance of being alert to potential threats before they become actual threats.
Teach her to defend the sovereignty of her body. After last year’s leak of the Trump Hollywood Access tape, it is unfortunate that we feel compelled to explicitly teach our daughter that it is not okay for a man to impulsively grope her, grab her, or otherwise violate her personal space. We plan to teach this lesson early and often. She will not be pressured to hug or kiss a relative if she feels uncomfortable doing so. If an adult tickles her and she wants it to stop, we want her to not have any reservations about telling the adult to stop, especially since tickling can sometimes be a prelude to sexual abuse. We will identify every chance we get to empower her with the conviction that decisions about who can approach her, touch her, and be in her personal space are her own decisions to make. She will learn early not to ‘invite’ unwanted advances by failing to resist peer pressure or failing to act on her discomfort because an advance is supposedly ‘harmless’ or ‘expected’, or because it would be awkward to say no. Given the widespread objectification of the female body, she will also hear a lot about how she was not put on this earth simply to be ‘eye candy’ for random ogling men.
Cultivate her self-esteem. Knowing how to safely handle guns, training in the arts of self-defense, being aware of one’ surroundings, and defending one’s autonomy all presume a certain confidence in one’s competence. To be proactive is to believe in one’s cause. We want her to think for herself. To make her own decisions. To gather facts and evidence on her own. To have the confidence that when she makes a decision, she is making the right decision, and to explain why. No one is perfect, of course, but she should be confident that she has a grounded, well-reasoned approach to every problem she encounters. We will insist that she not sit quietly and brook comments like those made recently by Tampa Bay quarterback Jamies Winston that girls are supposed to be ‘polite and silent’. None of the above works if she does not have confidence in herself.
Maybe one day I will call myself a feminist.
But whether I do or not seems to me a nominal, even trivial, issue. The critical point is to prepare my daughter to survive and succeed in a man’s world. Kara and I began by giving her a gender-neutral name, as a way of nullifying gender-specific assumptions a potential employer might make should her resume find its way into the employer’s slush pile. But that is only the beginning.
We think it is crucially important to prepare her for, among other challenges, the perennial threat of sexual assault. This means being comfortable with guns, being trained in self-defense, being aware of potential threats before they become actual threats, feeling empowered to protect the sovereignty of her body, and not being beholden to some antiquated belief that girls are supposed to be ‘polite and silent’—not in the classroom, not in debates, not in public gatherings, and not when it comes to any situation that can escalate into a threat of sexual assault.
Are all five points valid, what do you think?
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