I am troubled right now about the predominance in my life of smart, sensitive men whose company I otherwise enjoy, but who suddenly spurt out sexist remarks in the middle of pleasant and entertaining conversation.
This happens, for the most part, at social and informal moments in my workplace or community settings, like with my husband and child, at birthday parties or other public outings. It is worse when I am separated from my husband and child, when I am alone with a man, pulled away from the crowd in conversation, or in a business meeting or lunch. It doesn’t happen much in groups within the workplace, because I think such men are afraid of being caught and sued by behaving that way on the job.
We’ll be going along just fine, talking about photography or literature or gardening or politics or art or work plans, and I will say something about women, and then they will say something about men. Perhaps this is the answer to my problem: I must never open the topic of the relative difference or equality of men and women when speaking one-on-one with a man. Somehow, I shouldn’t acknowledge gender at all. Maybe it’s safer never to take a one-on-one meeting with a man in the first place. That seems like a terrible shame (and politically, socially, and professionally restrictive), but perhaps, it would make my life easier and make this stupid annoying distracting disillusion simply go away.
I’m most startled to hear this kind of remark come out of a PhD or a respected artist or a local politician or businessperson. I like to think that these men are above that, that they see me as an equal, not as an inferior, or worse. But it’s happened more times than I would like to admit, including the amazingly blatant retort, “men are superior,” which I usually take as some kind of kidding or joke, or a challenge to say more. Which I usually do, which then makes me only feel icky later, and I think, on occasion, has caused relationships to fail. Guess I’ve got to learn to let that battle go.
When you’re a relatively educated woman who reads, you get exposed to feminist ideology. You’ve read about oppressive and discriminatory things in theory. You’ve considered the evolutionary reasons, and the sociological reasons, and the political reasons for them. There is a lovely article on Salon right now about the problem of the female orgasm, which is another intellectualization of the battle of the sexes. Still, it's a shock in this day and age to realize that you’re experiencing this battle in the company of educated, generally otherwise sensitive men.
You expect this perhaps out of under-educated workers on the street, or men from certain cultures known to value patriarchy. You don’t expect it from liberal, democratic, affluent (often married) men who should know better how to treat women. But oddly, when I think of my interactions with stereotypical “macho” men, they have often been respectful. Oh, maybe a look or a whistle here or there, but I’m insecure enough about my looks to actually appreciate that from time to time. And then, there is my social-economic status to wedge a distance, too.
It’s when a male colleague or acquaintance whom you respect, whom you thought respected you, says something like, “men and women might be equal, but they should still be separate,” that your heart just sinks and you begin to question how to relate to that person in the future. And worry if they’re right: meaning it is hopeless to believe that men and women can ever really get along. Or when another starts saying “I realize it must be hard for you, because you are a woman,” when you're chastized at work for being too aggressive or don’t get that promotion or you’re feeling excluded from a business decision. That’s when you just wish you could escape all this gender nonsense and get on with the business of trying to do the right things in life.
But it will never completely go away, because my husband is also one of these men. I can't just go away from him, I happen to love him. At least with him, I have a long-term plan for convincing him that difference is good, that men and women and all people regardless of gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, deserve to be treated with respect, as well as rewarded according to their individual merits and efforts. We are all equal, but we are not all the same. It’s the inclusion argument that’s so darn hard to achieve in real life. We all need each other, and we’re all in this together, with all our strengths and our weaknesses. We don’t have to like each other. But we do have to try to live together and let others be, as long as they are causing no direct harm to us. I’m glad to report he’s coming along nicely in his progress. And so am I — for I myself am far from negative-bias-free.
Anyway, we all have to do our little bit to build joy and contribute towards peace on earth. None of us should make sexist or racist comments off handedly, even as a joke, or as a means to selfishly try to fit in. And if we truly believe that these differences somehow make us fundamentally superior to others, we must work towards seeing through that belief. It just doesn’t help towards the good.