Becoming feminist was my exit from the gender wars

​I read this New York Times article, What Women Really Think of Men. Apparently Trump gave a speech to a group of men in Cincinnati and told the listening crowd that women hate them. The author of the article then went around talking to a bunch of women to gather their thoughts on men.

For myself, I actually began identifying as feminist after I realized being a feminist did not mean hating men.

Growing up LDS in the liberal PNW, I was surrounded by men in leadership positions at home and church–a message reinforced on the national stage through the Bush-Clinton-Bush regimes. I did have female principals/ vice principals in my schools.

The media that shaped my youth was a kind of interesting blend of Mormon and 90s  grrl-power pop culture (slightly limited by my  lack of access to cable TV). I watched Mormon films like Saturday’s WarriorLegacy, and God’s Army, but also loved anything Baz Luhrman or with Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Claire Danes. I didn’t have cable TV at home, but I watched Daria or My So-Called Life or Ally McBeal at friends houses, or when I babysat–and shows like Friends, Star Trek: Voyager, and Stargate were on network television, all with women in leadership roles. I read Mormon authors like Jack Weyland and Chris Heimerdinger, but preferred authors like Patrica C. WredeDavid & Leigh EddingsAnn Rinaldi, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. My music was an eclectic selection of EFY music, Broadway soundtracks, and 90s Top 40 Hits by the likes of Nirvana, Alanis Morrissette, Meredith Brooks, TLC and the Spice Girls.

I didn’t doubt that women were perfectly capable of handling shit, is what I’m saying. I saw it all around me, at home and church and school, and reinforced by pop culture. Women handled shit constantly. Hell, my mom was Relief Society President. And there was always a woman available at the annual General Conference sessions to lead the prayer or give a speech– I knew perfectly well women could do any job a man could do, when called on.

That was the key, though. “When called on.” I didn’t question that growing up; that implicit idea of women waiting in the wings to be called on. If I thought about it, for a long time, I just thought of it as the natural order of things.

Men were the leaders, movers, and shapers. Women cleaned up the messes they made. It was how things worked, and this was a message largely supported by both my explicitly anti-feminist/ pro-woman LDS upbringing and the pop culture grrl-power feminism of the 90s.

At church and home, I was taught that while men and women were not equal, they weren’t unequal–the genders were complementary, like pieces of a puzzle. The whole picture wasn’t clear without the contribution of both male and female. Alone, each gender was weak, but combined, their innate qualities interweave to support and enhance one another’s strengths in a sort of coupled allspark of awesomeness.

That’s why getting a college education was always cast as secondary in importance to marriage and motherhood– because, for women, the only role a college degree was supposed to play was emergency credential to secure work in the event I was abandoned or widowed. Pretty much every LDS woman in my ward, including my mom, had at least a BA, knew a second language, and was well-travelled. My role models were educated, literate, intelligent women who’d chosen to give up careers in order to stay at home and raise children and take care of their husbands.

The secular support for this message started filtering in through language and messenging like, “Boys will be boys,” and “Boys are incompetent,” and, “What else would you expect from a boy?” from the David and Leigh Eddings books.

See, my parents disapproved of TV shows like RoseanneMarried With Children, and Dinosaurs — even early seasons of The Simpsons — because of the disrespectful language and attitudes. So unlike a lot of people my age, I pretty much didn’t see those shows until they came out on Netflix–and those shows have a lot of that sort of mocking, “boys are so stupid, hurr hurr hurr” narrative.

So the Eddings series are really the first thing I really strongly remember reading and feeling unsettled about the gender dynamics, and I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly. The women were smart, beautiful, funny and powerful, which seemed like it should  appeal to me … but they way they spoke about and to the male characters was off-putting.

The men were Kings, sorcerers, warriors, guild leaders, etc., and generally presented as the “face” of power, while the queen/ sorceress/ etc. women tended more to, “power behind the throne,” types–the wives, sisters, and relatives advising the male rulers. So these men are supposed to be people they trust, love, and respect … but the women are trading jokes right in front of the poor bastards about how they’re incompetent, emotionally stunted toddlers? And the guys just laugh along?

It was really strange and off-putting to me. A similar gender dynamic (as well as publication schedule issues) ruined The Wheel of Time for me. I gave up on that series around book 7 and never returned.

Even though the disrespectful language between genders bothered me, I didn’t really have a framework for why, or what exactly was wrong with it/ why it had to do with gender and not just basic respect. When I tried to talk about it with friends or family, my words seem to get all twisted up. Everyone mostly seemed to agree it wasn’t right or fair, and more than a few blamed feminism– that women wanted to put men down.

That didn’t feel quite right either, because I was a woman and I didn’t want to put men down … but I was also no feminist, and I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for one, so I just kind of shut up and shoved the matter aside. Adjusted.

The next escalation in gendered language was in my 20s. I married at 21 and had our son a year later, and there are a lot of things about being a newlywed and young parent that are scary and isolating. Luckily, I chose a partner who– much like the example given to me by my father and brothers– has always been an active parental and household presence with a strong  emotional investment in his family.

However, it seemed in that I was alone in that, as I learned from the tenor of conversations peppering women’s spaces: those moments before and after Relief Society classes; the lobby where we soothed crying babies; the nursing rooms mother’s retreat to feed infants in privacy; the carpool Visiting Teaching partners chat in as they drive from one house to the next; the quiet chatter overlaying an Enrichment meeting activities; the bustling kitchen or cleanup at a ward activity.

As married women and mother, I suddenly gained entry into a conversation I hadn’t realized was happening.

Like, a man would bustle self importantly into the kitchen to check on the proceedings, and his wife, smiling, would offer up her cheek for a kiss. He’d look around at the flock of women a bit bashfully, say hello. They’d chorus a polite greeting, and he’d leave a bit later.

“How sweet,” one would say, and someone else would agree, and someone might giggle. When I was an unmarried teenager and child, that was it. Maybe a remark about how he means well or something. But as a wife/ mom … if there are no little pitchers with big spouts present, then once that husband exits the snark starts, with husband kitchen mishap stories galores.

Sometimes the men start these themselves, as a self-deprecating illustration of how reliant they are on the women: they’ll appear in the kitchen to check on the proceedings, announce they don’t really understand what they’re looking at, share a kitchen mishap story in which their wife saved the day, and leave. In their wake, the other women begin to share stories of their menfolk malfunctioning in the kitchen, and from there, around the house.

I was always silent because although I like to bake and cook and am generally good at it, I am also the kitchen malfunction in my house. I am the one who blows up eggs in the microwave and pyrex pans on the stovetop. I’m a regular Sookie St. James. My husband and dad both, in contrast, have decades of successfully preparing meals without once destroying the kitchen.

Or we’d be working on a craft in an Enrichment meeting, and one woman would ask another how her baby was sleeping/ feeding/ teething. She’d answer, usually complaining about how baby is affecting her sleep and voicing the desire for more help from her husband–wishing he’d take some night feedings, or a few loads of laundry, or changing some diapers.

From around the room would come a murmur of commiseration, and women of all ages would start sharing anecdotes about unhelpful husbands, sons, and sons-in-laws.

Men who juggled the Bishopric duties of running a congregation and work associated with a successful business, but couldn’t figure out how to wash laundry without staining the entire load red.

Men held up as spiritual advisors, who were incapable of soothing a fussy infant.

Men who negotiated important business deals, but were overwhelmed to tantrums by simple household tasks like remembering to put their dirty laundry in the hamper.

Over time, I noticed all the anecdotes of unhelpful men shared a common theme: It wasn’t that men didn’t want to help. It was that they would just create a bigger mess in the process, and the women always had to clean up after them anyway.

I was pretty offended on behalf of all these guys– guys like my dad and brothers and husband. I mean, these were guys who were leaders in the church, holding successful jobs, but they’re being talked about like they couldn’t read a recipe, or figure out how to put laundry in a hamper without oversight, or watch their own kids.

For fucks sake, “people skills,” is just a business buzzword for the same personality and skillset as a, “caregiver personality”!

I never knew what to say at these moments. I didn’t want to kvetch about my husband– I didn’t have much to complain about, and didn’t want to make up lies. Besides, it felt disloyal and petty, not to mention undermining to the relationship. At the same time, it seemed to be an expected social bonding ritual, and I quickly learned that praising your spouse threw off the rhythm of the group and made things weird.

It bothered me– not only in terms of my own relationship, but for the son I was raising. I wanted better for him. I wanted him to grow up and marry a partner who wouldn’t secretly despise him.

This couldn’t be blamed on feminism, because these women were definitely not feminists. Feminism wasn’t exactly a regular topic of discussion, and certainly not feminist philosophy, but if it was brought up by way of politics or pop culture, the general distaste toward it was clear. Wrinkled noses, frowns, voiced expressions of disapproval and non-support.

I quit attending church when I was about 24, for mostly unrelated reasons. Three years later, I took a college class called Women in Literature. On the first day, we were asked whether or not we were feminists and why or why not.

I said no, I wasn’t– that I was pro-choice, and I thought it was great women could vote and all, but I liked men too much to be a feminist.

Somehow, my teacher kept a smile on her face.

By the end of the semester, I’d revised my answer. I now understood what feminism really was– the fight to dismantle the patriarchy; a social construct that, like a spiderweb, traps and limits all genders within the insidious and limited boundaries of its expectations.

Feminism isn’t about “picking a side,” in the war between between men’s rights or women’s rights, like everyone had been telling me my whole life. It was never about choosing between standing up and demanding respect for myself and my sisters or throwing my support behind my son, my husband, my brothers, my dad– I just thought it was.

Up until then, I’d bought into the messenging of a gender war with feminism on one side, so I thought if I said, “Yes, me too,” then I was saying no to my son and husband and all the wonderful men who’d supported and loved and respected me.

But after that class, I realized the only “armies” in the gender war are people buying into the gender divide– and judging by their language and expectations of male behavior, a lot of the women who despise men the most aren’t feminists at all, but conservative religious women.

I also came to realize all those stories about household male incompetence? They don’t really believe it. Neither of them. It’s just a way for disempowered women to hold onto what powers and spaces they are allowed, and the men in their lives to get out of doing the chores literally everybody fucking hates.

If you can read and do basic math, you can cook, do laundry, and every other household chore. And if you have the people skills to make it in politics or business, you have the skills necessary to take care children– who, after all, are just tiny people. Men like Trump know this. They think they’re throwing women a bone.

And women like Ivanka and Melania and Kellyann Conway have been taught their whole lives that men are all like Trump, and to be ready to sweep in and clean up after their messes when the men inevitably screw up, and they believe it. They buy the narrative that behind every powerful man is a woman, waiting in the wings to handle things before stepping back to let him take credit, because “a real man” can’t handle the blow to his ego presented by a competent woman.

Feminism is acknowledging that gender is a bullshit social construct used throughout history to create, enforce, and maintain inequality– but really, we’re all equally capable and in this together, so we should stop tearing each other down.

Women aren’t naive ingénues who faint when confronted by politics, war, economics, or hard labor; and men aren’t weak little babies incapable of adulting, emotional depth, maturity, nurturing, or accepting criticism.


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