Feminista Sisters

I had a valuable learning experience this week and, as with all important learning experiences, I get to display the full scale of my ignorance in explaining it.

You see, a few years ago a feminist very dear to me explained the concept of patriarchy and, with a few false starts, it really made sense.  I guess I’ll cover the problems I had to grapple with to ‘get patriarchy’ somewhere else – maybe it could help someone also on that journey – but for the purposes of this article you need to understand that I had to realise that the patriarchy was a power system that oppressed pretty much everybody and that it was sustained not just by middle aged white guys (although they’re right up there) but by everybody who buys into the current neo-liberal, consumerist, judgemental culture in which every individual is taught that to climb high they must climb upon the bodies of their fellows.  In short I realised that all the shit i’ve ever taken for not being sporting, liking ‘girly’ hobbies, and being an aficionado of ‘chick flicks’; all the times i’ve been unable to release the tears or screams that welled up inside me and the times I’ve cut my flesh in desperation at being unable to  find a place for me in this world  was patriarchy in action. I realised it oppressed me too.

So I learned. Slowly.  I cannot remember how many times the feminists (mostly women) rolled their eyes or got annoyed because I had genuinely (if innocently) been oppressive or insulting.  It’s a long walk to even begin to understand your own privilege and I’m not yet far along my path (and no, I don’t want a medal).  I joined a feminist organisation, one that adopted a wonderful and actively inclusive policy, one that preached intersectionality and tried to learn from its mistakes.  Somewhere that I, as a man with mental illness issues, felt safe.

Well, recently I’ve felt slightly disquieted in this group.  The language can be very gendered “the sisterhood. Sisters unite.  I need sisters to protest this…”  I find myself contacting event coordinators to ask if men are welcome or if their call for sisters is for women only (or more often, for any gender except mine) and this language makes me feel excluded.

I didn’t want to repeat my mistakes.  This time, I thought, I’d ask for advice in private before speaking in public.  I broached the subject with a friend and considering the number of self-defensive clauses I used whilst asking it’s a miracle she understood me.  Her response?

Use it as a way to reflect upon your own feminism and the way you experience society.  What you’re feeling for a second is what the women of the group experience every moment in the world.

I was shocked, I was irate, how could she be saying we should condone sexism of any kind? After a little spluttering I think I got it.  We shouldn’t fight oppression wherever we encounter it because that sort of random lashing out against patriarchy isn’t going to deliver change.

We need to understand that, for good reason, others have been fighting for this cause far longer than we have and have earned their right to a little leeway.  The gendered language in the group will be dealt with one day, but not until we’ve used our energy to tackle the areas where we might make meaningful societal change.  I’ll hold the feminist movement to its promises of equality, as will many others, but only when the time is right and bigger problems have been solved.  Until that time I will continue to write to organisers to check if I am welcome and I will continue to flinch when it seems that any gender but mine is welcome at a march or event because the level of oppression I am experiencing is nothing compared to that which my allies face daily and, moreover, I am using it to learn and grow.

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