Womanhood has been weaponized. Some will argue that feminism has always been aggressive and short-sighted, but I disagree. In 1914, the concerns at the forefront of the women’s movement included the right of a woman to work, to her convictions, and to keep her name. Major contributions of the second wave, beginning in the 1960s, included an expansion of reproductive rights for women, such as greater access to contraception and legal abortion, and a renewed focus on a woman’s right and, in many cases, preference, to both work outside the home, and have a family. I would hope that our goals for feminism going forward include those listed here, as well as equality of opportunity, and protection from predation and quid pro quos—such as sexual favors for career advancement—as have been revealed in corporate America and Hollywood.
Feminism’s third wave suffers from many things, among them a victimhood mentality, and, when faced with conundrums like why there aren’t more women software engineers, an inability to consider alternative hypotheses to the ever-present women are being discriminated against or harassed. (It has been often noted that nobody seems to be shouting for gender parity of sewer workers.) Third-wave feminism got a tremendous signal boost in the fall of 2017, when story after story piled up about the behavior of Harvey Weinstein, and others. As tales amassed about tycoons, Hollywood and otherwise, the reprehensible, sometimes criminal behavior of some men was dragged out into the open for all to consider. #MeToo, as a viral movement, was born.
#MeToo had the potential to do good. It had the potential to reveal, to the vast majority of men who do not engage in bad behavior towards women, that the vast majority of women have, at some point in their lives, endured harassment that they should not have had to endure. #MeToo therefore also had the potential to reveal the obvious conclusion from putting those two truths side by side: a small minority of men engage in bad behavior towards a large majority of women.
Instead, #MeToo became a free-for-all, in which accusations became ever more frivolous; all men were considered guilty, or potentially guilty; and asking for evidence of claims was considered victim blaming. Hasn’t she endured enough? Who would lie about something like that! Into that morass it should surprise no one that bad actors showed up, and false accusations mounted. As elsewhere in the ideology of the far Left, #MeToo seemed to be shaping up to reverse historical oppression, rather than address the history, and help us move forward together to a more just future.
Enter International Women’s Day. In my experience, International Women’s Day had been but a minor blip, if any blip at all, in all past years, but beginning in 2018, it became a major tool in the weaponization of womanhood. This struck me as parallel to what I saw at Evergreen, where a minor, good faith effort to discuss race, the Day of Absence, which had been going on for years, was changed, magnified and weaponized, all at once.
When International Women’s Day arrived with fanfare last year, I had several, sometimes conflicting, thoughts about it, but the gist of my response was this: I wish that this weren’t happening.
This year, I received an email from a furniture store inviting me to “Come join us in celebrating International Women’s Day! Check out what’s happening in your local store.” (Here’s a guess: they will be selling furniture. As they always do.)
This feels like yet another attention grab, another distraction. For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day, and all the rest. Not that we couldn’t all use a little celebration in our lives, but when it’s quasi-mandated, especially coming on the heels of a train (or a canoe) that we’re told that we must board, or else betray the sisterhood, sorry, but it’s not for me. The fact that it has been monetized by those who benefit from making full-time consumers of all of us only pushes me further from embracing it.
Celebration, and its more formal cousin, ceremony, can be beautiful and often cathartic and healing. It is as old as the hills—sometimes older, depending on the hills. It can bring communities together. I have participated in wonderful ceremonies, helped begin to create some, and been witness to others. In northeastern Madagascar, I was invited to photograph a retournement, an annual “turning of the bones” ceremony, in which the ancestors are disinterred and the living elders speak to them of what has happened since last they met. Men, women and children are all necessary in a retournement; the entire village comes together, and, afterwards, a large feast and a party with jubilant dancing, and no shortage of alcohol, goes on long into the night. I have also participated in carnaval, in both Central and South America. I have seen a carnaval that was an extravagant exploration of liminal space, including reversals of power and role—men dressed as women, children acting as parents, the police in a brass band being playfully pelted with food and foam and smiling throughout. And I have been in more banal carnaval crowds of beer-fueled partiers. Those latter crowds of partiers, who had jettisoned much of what carnaval had been built on over centuries, were left with something much more barren.
Ceremony absent tradition feels empty, and generally fails. Tradition can be built with intention, but by its very nature it isn’t yet tradition when in its nascent form. While the first International Women’s Day was celebrated over 100 years ago, it has mostly been a dormant idea, little recognized for most of those years. In the current climate of demographic one-upmanship, and bullying of those who might resist, we have had a celebration handed to us. It feels disingenuous at best.
Why don’t I feel the same way about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? In part because King’s message was so universal—and also now losing ground in American society—that we could all benefit from considering his words at least once a year. Let’s take a minute. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” His message took root, over time, and became the background against which most of us have built at least part of our worldview. It didn’t happen by fiat, or by decree. And, perhaps most important of all, his message was one of actual, universal inclusion. We were all encouraged to come along, as equals, in his vision of the future.
In a mad rush towards legitimate societal change—Recognize our experiences! Help us to be safe and strong and productive!—what is being forgotten is that people take time to adapt. Also, the deeply illiberal trends right now seem to be towards recognizing the experiences of one group at the expense of everyone else.
All that said, I was flattered and honored to be named on lists of women who are worth paying attention to, both last year and this, and I don’t want to be impolite to those who so honored me. I am appreciative. Over the last several months, I have come to know the work of many of the women with whom I was on these lists, have been in virtual contact with more, and have been lucky enough to meet some in person, many of whom I am now grateful to call friends in real life.
And in those same months, I have, of course, also come to know the work of, become virtually acquainted with, and become in-real-life friends with many men, whom I am equally grateful and honored to know.
Should women, worldwide, have equal opportunities to work, to play, to choose, as men do? Of course. Should we expect men and women to make equivalent choices—and for the outcomes to therefore be equal? We should not. Should we, therefore, attribute to discrimination all gender differences—gender differences such as representation in types of jobs, or in hours worked, or in titles achieved? Not necessarily. There have been entrenched systems of gender discrimination in WEIRD countries in the past, and there still are quite entrenched systems of gender discrimination in other countries now. But the claim that, in the US, we are battling active and on-going discrimination against girls and women, when women are earning more college degrees, enrolling at higher rates in medical school and other health related fields, and even, at Google, making more money than men!—well, the claim is weak, at best.
I also know that I don’t want my contributions to be paid attention to because I am a woman. Yes, men and women are different, on average. We tend to have somewhat different strategies, interests and skills, ways of responding to and being responded to in the world. But, in intellectual space, where we are exploring ideas and their consequences, I don’t want to be segregated by sex, nor be tokenized or valued because of my sex. Nearly always, I have found such segregation diminishes, rather than enhances, conversations.
An extended anecdote seems the best way to illustrate this.
For many years, I played Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate is a team sport that is a little like soccer, a little like football, and a lot like having athletic fun on a field with thirteen other people (if you’ve got that many) and a frisbee. Ultimate, unlike many team sports, is actually compelling as a coed game, and not dangerous to the women involved. I played on and captained coed Summer League teams, played pick-up many times a week for years, played in day-long tournaments, and was, for a year, on the women’s team for the University of Michigan, which traveled many weekends to play. And so I played a little all-women Ultimate, and watched a little all-men Ultimate, and played and watched a lot a lot a lot of coed Ultimate.
Among other things, I observed this:
All-male games are fast and furious. The points are quick, the throws thrown far downfield (hucks) are long, the layouts exhilarating, and, in many points, most players never touch the disk. Victory is boisterous and infectious and loud.
All-female games are slower, more careful, less risky. When a player does go long, sprinting to the end zone in hopes of receiving a long pass, she is generally left hanging, no disk coming her way. Short passes down the field are the rule, and they are thoughtful, and considered.
It drove me, and my dear friend Toni, a bit mad.
We both liked to go long, and throw long, and so we played more like the boys in that way. We were both extremely good players. But if Toni or I were playing on a coed team, and we were up against another team that had one less woman on it, such that one of us was on defense against a skilled male athlete—or that skilled male athlete was defending us when we had the disk—we were (almost) always outmatched.
That’s just true. It’s not brainwashed or misogynistic to say so. Frankly, it would be both brainwashed and misogynistic to claim the opposite.
I loved playing Ultimate, and loved watching it. I never did enjoy watching all-male games, or playing all-female games, as much as I loved playing and watching coed games. Coed games brought out the best of both approaches. Coed games were faster paced than the sometimes ponderous all-female ones, but, compared to all-male games, more players generally got to touch the disk, their contributions adding to the game. Coed games were a richer mixture of short back-and-forth passes and long hucks down the field. In Ultimate Frisbee, men and women played a more interesting, and to me a more rewarding, game, when we played together. And that has been my experience in the rest of life, too.