I was nearing the entrance to a store the other day, and a probably mid-thirties man was holding the door open for two women in their early twenties in front of me, and me. I said “Thanks” and smiled. As we walked into the store, the women in front of me chuckled with eyebrows raised and looked back at the man and shook their heads. I looked at him when he started to walk past me, and he had clearly seen their reaction. He shrugged his shoulders at me as if to say “Oh, well, can’t win”. I said “Thank You” – again.
That little episode made me think of this:
Many years ago I was an actor in a play with an all-female cast (save for one small male role). The play addressed many of the plights and issues which have confronted women throughout modern history, albeit in an indirect manner. It was a comedy with some heavy undertones, naturally.
As with any gathering of multiple women, there were some very strong personalities at work, which was a good thing…mostly. We had all become friendly through the process of putting together and producing the show, and I had become close to one woman in particular. Let’s call her Mary.
Late in the process of rehearsals, nearing opening night, we had a break in our Director’s notes one evening and we all started talking. The discussion drifted toward sexism and harassment. If there’s one thing a big group of women can all pretty much collectively rally around is that we hate misogynists and harassers. What’s not to hate?
At that point we started comparing notes on who’d been done more-wrong by a man, and all of us had these things in common:
- We’d been touched by a man in an inappropriate, uninvited way.
- We’d been made to feel like we needed to “give it up” to a boss or teacher in order to feel secure in our jobs or classes (college classes, thankfully).
- We’d been objectified by many men in an effort to make us feel less intelligent.
- We’d all been at least verbally threatened or ridiculed by a man when we refused their advances or ended a relationship with them. And in some cases “relationship” meant all of one date.
That’s eight women with all of those things in common. We all obviously found this disturbing, but still it was a fun discussion as with hilarity we ripped each of these guys a new one.
At this point Mary said to me in front of everyone else, “I’m so tired of men making me feel like I’m worthless because I’m a woman”. Most everyone agreed. I was perplexed though, and I said “What do you mean exactly?” She went on to explain that she was tired, for herself and all women, that we’re made to feel our self-worth is tied ultimately to what a man thinks of us. Mary was a self-proclaimed feminist.
“Hmmm…”, I said, “I’m not sure I agree with that, I’ve never felt worthless because of what a man thinks of me.”
She said, “Oh, come on. You’re telling me that no man in your life has ever made you feel like shit or degraded you to the point where you felt you had no self-worth?”
It was getting a little tense now.
“Has any man made me feel like shit and degraded me? Yeah, of course. But have I let that make me feel worthless as a woman or a person? No. I really don’t think so.”
“I don’t believe you.” she said.
“Ok, well you don’t have to believe me…but that doesn’t make it any less true.” I responded.
“Bullshit”, decried Mary.
People were getting uncomfortable now.
“No, not bullshit. It’s the truth. I know women don’t get what they deserve in comparison to men, and that we’ve all had to deal with harassment and getting dumped and all of it. But I’m telling you, not once in my life, not once, have I ever felt like ‘I’m a woman and these men make me feel worthless’. Not once.”
The conversation went South from there. And so did our friendship. Mary clearly saw me as being in some sort of denial about my man-damaged feminine psyche and was angered at my dissent from the “feminist” mantra she espoused – which was “all men want is to either screw, or screw over, women.”
It was a very tense discussion which led me to leave the theatre wondering to myself, “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I should feel that way…I’ve known a lot of assholes in my life….hmmmm”.
I’ve always considered myself a “feminist”. To me the enormity of that word encapsulated who I felt I was: strong, opinionated, not intimidated by any man’s attempts to diminish me due to my sex, demanding of respect and equality….yeah, I felt very much like a “feminist”. But not the parodied, cartoonish version of a Rush Limbaughian “femi-nazi”…I mean, I really like my bras.
Then I started to think of some of the things I like about being a woman:
- I definitely like my bras. Not only do I like them, they are entirely necessary to hoist up what gravity has pulled asunder.
- I like feeling attractive to men. And to women too for that matter. It’s nice to feel as if people appreciate and admire the superficiality of my face and/or body. I’m pretty much relegated to the realm of “cute”, and while I used to hate that word I appreciate the compliment if given.
- I like exhibiting power and strength that doesn’t stem from my physicality, and that I don’t have to rely on my physical self for people to see I have strength.
- I like that women can give birth to human beings and men cannot. It’s kind of the ultimate “up yours…try THAT”.
- I like how we are given “permission” to openly express feelings to most anyone on most any topic. Even though we get ridiculed for it by, men, mostly…I’d still rather be “allowed” than repressed.
- I like that our clothes are much more interesting than a man’s. “Ooooh, look, he’s wearing a dark BLUE suit tonight instead of black.” Yeah. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
- I like men.
I do. I like men. I think good men can be hard to find…(or, as my Nanna used to say, “A hard man is good to find”)…but when you find them throughout your life, they’re pretty great and you should keep them handy. I would say that I’ve had nearly as many close male friends as female friends. And I can honestly say that’s held true for most of my life.
What I don’t understand about hard-core feminists like Mary, or perhaps these young women at the store, is this seemingly instantaneous skepticism regarding a man’s character.
God, yes, I’ve been blindsided by men who I was sure were upstanding and wonderful and caring who ended up breaking my heart, or stabbing me in the back, or groping me instead of wanting to have a relevant conversation with me.
But from an early age we women are trained to expect less from men in “general”…in other words to set the bar very high in terms of what kind of man should be allowed into our female inner-sanctum, because most men just aren’t very…good.
This way by the time they get through our screening process – in theory – they should all be Prince Charmings and every character Paul Rudd has ever played.
But honestly, truly…I’ve known just as many women – friends or co-workers – who’ve ripped my heart out or screwed me over in one way or another. And it can hurt more. Why? Because women often let each other “in” willy-nilly for the most part.
I have rarely come across a man I was more afraid of or hurt by than a girlfriend or female colleague who had some sort of hidden agenda or vendetta against me. The biggest “dick” of a man can’t hold a candle to the biggest “bitch” of a woman. Sorry. In my experience it’s just the truth. Actually, in some strange way it kind of makes me proud: right or wrong there is power in knowing hell-hath-no-fury as a pissed off woman.
No one I know would ever describe me as being passive, or a doormat, or intimidated, or even remotely capable of being dominated in any way by a man. If if they did describe me as any of those things, they very clearly have no clue about who I am.
Yes, I’ve been hurt deeply by men I’ve loved.
Yes, I’ve been taken advantage of by men whom I’ve put naive faith in.
Yes, I’ve let a man or two get away with harassing me in a sexual manner in order to avoid an Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas pubic-hair-on-the-Diet Coke-type-thing.
Yes, I’ve occasionally allowed a man to momentarily make me question if I was “good enough” because he didn’t want me in his life.
Yes, I go through periods of extreme frustration knowing I often still have to fight harder and longer in order to get what a man merely has to sport facial and chest hair, to get.
Yep. All of those indignities and more simply because – I’m a girl.
But I swear to you, not once have I ever tied my self-worth…what I believe I can offer to the world by virtue of my womanhood and my humanity…to any other person. Not even a man.
My truth is, I really love it when a man offers his seat to a woman. Or holds the door open for her. I know many women look at it as a throw-back insult from a bygone era when we were consistently thought of as weak or frail and so we must sit so as not to risk injury to alabaster skin and bones by standing too long, or risk the busting open of the laces on our corsets by pulling on the knob of a door; seriously, I think that must have been a real concern. Have you ever worn a corset? I have. They suck.
But to me, in this era, I see a woman behind that. I see a strong woman who taught her son that it’s honestly just a really nice thing to do. It shows an appreciation in some small way for who women are in general….a spontaneous recognition that every single, solitary human being who has ever walked the face of the Earth once grew and lived and was nurtured – literally – inside the body of a woman. Yeah you can chalk that up to evolution and biology – but we’ve turned it into an art-form.
Or perhaps it’s an appreciation for how we look, or dress, or walk, or smell, or an appreciation for our intellect or the enlightening conversation we just had over coffee, or the account we just secured for our company.
Whenever it happens and for whatever reason, to me those niceties show respect for us, not disdain or pity. Not anymore, at least.
Maybe I’m reading a tad too far into things here. Still that’s how I see it.
A lot of men abuse the power they’ve endowed themselves with since the beginning of time. And let’s face it, they did it because they could; they’ve got us on physical strength and that’s where all oppression of women going back to our primordial beginnings, stems from. They took advantage of their biology, and did it with what evolution gave them.
But many more men, don’t.
One thing’s for-sure in my world; if a man doesn’t hold the door for me when it’s reasonable for him to do so, I automatically see him as weak. And when he does hold the door for me, I smile warmly and say thank you. I think it’s cool.
Maybe he does it as his way of paying “reparations” to us on behalf of all men, for thousands of years of ongoing oppression.
Maybe he does it because he can sense my womanly awesomeness, and it would be pretty damn weird to tell a stranger how cool he thinks she is simply because he can recognize her strength (whether through physical attractiveness or motherlieness or what…) without the need to flex her biceps or pee effortlessly standing up next to a tree.
Maybe he just wants to get laid. I don’t know.
But he does it because he appreciates…something.
I am a strong woman. I am a feminist.
I suppose this is just my very long-winded way of saying to all of you men out there: hold the door.
It’s okay. I’ll thank you for it.
Here are some related articles, agreeing and disagreeing:
The Good Men Project: Damned If We Do, Damned if We Don’t.
Feminist Theory Reading Group: Marilyn Frye – The Politics of Reality: Oppression