“Well, as the facilitator, I can’t really say anything. I mean, how would someone new to the group feel? If they heard me just put a stop to a discussion. I need to think about the others in the meeting,” said my former supervisor. This was after I had brought up to her my extreme discomfort with some comments made in a Domestic Violence Task Force she ran. The comments came from male members who were expressing concern that perhaps we weren’t giving men’s rights movement a fair chance. The conversation would have always upset me but on that day, it made me sick.
We had spent the week before participating in an anti-racism training. It was freakin’ awesome. And while I found the facilitators incredibly and unnecessarily patient with the ignorance of many of the white participants, I also appreciated that they drew the line at certain points. Some topics were inappropriate and that was the bottom line. And people respected that and if they couldn’t handle it, well they weren’t going to make good peers or allies in the fight against white supremacy.
So when a week later, I was in a group about domestic violence, an issue that disproportionately impacts women, and the men in the group were taking up way more time and space while challenging the lived experiences and knowledge of the women in the group – well, it was sickening.
‘Why doesn’t she say anything?’ I wondered while watching my supervisor, as a man in the group started reciting facts that had come from, you guessed it, a men’s rights website.
Now don’t get me wrong. I speak my mind and I had done so in that group before and pushed to make the room a safe and equal place for women and non-cisgender folks. But that day, I couldn’t. And I just needed the leader (my supervisor) to step in and take a stand. It felt like it would mean more coming from her, rather than me.
After the meeting, I spent some time thinking about what had happened. It seemed unfair and disrespectful that I’d had to sit there while men took over without any kind of accountability. I felt like this wouldn’t happen in groups that were raising awareness about another oppression, one that impacts men too. Of course, I, myself am white and straight so maybe I’m just privileged-ly oblivious when this happens in groups combating other oppressions. But I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps internalized misogyny made my supervisor not speak up in defense of women.
So I brought this to her, hoping for an open discussion and some reflection. Instead she told me that we needed to think about the feelings of other people in the group. I was so dismayed and disappointed that I couldn’t respond in the moment. And then I moved on to the next work matter and the next and before I knew it, both she and I had moved on to other jobs. So I never got to respond to her directly… but this is more or less what I would have liked to say…
I totally see her point and understand where she is coming from. However, I wished she could have seen it from another point of view. Because to me, when she said “I need to think about others” all I heard was the implication that men are allowed to make us uncomfortable but as women, we must always ensure the comfort of others before our own. A man in a position of leadership may not have to worry about others’ feelings but we do because our feelings are not as important. Because we’re women.
To me, this is an example of societal misogyny that prevents women from getting their own needs met because they are so busy attending to everyone else. Over the summer, I read an article about the emotional labor of women. The article focuses on an activist, Lauren Chief Elk who came up with #GiveYourMoneyToWomen to bring awareness to the unpaid work women do because men believe it’s their right to command women’s attention and they (men) are rarely challenged. To me, what happened in the Domestic Violence meeting is along the same lines. The men in the group expected that we would listen to them, see that they’re right (I mean, they are men after all *sarcasm*) and validate them. My supervisor wasn’t objecting to their beliefs that they are to be attended to and coddled by women – not challenged by women, something men would be open to, if they truly saw women as their equals.
Of course, ultimately it is up to men to check themselves. To me, it’s victim-blaming of women to expect them to be solely responsible for ending misogyny. And furthermore, my supervisor was a pretty amazing feminist and I learned a lot from her. She taught me to see just how deep patriarchy runs in our society. If not for her and her strength, I don’t know if I even would have picked up on the internalized sexist beliefs that prevented her from believing she had the right to challenge these men without fear of offending or intimidating others.
Still it would have been nice to have had the “luxury” of knowing that if I was too worn down (as I was that day) that my supervisor, or someone else, would have been there to fill in for me. Social change is exhausting – and I’m a pretty privileged person overall. So if it’s tiring for me, then it surely is incredibly tiring for people who have a lot less privilege than a straight, white, middle class, cisgender lady. For that reason, it’s important to be aware and to have each other’s backs.