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Reflections on My Place in Feminism as a Cisgendered Male

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About a month or two ago, I was given the opportunity to write a paper examining a social problem or inequality through a specific lens of justice. I chose to examine the problem of gender inequity through the lens of liberation theology—when it all came together I essentially wrote a paper on feminist liberation theology. This was for an intro course, but having recently dove into my own research on feminism and constantly in the theological conversation, I figured it would be a good paper to write in light of my declared majors/minor (Theology and Philosophy, and Gender Studies). I found some great resources (with thanks to Justin for a monumental recommendation) from some incredibly astute Catholic women. This paper in itself was partly me trying to hash out exactly what it means to be a cisgendered male and a feminist (or ally to feminism for those that prefer).

Right off the bat, I noted that “I (try to) recognize my own privilege and position in society. What is most important in this paper are not my words, but the words that come straight from women, crying out into the wilderness, wondering when the Promised Land will come, yearning for the coming of the Kingdom. Please refer to the ‘Suggested Reading’ page for a strong female voice on the topics presented and others related.” I really did not want to come off as if it was my voice that needed to be heard, or it was me who was the one liberating women. But what really caught me off guard I never would have seen coming—especially as a sophomore undergrad student.

This semester I became involved with my campus’s club, Students Advocating Gender Equality (SAGE), and I shared my paper with one of the members of the club (now a friend of mine) because I mentioned it in passing and she was interested in it. About a week later, she asked me if I could share the general overview of the paper, not just once, but twice. Once at her church in Wayne, PA with a small group, the second time at a SAGE meeting. Needless to say, I felt really honored at first, but as I thought about more, I considered the potential for this to go terribly askew. How ironic and unwarranted it felt to be a male sharing to a group of people about feminism (or in this case, feminist liberation theology). Even though I gave an initial “yes” to my friend, I spoke to her and expressed my discomfort. Do I even have a right to do this in a public setting? I am no expert on women’s issues and I certainly cannot speak for the experiences of women—even some women refuse to speak on the experiences of other women (e.g. Adrienne Rich).

My friend consoled me, saying that my gender does not invalidate anything I may have to share. Still, even up to the first presentation, I felt uneasy about it, but since she insisted, I persisted. I made sure I printed out copies of the “Suggested Reading” addendum to the paper to hand out to everyone (you can find these at the end of the article as well). I didn’t want to just leave people with just something a guy shared—I feel all too strongly that we get enough of that everywhere anyways (especially in politics, theology, and philosophy)—I wanted to point everyone (including myself) to what some women are saying.

After sharing the main points of my paper, I opened it up to discussion—specifically not questions to me. I am a big believer in dialectical learning. The discussion took up about the same amount of time as, if not more than, the presentation. I was very pleased with the discussion that followed and some others expressed the same pleasure after the fact.

The second presentation went very much the same as the first. In both instances, I was one of two or three men in a group with more women than men. It was definitely a sobering experience, and it really helped solidify what I tried to do in the paper—find my place in feminism as a cisgendered male. I am not quite sure what I learned, but I’m sure I learned something. If anything, I am duly reminded of what the Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:3-7).

I think for a man to have any place in feminism, it must be out of a place of service and humility. We have to sacrifice our own privileged positions and truly learn equality, namely, by listening.

Suggested Reading

•             “The Power of Naming” edited by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

•             “The Weaker Vessel” by Antonia Fraser

•             “Showings (or Revelations of Divine Love)” by Julian of Norwich

•             “Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education” by Nel Noddings

•             “Sexism and God-talk:  Toward a Feminist Theology” by Rosemary Radford Ruether

•             “Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective– A Theology” by Letty Russell

•             “Latina Feminist Theology: Central Features” Maria Pilar Aquino

•             “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

•             “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans

To Simply Walk into the Room…

There is nothing easier than simply walking into the room, right?

I recently attended a conference at Akron University entitled “Feminist Scholarship and Practice in the 21st Century” and put on by the Committee for Research on Women and Gender. I should begin by commending the conference for putting together an exciting and interesting set of presentations and a fascinating keynote (Patti Lather, Ph.D.). While the other presenters and the staff were kind and inviting, there was nonetheless something disorienting about the experience, a quiet nagging sense that… I did not belong there. Why this feeling of not belonging? Simply put, I was one of two male attendees, and the only male presenter, at at conference run by, principally for, and primarily concerning women. There is a sense to which this feeling subsided over time, as I got more closely acquainted with other presenters, after my presentation was well received, etc. But the sense, particularly the feeling of simply walking into the room for the first time, singing in, making a name tag, awkwardly standing around… never fully subsided.

Perhaps what struck me most strongly, following this experience, was how utterly unfamiliar this experience felt; how unfamiliar it was to me, a male in philosophy. I could not help but reflect upon my past experiences, the theology and philosophy conferences that I had attended. What was the composition of these conferences?

Even? Hardly. A majority male? to say the least. Primarily male? most likely.

Was my experience, of entering a strange land in which I was an unconcealable other, really so unique, or was I merely experiencing what it is like at every other academic conference for women, for racial or sexual  minorities, for anyone who doesn’t fit the philosophical/academic norm?

Philosophers tend to look like this.

Philosophers tend to look like this.

More disconcertingly, even as an “other” at a conference of women, I nonetheless enter with a distinct societal advantage. In the hierarchy of academia, the male has been king (gendered term intended) going on 2500 years. What would be my experience had the roles been truly reversed, had I not only entered as a numerical minority, but at a lower class on the societal scale of value? Would I have even had the courage to sign in and take my place at the front of the room? I don’t know. Nor can I truly even imagine that situation, a situation so radically foreign to my (generally privileged) position.

What “take away” did I bring from this experience? I am unsure. I do not have a remedy.  I do not know what could heal our society, academia, or even our conferences such that the male, the white, the straight, the cissexual, will no longer hold both numerical majority and power control.

What I can recommend though, is that every male in philosophy, theology, or perhaps any discipline, attend a feminism conference.  Feel the weight of being the minority.  As fleeting and partial as this experience was, it nevertheless offered a (at least small) glimpse into an experience that is foreign to the male academic life. Experience, so as to better understand. Perhaps when male philosophy begins to feel this weight, they can better understand the true difficulty of the minority academic experience, perhaps they will understand the strength and courage that it takes to simply walk into the room, and take one’s seat. 

Also, it couldn’t hurt to read these:

Back from SPEP

This past week/end the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy held its yearly conference.  Although the flight cancellations and other travel difficulties (resulting from Sandy) brought a large number of paper cancellations, particularly on Thursday, the event was nonetheless a great experience to be a part of.  With scholars from across the globe, the program was bursting with presentations on Phenomenology (particularly Heidegger, Husserl, and French thought), Deconstruction, Race and Gender Theory, Critical theory, psychoanalysis, and much more.  Generally, there were about a dozen simultaneous presentations, interspersed with a variety of plenary addresses, including, notably, Miguel de Beistegui’s lecture “The Question of Desire in French Phenomenology” (gotta give a shout out for the Silverman Pheno. Center).

Of the panels that I was able to attend, the standout was by far “Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life.”  There, Frederic Seyler (DePaul University)presented the above paper, with a response by Jeffrey Hanson (Australian Catholic University) notable for his recent publication Affects of Thought.  Both speakers were particularly clear and cogent, and Seyler was able to critique Henry’s thought, while simultaneously remaining quite fair to the thinkers position, an accomplishment which is seldom achieved.

Derrida on Gender & Sexuality

“The debate about homosexuality comes down to a debate about an over-organized, over-regulated, narrowly oppositional space in which there are only two hierarchically ordered places, a “binarity” of male and female, of male over female.  For Derrida, the way to break this up is to open up all the other places that this binary scheme closes off… That is why “feminism,” while constituting a strategically necessary moment of “reversal,” a salutary overturning that purges the system of its present masculinist hegemony, must give way to “displacement,” which is a more radical “gender bender” in which the whole masculine/feminine schema is skewed.”

-John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell