Molly White
Software engineer, editor and arbitrator on Wikipedia, feminist, Twitter bot commander, unabashed cat lady.

On feminist cookies

I have recently begun hanging out in and interacting with a number of feminist spaces, mostly online. Some of these are explicitly identified as such, and others are more implicit (by nature of the people and the intentions of the people I share them with). One is intended for 101 discussions, one disallows them, the rest are somewhere in between. All of them contain men.

Periodically, a 101 discussion will come up. These sometimes stem from a direct question, but more frequently result from an inappropriate comment. People in these spaces are typically good at challenging problematic comments. This is good, because the person can clarify if they misspoke, realize that what they've said may offend people if they were unaware, or have a discussion about it if they don't understand (and if they and others are willing to discuss).

I try to make myself available to people, particularly personal friends, who want to discuss feminism 101 if I'm available and have the energy.1 But the more I have these 101 discussions, the more I notice a trend that really bothers me. It tends to go something like this:

A man finds himself having a 101 discussion. If this is a result of something he has said that was inappropriate, he is probably offended. He is probably feeling attacked by those who are telling him that he's said something offensive or ignorant or harassing, and perhaps also feels attacked by the person or people trying to explain. If he is in one of these feminist spaces to begin with, he probably self-identifies as feminist or pro-feminist or as a feminist ally, and is upset at the thought that he has said something that has been interpreted as "un-feminist." He chooses to have the 101 discussion anyway, though, either because he wants to learn, he believes he's right, or he doesn't understand why something was wrong. After some discussion, he probably realizes the explanation makes sense. Maybe he doesn't—maybe he realizes it's the "feminist thing to believe," even if he doesn't agree.2 Then he decides he to talk about it. Probably a lot. Probably to a wider audience than the original discussion: to other feminists, people on Twitter, Facebook friends. Sometimes he comes back to the original group to go on at length about his new understanding.

Most of this story is okay. It's great when 101 discussions result in someone understanding the concept more—that's the point. The problem that I've seen recently is the tendency for men to trumpet these epiphanies. They've learned something! They're a ~*~feminist~*~, and look just how feminist they are! Look at this feminist viewpoint they now espouse!

This kind of cookie-seeking is immensely frustrating. This person now understands (or claims to understand) a basic piece of human decency.3 Just how I do not congratulate people who have realized that it's not okay to rob someone, or kick a puppy, or call a stranger vile names, I do not congratulate men who have suddenly changed their view on a feminist issue. Beyond that, this type of reaction makes me distrust them. Do they actually believe what they're claiming? Do they think this is about women, or do they think it's about them? Are they going to actually change their actions, or am I now going to have to watch them evangelize their newfound beliefs while repeating their old behavior? Did I spend my time and energy talking to them and giving them resources so they could understand and perhaps improve, or did I just give them soundbites they can parrot to look good to their friends?

It's easy to see a post like that and come to the conclusion the author believes that men have no place in or around feminism. This is not the point I'm trying to convey. Much of the inspiration for this came from seeing the following tweet, which urges men to use care in how they interact with feminism. This is the point that I think is so important.

This is good advice. I would expand on it:

Listen, don't talk. Ask questions if you need to, but respect that it's no one's obligation to teach you. Read up on the issue—Google will turn up all sorts of great information about feminism 101 issues, and often putting "feminist 101" or just "101" in the query will help you find it. Spend some time thinking about your viewpoint, how you came to hold it, and why you've changed it. Accept that you're coming from a position of privilege, and think about how you can navigate this more carefully in the future.

If you want to share what you've learned, wait a while. Let it sink in. Read up some more. When you do share it, think about why you're doing so. If you're trying to prove to other feminists that you're "one of the good guys," you'd be better off showing, not telling. Don't speak over women or speak for them. Like @SwartzCr said, amplify women when you can—share their work instead of paraphrasing, and if you do share it, give credit where credit is due.


1. ...but I don't claim to be any expert on the subject. I've read a lot and I've experienced a lot of feminist issues (particularly in tech and in Internet communities), but I recognize that there are many issues about which I'm uninformed, and many issues I still see through a privileged lens. Google is your friend here; a lot of smart people with a lot more expertise and experience and variation in views have written a lot of things.

2. Yes, I know I'm only discussing circumstances in which the people with whom I'm talking end up agreeing with me. This is obviously not always the outcome, but that is not for this blog post.

3. I do not use "basic" to imply that it comes easily to everyone. If every feminist 101 topic was something people understood based on instinct or cultural upbringing, there would be a lot fewer of these discussions.

comments powered by Disqus