Everyday Feminism

Male feminist, Jonathan Ruppin, talks about the day he realised his privilege in being a white, middle class man and became an activist. Everyday sexism? Why not everyday feminism instead?

I was brought up a liberal middle-class Londoner, for whom equal rights – for people of any identity – was the only political position to take. I would have bristled at the notion that I was even capable of prejudice, and if feminism meant equal rights for women, then a feminist I most certainly was.

I was familiar with the litany of harassment and abuse to which women are subjected. I had often had cause to sympathise with female friends, but my apprehension was that sexism was the doing of people of another generation, another class, another political standpoint. My cohort – at least so I believed – did not tolerate the leering and sleazy demands of a boys’ club mentality.

Then a few years ago, I was at a party hosted by publisher Simon & Schuster, an occasion for booksellers to meet authors of theirs with books due out in the upcoming months. I chatted, with mild interest, to a couple of novelists and an historian, and quietly steered my way around the publicist trying to elicit interest in a reality TV star hawking a glittery, ghostwritten autobiography.

But then I was introduced to a woman whose book title I knew as a recurrent hashtag on Twitter. She was Laura Bates and her book, like the campaign she had initiated via a website in 2012, was called Everyday Sexism.

Laura didn’t speak of builders bellowing at passing women or boorish senior managers with wandering hands or braying cityboys in bars. She walked me through the structures of society as seen from a woman’s point of view.

Why do women find themselves losing out on promotions to less qualified men or getting paid less for identical jobs? Why is it still the case that the prominent figures in almost every field are mostly men? Why do toys specifically marketed at girls shy away from action, adventure and technology? Why are women subjected to so much more – and so much more threatening – abuse on social media? Why are such unrealistic, unhealthy and judgmental ideals of beauty imposed upon women?

Laura didn’t try to enforce her view on me, but simply allowed a pattern to unfold: the ongoing mistreatment of women in ways that pervade every aspect of society.

While society is hardly free of old-fashioned sexists, what I had failed to appreciate before this point is that much of the problem is unconscious bias, the perpetuation of deeply ingrained attitudes and stereotypes that went largely unchallenged until relatively recently. (Even from a purely legal point of view, women’s suffrage is less than a century old and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force only in 1975.)

Sexism comes from a position of power, like any form of bullying, so it is rarely a simple thing to confront. We may encourage women to demand fair treatment, but fighting back comes with risks: in the workplace, for instance, it may cost a woman a job she simply cannot afford to lose, no matter the theoretical protections of the law.

So what can a man do? Three things, I suggest.

First, and most importantly, we must listen. Too often, we can find ourselves explaining the experience of being women to women, instead of asking them for theirs. We need to move beyond sympathy and develop true empathy for women living under a persistent imbalance of opportunity and fair treatment.

Second, we should add our voices to those of women demanding fair treatment and challenge misogynist views wherever we encounter them. When those who are not the victims speak out, it reinforces the demand for change.

Third, we should champion Laura Bates and other feminist campaigners such as Malala Yousafzai, Caroline Criado-Perez, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Stella Creasey, holding them up as role models for young women. For young men too: if the women leading the reshaping of society are respected, it sets a precedent for women everywhere.

There is a broader principle here, of course. Just as those of us who are not women should care about women’s lives, so too should those of us who are not black or disabled or gay – or any identity at all – look out for those who are. A fairer society is a healthier and happier one, one where those with out power cannot be turned against each other by identity politics, where those with power can only retain it if they concern themselves with the wellbeing of us all.

by Jonathan Ruppin