Women must stop being apologists for men, otherwise nothing will change for them

US lawmakers discussing removing maternity coverage - spot the missing element

Women must stop being apologists for men, otherwise nothing will change for them

What to make of the shocking global report, just published, which reveals that nine out of ten people are biased against women?

Frankly, much as it depresses me, it doesn’t surprise me.

One of the reasons why women continue to suffer under an overt or covert patriarchal condition is because they allow it to happen.

(An example of that patriarchal condition is the feature photo, showing US lawmakers discussing removing maternity rights. Spot the missing element)

We have had feminist action at least since the 1950s and over the past two decades it has intensified to become a powerful and highly visible global movement. But much as millions of women are now ready to march and protest against male violence, unequal pay, sexual harassment and for abortion rights, millions more seem willing to give men a pass.

According to the first gender social norm index, which analysed data from 75 countries, women and men are virtually equally biased against women.

Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights.’

How is it that three years after MeToo and all the public outpourings of anger at male abuse and violence against women, together with the (male-led) political, environmental and economic crises facing us, a global report can find nearly 50% of people feel men are superior political leaders, over 40% believe men make better business executives, and nearly a third believe it’s acceptable for a man to beat his wife?

I feel like I have suddenly turned into Alice, slipped down the rabbit hole, only to re-emerge in 1955.

The harsh truth is that too many women are prepared to accommodate toxic masculine behaviour as the standard of maleness, even when in so doing they suffer as a consequence. More than this, many women actively participate in the continuation of discriminatory attitudes. Women must face up to their complicity in this. Until they do so, the problem will continue.

For the 30 years that I’ve been studying and researching this topic I’ve been continuously reminded of one fact: women can be ardent apologists for men.

Why We Should All Be Feminists

A 2016 Survey by the Fawcett Society revealed that only 7% of Britons consider themselves to be feminists. [1] Which mirrors my experience of asking women if they are feminists. Most will say “no”, some will say “not sure” and a few will say “yes”. But whatever their response, the vast majority will be keen to let you know that for them, being a feminist is “not about oppressing men”.

This desire to not be seen as “oppressors of men” is, frankly, staggering to me, as a man. It tells me that women continue to put the feelings of men first; not their own rights, needs, or indeed, safety. For centuries, 50% of the population has been active in the oppression and marginalisation of the other 50%. Actually, it is more like 40% doing the oppressing if you allow for the LGBT+ ratio to be included. This could not happen in any other geopolitical domain.

When the white South Africans were rightly called out over their racism towards Black Africans, the world, pretty much as a whole, stood with the accusers, not with the accused. Everyone was keen to get on the anti-apartheid platform. As this disturbing study by the social norm index reveals, no such global voice speaks for women, not even today. Women are forced to defend themselves against every conceivable form of discrimination, violence and oppression, much of it institutionalized and grounded in religious dogma. Yet still few men stand up alongside them while millions of women remain silently complicit and accepting. If women do not shout and resist and do so loudly, few men will shout for them, that much is clear.

Yes, one can blame the masculinist media for much of this — their desire to not upset men in power, to maintain the gender status quo, and to go for the easy option which has been to discredit any woman angry and confident enough to stand up and say “men have a problem’, men “are oppressors of women”. But now women too own and contribute to the media. They too can use social media to express their opinions. Which makes it remarkable that even today, three years after MeToo and following centuries of unquestioned male power, large numbers of women still want to maintain the myth that love and caring will get men with toxic masculinity to change; will liberate women from male power.

It is worth reflecting just how much women are prepared to tolerate before they say “enough”. I have no doubt that if the roles had been reversed and men had been born into a matriarchal society that marginalised and discriminated against them in every conceivable way, and in numerous instances enslaved, abused, and murdered them, that they’d be up in arms pretty fast. Already, today, we can hear men shouting “unfair” and worse at women who are confronting them with their behaviours. I’ve personally had numerous men call me out on my attitude to male violence and my feminist stance, demanding I give more attention to the “numerous instances of women being violent towards men”.

Men can be very quick to adopt the label of ‘victim’ when it comes to women’s behaviour towards them, which is in stark contrast to the historic and remarkable forbearance shown by women towards the violences done to them by men, often men who are their ‘loved ones’.

When I’ve talked to some women about their reluctance to adopt the label ‘feminist’, I’ve often heard the comment; “well, women do need protecting and it is good to have a man to do that for you.” I have to ask them, “what do you need protecting from?” And the answer, is, inevitably, men. Women co-opt men to protect them from other men. And in the so doing they immediately forego their feminine independence; their inalienable right to live in peace and free from male aggression and dominance.

The fear that stalks a woman walking the streets alone at night is not fear of a female murderer or rapist, it is fear of the male. This is what toxic masculinity engenders. It is a way of being a man that doesn’t need to be acted out in daily life to be powerful. Its toxicity is ever-present in our imaginations and our darkest fears.

A Sisterhood?

Every time I hear a woman tell me she is not a feminist, I quietly despair. Accepting she is entitled to her opinion, and indeed may well have bought into the media-inspired ridiculous stereotypes surrounding feminists and feminism, the reality is she is denying the existence of a sisterhood and therefore undermining the efforts of women to achieve at the very least, parity with men, and hopefully, full freedom from patriarchal conditions, globally. Yes, I know, ‘sisterhood’ is a dated concept with women and even with many feminists, but without some sense of a sisterhood — a unifying and unified approach by women to changing the gender status quo — the battle will be much harder. Women cannot fully rely on the minority of men who are progressives. There are just not enough of them. In many countries they are a tiny minority. Women can only bring about change themselves. Men won’t do it for them.

Women should be under no illusions about this, because for sure, most men believe in the male equivalent of a sisterhood: a brotherhood; a unifying sense of being blokes together, against the rest. This ideology lurks everywhere men gather in groups and it always excludes women. In fact, a key element of the male bonding process is the exclusion of women.

One would hope and expect that educated, middle class women, especially those in positions of power, influence and authority would lead on this. And indeed, many do. Examples that come to mind are Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie and Viola Davis. But I’ve come across many women who have no desire to stand up for gender justice. They adopt the ‘Margaret Thatcher stance’: ‘I appoint people only on merit, not on gender. If they are good enough, then I don’t care what gender they are’. Which would be all very well if it weren’t for the fact that women need to prove themselves not only equal to men, but better than men. Women start from a position of having to compromise their femininity in order to progress up the masculinist career ladder. They have to become adept at impression management; they have to learn to give the impression that they are ‘one of the lads, can cut it like the men, are as tough as the guys’. Margaret Thatcher was the iconic example of this, but most organisations will have one, if not several.

Are these women blinded to feminism, or are they frightened of it? Do they see it as a toxic label they don’t want to be associated with, or do they genuinely think that it is all about taking people on ‘their merit’ and that this alone will remove centuries of sexism? Perhaps they believe we truly are in a post-feminist era, their success at climbing the ladder merely being evidence of this fact?

The Identity Trick

Are all women therefore collaborating with men in their own discrimination and oppression? Of course not. Feminism is now out and loud and global. It has become an immensely powerful discourse and many millions of women are active in promoting gender justice and challenging patriarchal conditions, wherever they find them. However, equal opportunities for women and LGBT+ people, and all that entails, remains a distant dream. Only five countries (Britain, Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji and Malta) have given constitutional rights to people regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. [2]

We can expect straight men to resist these changes. They have much to lose in terms of power and gender status once full constitutional rights are given to women and LGBT+ people. But that alone doesn’t explain why so many women resist being liberated from the conditions which render them less powerful than men; indeed, participate in the continuing oppression of women, by men.

One explanation brings us to Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of the ‘Other’. The reason why the woman wields the FGM knife; why the female migrant recruiter lies to another woman in order to profit from her enslavement; why women whip lesbians in Muslim countries, and why a majority of women around the world appear to see men as the superior gender, is because they do not consider they themselves to have value. As women, they must, under the rules of the patriarchal gender binary, enslave themselves. Men don’t need to do it to them, women do it for themselves. They do it by accepting the notion that femininity is sacrifice, that to be a woman is to always be beholden to someone else; family, father, husband, lover, child. As de Beauvoir puts it:

The enslavement of the female to the species and the limitations of her various powers are extremely important facts…Biology is not enough to answer the question that is before us: why is woman the Other?…It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal: that is why superiority has been accorded to humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills. [3]

And any woman who sees herself as having little value as a woman is likely to see other women in the same way.

To understand why gender inequality exists and why it will be immensely difficult to eradicate in practice, one must see and understand the identity trick at work here.

This is not simply about getting men to open up, acquire a little more reflexivity, stop abusing their partners, become kinder and more empathetic. It is about changing men fundamentally from what they are into something else; no longer men who see themselves as the centre, but men who no longer recognise a centre. To do that, women must first stop acceding to the codes of femininity that have been written for them by men, down the centuries. And the key code of femininity that most women continue to adopt is one of acquiescence to male power. Being and becoming a woman, even today, means adopting an identity that does not call out men for their behaviour, even when that behaviour directly threatens herself.

I had hoped that this entrenched gendered response had been at least begun to be reversed with MeToo and the global vibrant outpourings of female resistance to male dominance which has occurred in recent years.

It is dispiriting to realise there is still so far to go, not just in changing male attitudes, but changing women’s attitudes also. Because if women won’t fight for equality for themselves, then for sure men won’t do it for them.

If the potential shift in the gender order is to be more than a blip, more than a mere temporary inconvenience to men, then the dynamic must come from all women, especially women in power. And all women must recognise that they are politically aligned with LGBT+ people in this. Every homophobic straight woman is aligning herself with toxic masculinity. Every racist woman is aligning herself with toxic masculinity. Why? Because she is repeating the narrative of discrimination, hatred, intolerance and abuse that empowers toxic masculinity, thereby rendering her own marginalisation as a woman more inevitable. She should be under no illusion that the aggressive narrative will get turned towards her, eventually.

Women can be sure only of other women as allies in this battle: It appears that 90% of men are not only biased against women, they are fearful of them. Why? Because they know only too well how much power they will lose if women ever do come to the rise as a united gender force.

Dr Stephen M. Whitehead is author of: ‘Toxic Masculinity: curing the virus, making men smarter, healthier, safer’ (Andrews, 2019)

[1] https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/News/we-are-a-nation-of-hidden-feminists

[2] Raub, A, Cassola, A, Latz, I, Heymann, J. (2016) ‘Protections of Equal Rights Across Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: An Analysis of 193 National Constitutions’ in Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 28: 149.

[3] De Beauvoir, S. (1974) The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books. (p. 41)


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