Monday, July 14, 2008

Sexism Masked as Tradition

I realize i haven't touched much on politics over the past week but i've encountered some outrages people and have been a part of several shocking conversations that need to be highlighted here. Frankly, personal is political so these "real life" situations are just as if not more valuable than writing reactions to the news and society. Right? Right! :)

I had a hard time deciding whether or not to write this post because of the high likelihood that it would be read by the person it is about. After reading a couple of hollywoodenflames' posts i realized that i have the freedom to write about people in my life and they should understand that whatever they say to me is fair game ;) Is that a bit cold? Maybe. But honestly, if everyday sexism and inequality occurs in everyday conversations with family, friends, and co-workers i not only have the right to write about it but would be doing a disservice not writing about it. Real life *isms* need to be addressed. They exist, they oppress, they silence. And left unsaid they perpetuate the status quo.

Thursday afternoon i had a ridiculous conversation with a 22 year old male coworker. I think age is relevant here because i haven't encountered this type of sexism from young men in a long time (since i was in college, really). Usually i have a harder time explaining discrimination and the importance of feminism to older men which i chalk up to them being "stuck in their ways" and turning it into a "generational thing." That's why this particular situation stung more than others.

Anyway, i was siting in my office as a counselor talked to the receptionist across the hall about the disappointment he felt because he was having a baby girl. He said he really wanted a boy so that he can raise him to be a "manly man" like his dad. I get that lots of guys want little boys, that's not what bothered me. What bothered me was how he talked about his future daughter. Mostly because he was already disappointed in her, before she was even born. My sister-in-law is 8+ months pregnant. We were so unbelievably grateful that this is a healthy baby, boy or girl was irrelevant. IMO, everyone should hope for a healthy, happy, child, not be disappointed in the sex; boy, girl, trans, it's your future child you're talking about. Thinking about this a little further, being "disappointed" with baby girls is not a new concept.

For example, China's preference for male babies is ingrained in both culture and politics. The Chinese government set into place a one-child-only policy as an attempt to target overpopulation which significantly increased the number of female infanticides. The Communist Party took power in 1949 and outlawed this practice. However, in the 1980's the Chinese government census continued to show hundreds of thousands of missing baby girls each year. The practice of female infanticide in China is most prevalent in rural areas where boys are valued for their ability to help with the land and take care of their parents later on in life. Girls, however, traditionally move in with their in-laws and cannot further help their birth family. Baby girls are often "abandoned, suffocated, or drowned soon after birth." Aside from being an inhuman, unethical, and sexist practice, female infanticide effects the Chinese culture in many ways, "in 1997 the London Telegraph quoted ...a Chinese journal... which warned the male-to-female ratio in China has become so unbalanced that there will soon be an 'army of bachelors' in China - an estimated 90 million Chinese men in search of a spouse."

Female infanticide is an old practice dating back to 200 B.C. in Greece. It still exists today mostly cited in China and India.

Tying this back to overhearing my coworker being disappointed and "pissed" about having a girl: Was he hoping for a boy to have extra hands on the farm? No. Was he hoping for a boy to take care of him when he's old? Probably not. Was he hoping for a boy because he was only allowed one child by the government? No. As he walked by i congratulated him on the great news of an addition to his family and asked why he was disappointed to have a girl. He told me he was hoping for a boy to carry on his family name. He was hoping for a boy to raise as a "manly man like his daddy." He was "disappointed in having a girl because girls are nothing but trouble." I tried to get into to it further with him. I told him that if it's the family name that meant so much to him lots of women keep their name. This turned into an incredibly heteronormative and sexist conversation.

Firstly, he assumed his future daughter would be attracted to men and when i suggested the alternative he because outraged. Secondly, he said that she will not keep her own name because it is tradition that women take their husband's name. I said that if it's important to her to keep her name, she should be with a person that values equality and respects her decision. He disagreed and very clearly explained that "tradition is much more important than equality." This is a 22 year old. I was so so sad.

We talked some more about his unborn daughter's future husband (ugh) and how she will not be with a man that would "allow" her to keep her name. This poor girl. Not only will she be controlled by her dad but then once she finds a partner (who am i kidding, a man) that is just like her dad, she will then be controlled by him. I asked him if he hopes for her to be in a loving, equal relationship rather than a controlling one and he said again, "tradition is more important than equality." Ouch. He then tried to argue that he was in an equal relationship. Now i have no idea whether or not he is. I don't know his wife, i don't know their relationship. All i know is what he's saying to me at that point. So i asked him a few question:

Me: "How is your relationship based on equality?"
Him: "I love and respect her"
Me: "That's really good, i think love and respect are very important in strong relationships. What if she wanted to keep her own last name?"
Him: "I would say no"
Me: "So you usually have the final word on things?"
Him: "Yea, i'm the man in the relationship"
Me: "Doesn't that mean that you have more power and thus you are dominant?"
Him: "Yea, men should be"
Me: "So your relationship is not equal then, right?"

I don't think that keeping/taking a last name is really the important part of that conversation. What IS significant is why a last name was so important to him. He kept referring to tradition and i kept explaining about control and power. A girl has her dad's name, then her husband's. She's first her dad's property, then her husband's. This concept appealed to my coworker, it doesn't appeal to me. If someone chooses to take a last name based on family, personal choice, or even preference for the name itself, good for them. If they have no choice and are forced to take a name based on "tradition," power, or control, that is not okay by me. "Tradition" is drenched in patriarchy, inequality, and oppression. Tradition is never a good answer in my book.

Once he realized he was being more than a bit hypocritical trying to explain he was in an equal and respectful relationship but valued male dominance and "tradition" he backed off and left. The story is not over, however. He stopped by again on his way out to say, "Bye Miss Chauvinist, have a nice afternoon." Here is the conversation that followed that comment:

Me: "I think you are mistaken, a chauvinist is someone who is unreasonably bias towards a group to which s/he belongs, this particularly refers to men who believe they are superior to women."
Him: "What should i call you them?"
Me: "Um, Galina. Or if you need a social term, a feminist. I value and work towards equality."
Him: "Haha, a feminist! You need to broaden your horizons!"
Me: "Um, i think you do...?" (i was so confused...)
Him: "No."
Me: "Ok..."
Silence... cricket, cricket...
Me: "You're a substance abuse counselor, don't you think equality is important?!"
Him: "Not as important as maintaining tradition"
Then he laughs and says: "What if your boyfriend wanted to stay home and raise the kids?"
Me: "Firstly, why do you assume i'm straight? Secondly, why do you assume i even want kids? Thirdly, if my partner wanted to stay home to raise the kids and we didn't need a second income i would be absolutely fine with that arrangement. I think if it's important to the couple that one parent stays home with the children, it should be the one who makes less money, regardless of their sex."
Him: "WHAT? What type of family were you raised in?"
Me: "Actually, a very traditional and conservative one. But once i learned to make my own decisions and think for myself i realized that the 'traditional' lifestyle is actually incredibly oppressive, patriarchal, and only beneficial if you're a white man, which i'm not."

The conversation went on like that for a while, i won't type it all out because it's a bit boring and i'm sure we've heard it all before. Except for that i haven't! I mean, on TV, yes, in jokes, yes, in radio, in stereotypes, etc. But to actually have a conversation like this with a substance abuse counselor who is supposed to be open minded and forward thinking? No.

I wrote down the name of my blog on a post-it for him. I said if he reads it i'm sure he'll disagree with 90% of what i write. Then i contemplated whether or not to put this conversation up. In the end, i think i did the right thing by publishing it because of how shocked i was/am that this degree of sexism (masked as "tradition") still exists, especially in my peers... I'm several years older than him, but not too too many. I thought our generation was better than that...


DJ Dual Core said...

I don't know this guy, but for some men I think the foot in the door is domestic violence. Most people (probably even those committing the violence) will say that it is indefensible and an abuse of power. Also, most people won't argue against the fact that the vast majority of domestic violence is committed by men.

The other really obvious thing is that tradition is not inherently good. Slavery was a tradition in the American south. Child labor in cannery's was a tradition on the eastern seaboard. Throwing Christians to the lions was a tradition at the Circus Maximus in Rome.

On the other hand, there probably isn't any point arguing. If he identifies that strongly with conservative "tradition" he probably won't allow himself to hear.

You can only hope his wife knows how to handle him.

It can be a very slow process but some of us eventually do get it.

Kandee said...

It's funny how once you break it down to someone and re-frame it, they realize that it is about power and control over another, usually women, usually people of color. Then they don't know what else to say, so they keep looping their original thoughts. It's hard to have a breakthrough right then and there and say "OMG! I've been lied to my whole life! My life is a sham! I was deceived!" Who wants to do that in front of a co-worker? Especially when masculinity is so fragile...

GottabeMe said...

Oh, God, how fricking depressing that there are still people that young that think that opressing women like that is okay! AND more important than letting them be who they want to be!

I have a coworker from the midwest who absolutely cannot understand how anyone could not want children. He does not get it. He still thinks that someday I'll regret not having them. Uh...I'm urge to have kids yet, so I'm pretty sure I'm safe.

Good luck to you in putting up with this person on a regular basis. Personally, I'd be concerned that his sexist views may negatively impact the people he counsels, but who knows if there is anything you can do about that.

Ms.PhD said...

Sadly, I've had this same experience over and over again.

I admire your attempting to even argue with him. I'm so over even trying to argue with people like this.

The only thing you might try next time, which has brought me some success, is to ask the guy to picture what his life would have been like if he had the misfortune to have been born a woman.

To imagine how it would feel if he were trapped and downgraded in all the ways we are.

Sometimes, they get it, if I can get them to go through this exercise. My partner was one of these who didn't quite believe in sexism until he started to listen to the things that happened to me from the frame of "What would I do if I were in her shoes?" And now he's a raging feminist, too. =D

But sometimes they just lack imagination, which is probably why they like tradition - because it's tradition.

Anyway, hugs from me. I have days like this a lot. In fact, things like this happen to me almost every day, in large and small ways. Today I am feeling somewhat flattened by it, so I was glad to find your blog, if nothing else then to know it's not just me.

Jay P. said...

So I'm afraid I'm a bit behind on your blog thanks to my crazy schedule, so while I have other entries to comment on, I'll start here. Can't say much about this guy except I can just imagine the type of household he was raised in, and I can be glad it wasn't what I was raised in. It's sad that a young man has views such as that, but unfortunately as hard as people push for equality, etc., minds like his will never be completely wiped off the earth. I do just want to correct one thing, and it surprises me that you haven't caught on to this by now, but substance abuse counselors are often times most definitely not the most "open-minded" or "forward thinking" of people. In fact they tend to be more stuck in their ways and biased than many other professions, and this often stems from their past history and the path their lives took. I'd be happy to get into this more over a cup of tea or something one of these days, but take a hard look around at some of the people around you (and some you've worked with previously) and see if you notice what I'm talking about. Unfortunately it's sad and doesn't do that particular population of patient a lot of good sometimes. I'll try to catch up on the entries soon, I see a few that catch my eye! :)

Cati said...

Very intersting that you've posted about this right now. My boyfriend and I are contemplating taking the plunge and getting married. I consider my boyfriend to be a feminist (as does he) but there is something about the last name debate that strikes a cord with everyone. I would either keep my last name or hyphinate only if he agreed to do the same (why wouldn't he like to take part of me with him as well?) He is uncomfortable with this (even though he knows logically that this is the best compromise for both parties). Some friends of mine think I'm crazy for my views, the same people who listen to Ani DiFranco right along with me. The traditions of marriage and family are two things that are so culturally engrained that even rational and progressive people get hung up on them. I just feel like grabbing people by the collar and shaking the weird cultural cocoon right off of them...

phd in yogurtry said...

You remind me of myself when I was in my 20's. Only I was having the exact same conversation with guys who played college football. Round and round. Tradition vs. equality (which I have come to realize these young guys really had zero concept of what it means, at heart).

But bravo to you for trying. It is disconcerting that he provides substance abuse counseling. I presume he has a graduate degree?

The sad thing is, I think unenlightened men react only to what the think they'll lose with feminist ideals .. and have no clue what they stand to gain. His future daughter, included. You just have to believe she will show him the light one day .. bet she will !

Male Rights Network said...

"The sad thing is, I think unenlightened men react only to what the think they'll lose with feminist ideals .. and have no clue what they stand to gain."

If they engage their brain, men will realise that they have absolutely nothing to gain from supporting feminist ideals. Logically inept men however may swallow the lie from women/feminists that they've something to gain. Repeat a big enough lie enough times....

Virgil Hart said...

Feminism is nothing but a childish backlash against men of past generations who have little or nothing to do with men today.

Llencelyn said...

Wow, too bad about the trolls. :(

At any rate, I really liked this post. I have been extraordinarly lucky in my life (so far) and I am almost dumbfounded that this person exists. Almost, but not really... :(

Congrats on at least trying to talk him 'round.

Sabertoothed Screaming Lemur said...

Hey, I like your blog. I was astonished by this dude- he sounds like my dad, and he's younger than me. And FTR, when my partner and I get married, we'll both be hyphenating, which makes me smile! I wouldn't give up my name; I've had it for 25 years and it's part of who I am, but I'm willing to share it with her and add hers to mine, both of us better together than we were seperately.
How can men still want to cover a woman's identity, tag her as property, and see that as better? Wouldn't a truly equal partner be "something men can gain from feminism"? Or maybe it's true that dudes like MRN just want a combination of mommy, maid, and sexbot, and not a real partner at all?
Oh and virgil, I think she just covered that "men today" can be just as bigoted and stupid as men 100 years ago. Way to miss the point!
Sorry for the rant, but it really struck a chord with me. Good stuff- can I add you to my blogroll, BTW?

FeministGal said...

Sabertoothed Screaming Lemur, thanks for you thoughtful comment :) and of course, add away! :)

Christina said...

I have to hug/applaud you for trying to talk to this schmuck.

How the f--- is TRADITION more important than EQUALITY???

Anonymous said...

The really sad thing is I know guys who are like this too, and I'd imagine we're a similar age group (twenties?)
*le sigh*