It is an unfortunate circumstance of the world that we live in that the number of books about women and/or written by women in our usual college curriculum are few and far in between. Unless you’ve taken up a specialized major like Women’s Studies or Gender Studies, or you’re taking a class on feminism, it’s rare that you read a book by a woman at all.
I began this semester a bit disappointed that my political theory professor took out Hannah Arendt from the syllabus, knowing that no one else teaches Arendt and the rare opportunity to read her work was a major influence on my interest in the class. Nevertheless, my bookcase from my four years of college is dominated by male (white, European, Christian—alas) authors. Given the rare circumstances that females have the opportunity to speak about our experiences, to finally give a dimension of reality that is oft neglected in an academic setting, we get passionate. This, I think, is a reasonable response.
But what I find especially striking is the side-chatter of my male peers, who get turned off by the “emotional responses” that ensue from my female peers’ and my taking advantage of this opportunity in a class setting. It seems as though our response was irrational. “We ought to look at the time period!” they say. If we are speaking in the time predating the first wave of feminism, of course people were sexist. Of course they will say that women ought to be confined to the home at the time. And of course we are looking at things with a 21st-century pair of eyes—a pair of eyes that understand that the phenomena of voting in the presidential primaries and having two X chromosomes are no longer incompatible with one another.
I don’t want to argue about context. Instead, I want to speak about the fine line that women walk every time a conversation about gender roles comes up. I want to talk about the responses that people have to women speaking publicly about their experiences, their desire to be seen as equal to men, to simply speak their minds without the inescapable scrutiny and criticism that follow.
These responses are akin to the “angry woman” stereotype or the “feminazi” epithet. They are belittling and reduce women to emotional beings that are lesser, irrational, and unable to speak for and about themselves without their passions. It’s as if we ought to have said and continue to say “of course,” and move on. Not to mention that these conversations are no less passionate than the conversations in class about political systems or morality. But I’ve never experienced such backlash when talking about these ideas—only when gender comes into play.
Are our passions necessarily unfounded?
What if I tell you that I couldn’t accept the past as such? What if it is incredibly difficult to read literature after literature that continually refers to human beings as “man” or “men,” and have to accept that that word meant woman and women, too? (For God’s sake, the academic spaces that I occupy—political science and philosophy—are overwhelmingly male-dominated, how many times do I have to reorient my psyche to think that I fit in the world in which I am not even acknowledged?) What if I couldn’t understand, even after all this time, the rationale behind the discrimination of women in the past? The same forces that were at work then are at work now to marginalize women in ways much more sophisticated than confining us to the home or silencing us politically.
I understand—it’s difficult to empathize with experiences that you are unfamiliar with. But empathy is not what I’m asking for. On the contrary, I ask for your voice. Rather than shutting yourself up in conversations about gender roles because you don’t identify as a female or with the female experiences, speak up. The stifled frustration that comes out in side-chatter is a product of the forces that silenced women in the past. The passions that I feel upon talking about my experiences as a female do not serve as a dis-invitation for anyone to the conversation. In fact, my wish is that they would serve as a hospitable welcome. Besides, Hegel does not think that our passions are bad. Our passions, after all, advance the Spirit of history. And the “Spirit,” according to Hegel, is freedom.
So, let me say this, once and for all. When I declare that I am a woman, like Helen Reddy does in her famous song “I Am Woman,” I am not roaring nor do I want you to hear me roar. Instead, I want you to hear me, as a woman, and I want to hear you, too. In the same song, she sings:
I am woman, watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand
This isn’t an accident. If we were to truly have conversations about gender roles, philosophically or otherwise, we need much more than empathy for the other person. We need all voices to be heard, and truly heard, without a roar.