So, as promised, I want to take on part of the FAQ about feminism from the finallyfeminism101 site. And I want to look specifically at privilege, with an FAQ on male privilege and one on female privilege.
So let’s start with male privilege, where privilege is defined as this:
Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.
So … it’s about being normal, or having a norm? Well, um, sure but this seems to be utterly unavoidable and likely to be part of any system we could possibly have — there will always be a norm in any system — so it seems like something that you wouldn’t be able to build an actual movement around (although it does make for some interesting philosophical fodder.). So there has to be more to this:
Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege.
Note the immediate gender distinction, but I can’t fault them for that … yet. But we immediately start by talking about “institutional power”, without ever really clarifying what power really means, and without ever really examining whether that sort of power is good or bad, or whether it conveys more privileges than detriments. This is one of the big problems I have with this, because philosophically we’ve discovered that assumptions of power or benefit can be shaky at best. So, what we’d need to do is look at it from the perspective of men as well as the perspective of women to conclude that it’s a privilege overall. And we see the problems with this in the first example (given by Lucy):
[T]rue gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.
And if you don’t believe me, you’ve never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my “sexism.” My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because “everyone would know who ruled that relationship.” Perfect equality – my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.
Well, the issue here is not so much a sort of institutionalized idea that gender equality, in and of itself, is perceived as inequality. It is right to suggest that because the norm is that women take the name of their husband, people wonder when that doesn’t happen. And they start to look for reasons, and the general reason that’s given is a feminist one, that in some sense the woman thinks that it’s sexist to follow that tradition and is imposing that on her husband, who it is argued has no reason to prefer her keeping her own name. Thus, the comments about it being her who would rule the relationship, because she is imposing something very dramatic and noticeable on her husband who presumably both doesn’t want it and, presumably, should care about her taking his name.
And from this, we can see one of the main issues in the analysis: there is a cultural norm, and it is presumed by everyone — including our feminists like Lucy — that the man should find it a benefit that his wife takes his name. Even the men who object might simply object to wasting time and resources and inviting hassles over something that they consider at best symbolic and at worst meaningless; they’d be perfectly happy with it if it was the norm, but since it is not it is just easier to go with the norm. Thus, for them it’s not inherently a benefit at all, but following the norm is. But, more importantly, all of these issues arise even if the husband would rather she keep her own name. Perhaps she has a relatively famous name that she can trade off of in her work, and changing it would cause them financial problems as she works to re-establish her name. Perhaps he is a feminist and really believes himself that her taking the name is sexist. And God forbid if he thinks there’s a reason for him to take her name.
Now, the immediate objection here is that privilege is being talked about in general, as a social or institutional rule, and that it’s acknowledged that some individuals won’t benefit. But my point here is that in all of this analysis, the male perspective is never considered. It is assumed that this is something that benefits men, but no analysis is done to see if it actually does, or if it does how it does, and if it does if that’s something that we still need. I find it unlikely to be the case in the “taking the last name” case that there is a significant benefit that it would severely disenfranchise men if they lost it … but that’s mostly because I don’t see it as a benefit for men at all. And so, in my ideal egalitarian approach, I wouldn’t be arguing that this is some kind of sexist social structure, but simply say that it was a social tradition that we simply have no need for anymore, and that in a lot of cases it’s a massive difficulty for them to overcome. Again, no notion that this is something that men are supposed to want or benefit from, or that it represents a male perspective, because it doesn’t. Most of the opposition to changing this is not because from the male perspective it’s seen as being good, but because it’s seen as being a norm that people see little need to change. Pointing out why it should change because it is overly restrictive is the best way to fight a norm.
And this is where part of the problem comes in. If you represent having the wife take the husband’s name as a benefit, then eliminating that practice or even choosing not to take it looks like taking away something from the husband, at which point they can ask what they get in exchange, and what improvement in actual, real terms is being made. This is a hard argument to make for this name case. But if instead it’s presented as something that people ought to be able to choose and that right now they can’t, then there’s no need for men to feel like they’re losing anything. Men, then, would see this as a gain … a gain in freedom for themselves and for their wives and for women in general. Presenting it as part of a move to reform society for the benefit of everyone is less likely to meet resistance than presenting it as a move to take a benefit away from men to give … something to women.
Moving to the analysis:
In this case the inequality is perceived, in part, because taking one’s husband’s name is considered “normal” for a woman, whereas choosing to keep one’s own name deviates from that. Popular culture often labels this behavior as “emasculating” to a man, but never bothers to question how a woman might feel being asked to give up something that has been part of her since her birth. This is an example of a culture of male privilege — where a man’s position and feelings are placed above that of the woman’s in a way that is seen as normal, natural, and traditional.
But the problem is that this analysis ignores that the man’s position and feelings as an individual are still not being taken into account, and that the alternative — women should be able to choose what they take — places her position and feelings above his because she’s given the choice based on what she wants. What we have is a restrictive system that assumes what everyone’s feelings are and cares not one whit for what they actually are being replaced with a system that runs the risk, at least, of making the woman’s actual feelings paramount. To determine if this is true, I would like all feminists to ask themselves this: if the husband doesn’t want her to keep her name, and she does, or if he wants her to keep her name, and she doesn’t, whose opinion should be taken in this case? I suspect that for most feminists the idea would be that she should have the choice, or else she’s being restricted in her agency … but then this holds no matter what the reasons actually are, which is a problem. Now, wouldn’t everyone agree that whether any name gets changed should be a completely joint decision of the couple just like all others in an equal society? If it is, then shouldn’t it be presented as a choice that people aren’t getting as opposed to a reflection of a culture of male privilege? Isn’t that just a more accurate way of describing it?
Most people do not think twice about a woman who shares the same name as her husband; they simply assume that the shared name is his family name. This is an illustration about how male privilege operates in stealth. When a wife does not share the same name as the husband, however, it often leads to confusion and even anger — as Lucy’s example illustrated. This is because the male-oriented option (wife taking husband’s name) is seen as default, and the neutral option (both parties keeping their original names) is a deviation from that norm and therefore comes across as privileging the woman because it doesn’t privilege the man.
The problem here is that the options are being classified as “male-oriented” and “neutral” when they actually really aren’t. The idea here is that keeping the husband’s name is male-oriented because it, well, is the male name. And the neutral option is neutral because it doesn’t. But in terms of actual situations that people are in when they are deciding this, the fact that taking the husband’s name is the norm changes things up, because the easiest thing to do that has all of the structural support is the supposedly male-oriented option. So, in that sense, it is the default: you just do what everyone does because it’s pragmatically easier, and so in that case and in the minds of most people it isn’t male-oriented. And since the “neutral” view is not the norm, it requires an explicit reason, and a lot of that reason as expressed here is not neutral but women-oriented, an idea that at least some women feel that they’re being forced to give something up just because they’re women. But that is a female-oriented view. In real terms, though, the reasons given are how you should judge the orientation of an option, not some sort of abstracted notion that doesn’t apply to most of the decisions being made.
Now this, of course, can be seen as the problem: patriarchal structures set out these sorts of “male-oriented” options as the default, and then it looks like any attempt to move away from that to a neutral position is being female-oriented. I do concede that in some sense, although I would disagree that these structures have to be seen as “male-oriented”. If someone goes to the owner of a stadium and says “I’ll pay you $X to change the name of the stadium from yours to ours”, that’s not a “payer-oriented” move. It’s an exchange, and so is potentially, at least, equal. So since it is unlikely that changing the name was instituted to oppress women, we would need to wonder why it was instituted, and what exchange went on to guarantee that. As will be seen in the article on female privilege, one reason might well be that women were supposed protected by their association with a man, and changing the name while married made that clear. There are also potentially issues around property inheritance, and an idea that you had an exchange where women got their children supported while men got a guarantee that the children were theirs. None of these seem to be required anymore, and so analyzing it from this perspective that makes no presumptions about it being unequal seems to provide the best possible argument you could think of for why it’s simply unnecessary in this day and age. And demonstrating that leads us to being able to point out cases where people would rationally choose not to change the name, and then we can make a pretty solid case for why society and our institutional processes should change to make making that choice easier for everyone. And ultimately, isn’t that what feminists should want?
So, now, on to female privilege, or rather why women don’t have it:
Short answer: No, what is commonly called “female privilege” is better described as benevolent sexism. Systems like the draft and chivalry often seem advantageous to women at first glance, but when examined more closely they in fact reinforce sexist institutions that keep both women and men from true equality.
So, in answer to the short answer, the question is why all the instances of “male privilege” cannot be seen as things that look advantageous to men at first glance, but really reinforce sexist institutions that keep both women and men from true equality? Again, note my rather long discussion of how having the wife change her name doesn’t really seem to benefit men themselves, and is limiting to the sort of relationship they might want. It reinforces a specific role for men, but one that is sexist. So why insist that it be called privilege?
We see kinda why later:
However, the difference is that the status quo for men is one which grants them status and power in both the public and private spheres, whereas the status quo for women is one which limits their power to the much smaller, and more specific, domestic sphere.
And this is, again, one of my main issues with feminism, as they rightly identify that patriarchy divides men and women up into gender roles and limits them to specific spheres … and then decides that the one sphere is better than the other and so men have it good and women have it bad, end of story. But the real issue, and one that has plagued feminism for decades, is that having power in certain spheres isn’t in and of itself good, but is only good if you like having power in those spheres. Having power doesn’t just grant benefits, but also grants responsibilities. While men, for example, may have had the power to run a household they also, generally, had full responsibility for what happened to it or in it. While a man had the power to work, they had the responsibility to provide for their family, and if they didn’t manage that they were failures, often even to their wives. A man, then, who had a skillset that better suited them for the domestic sphere than for the public sphere was a failure, for no other reason than that the social structure set them out for a role they couldn’t possibly succeed in. And even if the woman was better suited for the public role, they simply could not swap the two of them out. Society had left them stuck.
Thus, having power in the public and private sphere or in the domestic sphere is only food if you are suited for that sphere. Again, the real problem with patriarchy is that it imposes a specific role on people that don’t want it and aren’t suited for it. The key to eliminating patriarchy is not to define one sphere as being better than another, but in recognizing that the whole problem is limiting people to spheres in the first place. If a woman only wants to be in the domestic sphere, more power to her. If she wants to be in the public sphere, more power to her, too. And the same thing applies to men as well.
Now, it can be pointed out fairly that because of the underlying social issues, if things are left as they are men and women will drift into those roles anyway because of the momentum of social attitudes. And yes, we need to do a lot of work to change those attitudes. But it surprises me not at all that feminists get push back when they adopt a strategy that says that the public and private spheres are where all the goodies are, and men have to get out of the way and let women get some of the goodies, too. It looks like an attempt to push men out of the things that are good because women want them, or want them too. But if it was expressed as being choices, and choices that everyone needs to and should make, with neither being considered necessarily any better or any worse than the other, then we can get to real choice and real equality.
Now, I can say this because I don’t think that each role is inherently better than the other, which is something that feminists seem to deny. I also think, however, that all roles are necessary, and if it could be demonstrated that one is inherently worse than the other stressing the necessity of those roles and that they must be performed by those who are better suited for it. The risk of this approach is that people will use it as a justification for saying that women are in general better suited for it and so should stay there, but I think that’s easy to refute and that sort of approach removes the idea that men have to give up something because women want that thing too, but instead places it entirely in a context of “This is what we need to do to have a free and equal society”.
See, I think that some of the problems that men face now- some of the things that people like Burton complain about and see as examples of female privilege over males- are a direct result of the flaws a patriarchical system. It’s not that women have more power than men, it’s that patriarchy is an inherently flawed system that sets standards that are harmful to everyone. It’s a double edged sword. And as attitudes have changed and feminists have helped to break down some of the systems that have held women back and prevented them from reaching their full potential, some men are finding that, shock of shocks, there are some serious problems with the way things are.
I agree with this, but must ask: why isn’t things that are seen as male privilege seen the same way?
To summarize the point of this section: When it’s called benevolent sexism it’s recognized to be tied to the system of sexism, and can therefore be fought (successfully) with tools like feminism, whereas when it’s called “female privilege” the solutions called for tend to call for strengthening the status quo, which ends up making it harder to end the offending practices
So, let’s imagine that we didn’t introduce this distinction, dropped the notion of “privilege” entirely, and called all of these instances whether for men or for women “benevolent sexism”. Why wouldn’t this do the same thing? Why wouldn’t this make all of the instances of male privilege recognized as tied to the system of sexism itself, and so things that should be fought, whereas when it’s called “male privilege” it’s seen as something men have that they shouldn’t really have, and so it looks like an attempt to take things away from men and give them nothing in return? Because as Roy said in the above quote, it’s really not hard to see things that patriarchy imposes on men that are hugely problematic. As feminists themselves say, patriarchy hurts men, too. So instead of dividing it up into men versus women, why not just collapse the difference, call any of these cases “benevolent sexism”, tally them all up, order them by actual, objective severity, and see what needs to be done? Why not muster everyone — including the MRAs who are really interested in eliminating the harms that patriarchal sexism does to men — against the patriarchy as a whole, instead of setting up a hierarchy of an outside group that’s benefiting from the situation? Why don’t we find out just how many people want something other than the traditional gender roles, and work to find out just what those roles should be?
The instant feminists introduce privilege, they place their arguments in a divided context, where men and women do not have the same interests and where men, in theory, have an interest in preserving the status quo and women do not. This is flatly contradicted by reality. For the most part, everyone has an interest in moving to a post-patriarchal society that judges you by your own interests, desires and capabilities and not by a defined set of gender roles that doesn’t reflect how most people want to live. By working in a philosophical structure that pays at best lip service to this, feminism actually impedes progress in this manner. By attacking “men” as privileged and needing to give up some of that up, they place men on the defensive and raise anger for men who don’t find this supposedly privileged life at all fulfilling, and the emphasis on women finding a fulfilling life looks like feminism taking things away from men to give to women so that women can have something that many if not most men never had. If feminism is going to make life better for everyone, its underlying core principle and all of its actions should be demonstrating that as much as it possible can. That for the most part its principles and actions seem aimed at make life better for women is, for me, telling.