On fear, feminism and the alleged ‘war on men’

According to former French first lady Carla Bruni, today’s generation of young women “doesn’t need feminism.” The statement, from an interview for the December 2012 issue of Paris Vogue, exemplifies an unfortunate, but prevalent attitude among modern women: The level of equality we have reached is good enough. Further activism is not only unnecessary, but extreme.

Popular culture has branded modern feminism with a number of stigmas. Active feminists are militant, emotional, “can’t-take-a-joke” prudes. The term “fem-Nazi” often prevails. Not only are these attitudes offensive, but they also serve to oppress feminism in the face of opinions like those author Suzanne Venker expresses in a recent Fox News article, “The war on men.”

Venker’s core argument is that the changing role of women in society threatens men. While most readers’ initial reactions may be to disregard her words as unfounded and sexist, “The war on men” reveals some telling insights about the nature of current discourse surrounding gender-related issues, specifically its emphasis on fear.

The claim that men feel “threatened” by competition from women, while a sweeping generalization, may contain a hint of truth. In Venker’s words, the growing success of women in the workplace “has changed the dance between men and women.” As a result, men are facing increased pressure to compete with women for jobs and make compromises on how they conduct familial affairs.

But there is something inherently wrong with combating fear with more fear, as Venker hopes to do by encouraging women and men to revert to socially constructed gender roles. Out of fear of deviating from social norms or offending the other sex, we all must confine ourselves to oppressive stereotypes in order to maintain balance in our lives.

Such blind reliance on fear only leads to ignorance. Venker proves herself a prime example of this phenomenon when she writes that “feminism serves men very well: They can have sex at hello and even live with their girlfriends with no responsibilities whatsoever.”

This line tells me that Venker misunderstands the feminist movement at its most basic level. At its core, feminism is the belief that women should be socially, politically and economically equal to men. Venker makes a fantastic leap in claiming that these beliefs in women drive them toward lack of self-restraint and sexual decadence. Her assumption also insults men, as it implies that they are equally irresponsible and animalistic in their desires.

To add another layer to her glaring misunderstandings, Venker claims that women must “surrender to their nature – their femininity.” One does not have to be a historian to know that the traditional definition of “femininity” originates from centuries of physical and intellectual oppression of women based on the false belief that they are the inferior sex. We have made immense progress toward eradicating this injustice, but these grim origins still linger in the modern belief that women emote and men protect.

My desire to break away from this cookie-cutter definition of femininity and achieve equal footing with the men around me is in no way unreasonable. I want to have access to the same opportunities and salaries that men do. If I want to have a career instead of children, that’s my decision. Or, if I want kids, my partner should care for them equally, instead of dumping all responsibilities on me because I, by no choice of my own, am biologically capable of giving birth to them. If I enjoy sex in the same open manner men have for years, I don’t want to be labeled as a “slut.”

If all these things make men feel uncomfortable, fine. That’s the price we pay for equality. Society should not suppress equal opportunities out of fear that those who take advantage of them might benefit. Our efforts to address gender issues should be motivated by an informed desire for positive change, not by fear.

There is no war on men – or on women. The “war” is against public health and well-being. We need to drop this battle-of-the-sexes terminology and realize that a truly healthy, democratic society should hold all of its citizens in equal regard. Women’s issues are men’s issues, too: Access to contraceptives, affordable health care and comprehensive sex education are just a few topics traditionally associated with women that affect everyone.

Venker is correct when she writes that changing gender roles seem threatening. These feelings are merely growing pains that signal movement toward a more progressive and equal society. I am a feminist, and you probably are, too – we should not be afraid to admit this fact. Only when we move beyond negative attitudes associated with feminism and begin discussing gender issues in an open, mature manner will we be able to move forward.

Opinions Editor Kate Fridley ’14 fridley@stolaf.edu is from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in political science with concentrations in management studies and Middle Eastern studies.

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