I’m a feminist. But I haven’t always been.
Through much of my life I’ve been a pretty nice guy – thoughtful, sensitive to others, empathetic. But a feminist I was not. Like just about every other man who grows up in a male-dominated culture, I was blind to much of my male privilege. Actually, I have probably experienced that privilege in greater abundance than the average American man.
I’ve been the beneficiary of at least three kinds of male privilege: American, Asian, and Christian male privilege. For most of my life, I didn’t consider the flip side of such advantages – namely, that favoritism toward males in those spheres hurts girls and women. So while I got ahead, I failed to support women around me as they dealt with the social injustices they faced by virtue of their gender.
Privileged as an American Male
As is the case for most American men, I didn’t realize how good I had it growing up. I never had to deal, as girls do, with a daily bombardment of messages that value my appearance over my abilities. When I hit puberty, I didn’t experience an onset of catcalls, whistles, uncomfortably long stares, or lewd comments about my body.
In college, I didn’t need to be sure that I walked home from the library with a group of people (for fear of being sexually assaulted) or that I would need to carry pepper spray (also for fear of being sexually assaulted). I didn’t feel at all compelled to sign up for a self-defense class (for fear of being … you guessed it), and I never once called campus transportation services at night to drive me back to my dorm (because … you know). Was there ever a time I almost called security because I was stuck alone in a classroom with a creepy guy loitering outside? Nope. Did I ever have to file a police report because a man publicly exposed his genitals to me? Not at all.
Since I entered the workforce, I’ve never had to worry about getting paid less than the opposite sex for doing the same work, nor have I had to fear that a supervisor would use his authority over me as a license for flirtation or harassment.
In my dating years, I never once imagined a date might drug my drink when I wasn’t looking. I never asked a friend to make sure I got home okay from a night out. And I never looked around a room at a group of my male friends and thought, “If one out of every four of us will be sexually assaulted in our lifetime, I wonder which one of us it will be?”
These are all things that American girls and women experience. Some have to deal with more of it, some less. But all of these kinds of things happen commonly to them. (Similar things do happen to boys and men, and I don’t want to minimize all that male victims have gone through. Their suffering is equally horrific. Yet in the general population, these events happen to men with much less statistical frequency. So we still have the term “male privilege,” though using it does not deny the trauma male survivors experience.) Oh, how greatly advantaged I have been, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Favored as an Asian Male
I’ve also had privileges as an Asian male. Growing up, I could largely express myself in ways that fit my personality. I didn’t face constant pressure from family and friends, as Asian girls and women commonly do, to fit an arbitrary cultural mold for my gender – not too loud and opinionated, not too assertive and ambitious, not too wide or tall, and not waiting too long to get married.
I also knew Asian male privilege within my family. As the firstborn boy among all my cousins on both sides of my family, I felt like I had a special place. But on my dad’s side of the family, I knew I had a special place. It wasn’t that my paternal grandparents gave me more 压祟钱 (yā suì qián, the money that comes in a red envelope) than my cousins, but the relative degree of attention and affection my grandpa showered on me was unmistakable. Sadly, I never once advocated for fairness for my girl cousins. I just thought that’s the way it was.
Oh, what privilege I have had as an Asian male. And I haven’t told the half of it.
Advantaged as a Christian Male
There’s a third layer to the male privilege I have known – evangelical Christian male privilege. This is about much more than Christianity’s centuries-old internal debate over whether women can preach or be priests, pastors, or elders. (For the record, I strongly say they can; to be geeky, I believe a consistent, grammatical-historical hermeneutic leads to an egalitarian interpretation of the Bible.)
Christian male privilege is subtle yet pervasive. American evangelicals often teach boys and men to dream of doing big things for God and to have a huge impact for good in the world. Christian girls and women, from what I’ve witnessed in nearly 40 years of church life, don’t receive half as much encouragement to do the same. They are often steered toward leadership in smaller, more localized endeavors, usually within a church’s own programs.
I am not saying that helping one’s fellow human beings on a local scale is any less important than doing it on a larger scale. But it’s been my experience that evangelical Christian boys and men are urged to have a sense of adventure about their spiritual pursuits and acts of service, while girls and women are often encouraged toward seemingly safer spiritual activities.
This can start at a young age, as I recently saw at one church’s summer program for kids. The week’s theme used a lot of medieval, Arthurian motifs and imagery to illustrate a spiritual quest. Yet all the knights in the onstage skits were played by men. Even the music band, in its entirety, was male as well. Outside, kids could stick their faces through holes in a big wooden cutout illustrating a knight on a horse and a princess standing nearby. It all seemed to suggest that it’s more natural for boys than girls to aspire to great spiritual undertakings.
I was raised in that same evangelical subculture. Also part of that subculture: almost all of the Christian leaders I knew were men. Nearly all the tales I heard of historic Christian deeds, like the abolition of slavery in Great Britain, were about men. It was easy for me, then, to explore Christian spirituality with a wildness of heart while dreaming of changing the lives of thousands – of being the next Billy Graham or Martin Luther King, Jr. Most Christian women I have known have not experienced that kind of support.
But male Christian privilege didn’t end for me as a youth. In seminary, probably 75 percent of my classmates and basically all of my professors were men. In contrast to the seminary women I’ve known, I didn’t feel out of place or endure suspicions that I was there to find a Christian spouse. I didn’t have to deal with uninvited comments like “I don’t know why you’re not married yet.” I wasn’t questioned about why I wasn’t content with the roles God had designed for my gender, and at no time did I experience fellow students walking out of preaching class as I began to give my sermon.
Oh, how I have benefited from evangelical Christian male privilege. And as with American and Asian male privileges, I’ve just scratched the surface in describing the degree to which women are disadvantaged in these contexts.
Parenting Girls Changed Everything
In college, I felt bad for the women I knew when they took precautions against being assaulted. But I didn’t think much about it beyond that. And I never thought that I should join with other people to address the many ways American society, Asian culture, and evangelical subculture create hardships for girls and women.
That all changed when I had daughters. Parenting girls rocked my world. Over and over again, it hit me that just because they were girls, my daughters would not be insulated from all the things I was. It bothered me deeply. I realized it was no longer sufficient to just prepare them for the harsh realities of growing up female. It spurred me to action, and for several years now I’ve given much of my time and energy to advocating and working for girls’ and women’s rights.
And I’m not done, not by a long shot. I am absolutely committed to continuing to do whatever I can, in conjunction with others, to see that girls and women are valued and respected as much as boys and men are. In no way should any girl or woman ever be made to feel that she’s a second-class citizen – in anything.
That’s why I call myself a feminist!
But what is feminism, anyway? A lot of people define it differently. Some folks even envision feminists as a bunch of angry women who go around chanting about their hatred of men! In reality, not a single feminist woman I know is against men or thinks all men are pigs or insensitive clods. The stereotype is nothing like reality. So what is feminism? Taylor Swift offered a pretty good nutshell definition when she told The Guardian in August 2014, “Saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.”
Dictionaries generally define feminism as the belief that girls and boys, and women and men, are equal in their intrinsic value and that they should have equal rights politically, economically, and socially. I would go further and say that a feminist doesn’t just believe that women and men are equal, but she or he also takes action to help make equality a reality in the lives of girls and women. So yes, I’m most definitely a feminist.
I deserve no praise for this. It’s sad that it took becoming a parent to wake me up to my male privilege. Yet I am glad I am more attuned to these issues now. It’s better than continuing to live in my obliviousness. I am grateful for all the wonderful folks who’ve helped me on this journey look forward to continuing to learn from them.
There is still much to learn. To be a helpful ally to women, I need to keep listening to them and their stories, asking what kind of support I can offer – both for them as individuals and for their cause as a whole.
There is a t-shirt meme that proclaims, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” Here it is, modeled by one of the more prominent male feminists I’ve connected with in recent years, Don McPherson. He’s an educator and activist, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and a former winner of the Davey O’Brien Award during his days as a quarterback at Syracuse University. He wears it with pride.
In that vein, though I don’t have one of those shirts, I’m proud to declare:
Thank you for this, it’s really inspiring. I’m so happy for your daughter that she will have your wholehearted support and encouragement!
My experience as a woman in conservative Christian church has been so demoralizing. Being considered “more easily deceived,” being questioned as to whether my interests or desires are legitimate or have merit, being assumed not to have the intelligence to understand a theological argument, being relegated to the nursery and kitchen, being (as a woman) the butt of stupid/stereotyped jokes in the sermons, having to listen to outright misogynism from male Sunday school teachers or pastors, having men not even acknowledge my voice in a discussion or look at me… I don’t go to church anymore but I believe in Christ. I do not think he’d treat me that way.
Shy1, I am so sorry you’ve been so mistreated by people in churches. That makes me mad and breaks my heart at the same time. You’re right, Jesus does not view you that way! He says you’re awesome!
Shy1: It is truly sad how conservative churches treat women. It is nothing like Jesus would treat them. Blessings upon your journey as a Christian.
Thank you for sharing this. I am encouraged to see your desire to “do right” by your daughters and for the way you are shining a light on some of the ways privilege, and therefore power, creeps into our lives and takes root. If only we all were so willing to identify and use our privilege for those who do not have such advantages, I believe our churches, communities, and homes would be a far more healthy and accurate representation of the Kingdom on earth. God’s peace to you.
Thank you, Joy! I agree, we who have privilege, whether it’s related to gender, race, nationality, etc., need to use it to lift up others. The example of Jesus (Philippians 2) sets the standard.
Loved this! I am a mom of 4 boys, and weirdly enough it was having sons that propelled me toward feminism. I felt the weight of responsibility to teach them to be different and to do better. I think women can and will change the world, but I think there are areas of society that only privileged men can access. My boys are white Americans. They can get into places many never will, and i want them to have a voice the pushes back and have arms to make space for women to join them.
Looking forward to following your blog!
That’s awesome to hear, Dalaina! You’re the first person I’ve heard say that – that having sons really influenced you toward feminism – but I’m sure there are others who feel that way. Your sons are blessed!
Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes! I especially love the way you unpack the different layers of privilege. This is an exercise that we could all benefit from: Although I am a woman, I am also white and college educated–two things which also afford me tremendous privilege. In your discussion of Christian male privilege, I would also add that Christian women are either encouraged to pursue “safer” spiritual callings or find a man with an adventurous plan that they can support by marrying him–basically riding on his coat-tails. I look forward to reading more from you!
Thank you, Emily! And thanks for adding the point about marrying an adventurous guy. Back when my wife and I were still dating, a pastor encouraged my wife to just get a two-year seminary degree and go with me to wherever God called me as a pastor. Not that there’s anything wrong with two-year degrees, but my wife wanted the full four-year ThM. Eventually, I got my ThM, then she got hers. She got better grades, too!
As you alluded to–I’ve often wondered why it takes having daughters for men to care about women’s equality. These men all have mothers, and in many cases wives, and those women’s lives, what, don’t matter to these men? As a question, it’s something I’ve wondered for a long time.
With that question out of the way, thanks for an excellent piece. It always helps to understand others journeys to equality/egalitarianism.
Hi Zoe, I don’t think I have a good answer for that either. I remember actress Marlo Thomas writing in the Huffington Post a few years ago about her dad, actor Danny Thomas. He did a lot to empower her as she was growing up but still had more traditional expectations of her mom. I think she was mystified by it, too. Thank you for reading and for your kind words!
Yes! LOVE this! Thank you for articulating so clearly the environment my daughters are facing.
Thank you very much, Joni!