I am quite excited to be hosting Dianna Anderson this morning on the blog! Dianna is a resident of the great city of Chicago, and works for a day job as a radio producer on an English Language Learners program. She blogs about feminism and theology at diannaeanderson.net.
Last week we got into a conversation about the right and wrong ways for men to go about writing on women’s issues, and how easy it is for men to co-opt the conversation and imagine the debate begins and ends with them. Especially in light of recent social and theological controversies, I made the suggestion that this was a conversation that would be worth opening up for a larger audience, and Dianna graciously agreed to write a guest post on the topic.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned how to constantly filter and edit myself. I have to decide, before every time I bring up a controversial issue, whether or not the cost is worth it, whether or not making this argument, at this time, is worth the backlash, the anger, the dismissive responses.
And I’m not alone – many of my fellow women edit, censor, double-check their tone, try to make sure that we can’t be painted as crazy, or emotional, or simply “too much” for the discussion at hand. Get angry, upset, or even just reasonably frustrated, and many people will immediately write you off, dismiss your point, or condescendingly say that they’ll listen when you’ve calmed down.
Men, in my experience, don’t have to censor themselves in this way. They aren’t really accused of being “too emotional,” and can know that their argument will be considered – mostly – regardless of tone. They can trust that what they say will have an aura of authority regardless of how they choose to phrase the argument.
Problems arise when men and women collide in discussing issues that particularly affect women.
Women have multiple barriers between themselves and the discussion of an issue that’s important to them. If we discuss the issue ourselves, it tends to become isolated from the people who really need to hear our arguments. If we violate the terms of “acceptable” tone in a discussion, we lose even more listeners. If we hand off the discussion of our issue to men to whom other influential men will listen, we lose much of the force behind the argument – it lacks any of the personal connection.
And, too often, a man speaking on the issue will appropriate a woman’s response in order to look like he really cares.
It is this last dilemma that is most frustrating. Too often, a man discussing a woman’s issue runs the risk of unintentionally silencing women in his attempts to speak on her behalf.
And that, ultimately, is the rub: Are these men speaking FOR us, or are they speaking WITH us? If it’s the former, patronizing tone often all too easily slips in, and men end up offending the very women they’re trying to help.
I know a ton of awesome men who care deeply about women’s issues. I’m extremely grateful for their contributions to the discussion and to the political movements that surround many women’s issues. I don’t want men to think that they cannot speak about these issues or that they have nothing to contribute – they do, and I’m quite frequently grateful for it. But when men forget that they are speaking WITH us on these issues, and instead steal our voice and presume to speak FOR us, this becomes a problem. Suddenly, your great treatise on why women should be involved in the church sounds patronizing, condescending, and harsh. Suddenly, what you thought was a solid argument alienates those you were trying to help.
And that, I think, is the principle that needs to be remembered whenever men approach a feminist discussion: Am I speaking FOR women, or am I speaking WITH them? And if women tell you that you’re speaking FOR them (and not in a good way), it behooves you to listen.”