What To Make Of A Woman Apologizing For Herself

I have died a little, several times, hearing a smart woman apologize for sharing her opinion. Throw me six feet under so long as you’ll send a hot vampire who cares about feminism.

It’s not just “I’m sorry, but,” at the beginning of a sentence. These apologies also show up mid-conversation stream as “I’m rambling, and I’m not making any sense” even though no one has said so. They often masquerade as hierarchal concerns, such as “I’m just an intern, but,” or “I’m new here, but,” or “I’m young, but.”

I do and have done all these things, too, so don’t think I’m judging you if you relate as a speaker. The fact is that our culture clearly communicates that women will be better liked and more likely to get ahead if we downplay our abilities but have confidence in ourselves. That’s contradictory by design, because in this framework no one can win. You’re supposed to like yourself but not too much. However that works.

It is somewhat fashionable, in some circles, to tell women to stop apologizing for ourselves so that we can get ahead. There are many problems with this approach.

It’s an utterly false premise that we can self-help our way out of gender discrimination. That’s not to say that we can’t resolve gender discrimination, because through cultural and political action we as women (and men and girls and boys) absolutely can. But picking apart women’s personal lives and offering to-do lists for personal success is neither a recipe for equality and justice, nor a feminist practice in general.

Moreover, telling an apologizing woman that she has nothing to apologize for actually creates an almost real reason for an apology! Because what we need to examine is not the psyche of the woman who uses this common gendered speech mechanism, but rather where it fits into an overall pattern of expected behavior.

Women tend to be expected to build consensus, take the needs of others into account. and work to make those around them feel comfortable. These behaviors aren’t necessarily bad, and can actually be strong leadership qualities when chosen and practiced in context, but it’s confining and discriminatory as a general matter to expect women to be oriented toward and accountable to the group.

Perhaps what we most need to question is the assumption that it’s okay to tell women what to do.

Finally, the biggest problem with telling women not to apologize for ourselves is that it doesn’t examine the root cause of why a woman feels she needs to apologize for herself at a particular moment in her life.

It may well be the case that she is surrounded by people who discount her opinion. In that case, the real problem is not a pattern of speech but that those people surrounding her are horrible and not in any way conducive to growth and development. People who discount you are horrible bosses, lovers, partners, friends, and members of your network, and the solution is to find a way to remove them from your life, even if that takes time and planning (apology optional).

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, true, but the proper piece of consent to remove is their influence rather than your coping behaviors.

This essay was inspired by my tendency to challenge those younger women who through conversation show me a tendency to preface their brilliant ideas and opinions with apologies for their lack of experience. I have multiple times told them that by virtue of being in a meeting or in a room, they belong, and I still believe that. We are never “just interns” or “just new,” we are human beings.

But the overall situation is more complex.


Celebrating Fewer Abortions Is Not The Path To Reproductive Justice

“We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” – President Barack Obama

Last night the president used the “A” word — meaning abortion — in his State of the Union address. His message was, in typical Obama style, meant to appeal to everyone — conservatives, liberals, anti-choice, pro-choice. Judging by Twitter, many reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates cheered.

Some of the most famous advocates edited out what he said about abortion, and kept on running:

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The problem is that what he said actually sucked.

By saying “surely we can agree it’s a good thing that … abortions are nearing all-time lows,” the president served up a wallop of abortion stigma. In essence he said it’s a good thing to have fewer abortions. This implies that those women who keep on having abortions anyway are doing something wrong. And that, my friends, is not good.

It’s a good thing every time a woman is able to safely end a pregnancy she wants or needs to end. Of course it’s a good thing every time a woman avoids an unintended pregnancy.

It’s a leap to say it’s a good thing when there are fewer abortions — that does not strictly mean that women are able to access the abortions they want or need, and that more women are avoiding unintended pregnancy.

It is possible to talk about the abortion rate dropping without stigmatizing abortion (which implies, in some ways, that maybe restrictions on abortions aren’t so bad). The way to do that is to present the facts without value judgement.

Good women have abortions, and bad women have abortions, and for that matter transgender men have abortions, and in all cases their abortions are neither good nor bad. They are simply the facts of their lives.

In any case we don’t all need to agree on a woman’ s personal life, and the frame that we should — that a woman’s life is up for the inspection and agreement of the group — is ridiculous and sexist in big, blinking lights.

So long as we expect the Democratic Party and their associated elected officials to provide leadership on reproductive issues, leadership on reproductive issues is going to sound like saying there is something wrong with abortion while at the same time calling for access to reproductive health care.

That’s a mixed message, and a losing one. We can do better.

How To Be An Amazing Feminist If You Are A Man

Men who are feminists. Feminists who are men.

From UN Women’s HeForShe campaign to President Obama calling only on women at one (note: one) press conference to Aziz Ansari going all feminist on David Letterman, mass culture is ready to declare everyday Valentine’s Day for those men who believe in the inherent dignity and equality of women and are willing to work for it.

This is great because feminism needs men to succeed.

But, let’s be honest, there is a dainty line between mansplaining and men advocating for feminism, and sometimes it appears our allied brethren appear to have no idea they are using their male privilege in the very spaces where good women are trying to be rid of it. Further there are good men who want to be good feminists but have questions about how to do so.

The first rule is that any man who wants to be feminist must take it upon himself to learn about the ins and outs of gender-based oppression, and how that negatively impacts women as well as men. A less polite way to say this would be that it’s not a woman’s job to educate you, and it’s certainly not a feminist’s job to drop everything she’s doing to let you know what’s up. The middle-ground would be to say that the phrase “men’s work” sucks and is offensive, but the one thing that can legitimately be added to this category is the responsibility of men to care about and learn about sexism without asking women to serve them education on a platter.

One of the primary truths of any social movement is that those most directly affected should be at the center of leadership, organizing, and power. So if you are a man who is a feminist (yay and thank you), please be mindful that the best people to run feminist spaces and speak to feminist issues are women. This is not asking men to sit back, nor is it asking men to be silent. Au contraire.

Men have a responsibility to take leadership in those spaces where women are not present or have not yet reached a critical mass. Instead of trying to be the darling of the feminist movement, use your male privilege in the spaces where women are not present or underrepresented to insist that more women are brought into leadership teams, or to advocate for the promotion of women. (Hint: Adding one white woman to the otherwise dude-bro panel isn’t going to cut it.) Look at issues like domestic violence and rape and the underrepresentation of women in politics and focus on what men should do differently, not what women should do differently. If the media notices you, great — use that power to draw attention to less-acknowledged women feminist thinkers, writers, and activists who should also be interviewed and given speaking platforms.

Being a true member of a movement means having opinions of your own, and articulating them, but if you find yourself disagreeing with women on how to advance gender equality — seriously, check yourself. Slow down and listen, then listen some more. (For that matter, describing vaginal discharge or how menstruation works is nearly always creepy from cisgender men — things I have seen from self-described feminists who are men — you can leave that to women, okay?) The bottom line is that men who are amazing feminists are amazing listeners and amazingly present. They listen to women and they support the leadership of women in feminist movements. They volunteer as activists and fundraisers and participants without insisting on hogging the limelight or floor.

And here’s a big no-no to get out of the way! Straight cisgender men who use the women’s movement to find a date are frankly disgusting. It’s okay to be a man, a feminist, and someone who likes to get laid. It is not okay to be a man who uses his feminist gatherings as a dating service. Having been on the other side of this multiple times, I can tell you it is, categorically, the worst. There are few things more dispiriting than discovering that the man who appears to value your specific ideas about women’s liberation is actually hoping for a blow job.

Just one of the lovely things (there are so many) the queer liberation movement has brought to feminism is the blurring and complicating of gender identity. This is a good thing; nothing in this post is meant to assert that transgender men or transgender women don’t belong at women’s colleges or within feminist spaces, for example — what makes women’s spaces special is not the insistence on a certain set of anatomy but rather freedom from those who most directly benefit from patriarchal supremacy. Further, men who do not benefit from heterosexual privilege and/or white privilege will relate differently to feminist concepts than men who do.

This is meant to be a dialogue rather than an edict, so please share in the comments what you think makes men amazing feminists. Men and women are welcome and encouraged to contribute!

In Response To A Reader Who Calls Herself A Pro-Life Feminist

Recently, I had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post: A pro-life feminist? There’s no such thing. In this letter I argue that “Feminism is an action agenda to secure the social, legal and political equality of women. Supporting policies and practices that help that agenda is what makes a person a feminist. The concept of a pro-life feminist is untenable because restrictions upon abortion deny women their agency as moral decision-makers and dignity as human beings.”

In response to this letter I received an email from someone who does consider herself a pro-life feminist. I would like to respond to her message seriously, and so I’m quoting her letter in full:

Dear Ms. Matson,

In your letter to the editor in the Washington Post today you stated that it is impossible for a person to be both pro-life and a feminist. Since I am both please allow me to explain my thinking. I believe that the unborn are human beings and therefore should not be deprived of life. (I don’t believe I need to make the case that slightly less than half of all unborn babies are female to support my self-labeled feminism.) I would ask that you not deny me my ‘agency as a moral decision maker’ and accept my definition of myself as a pro-life feminist. I contribute to organizations and schools which provide education for historically poorly served populations of girls and young women so that some day they may achieve financial security, be able to afford reliable family planning and enjoy motherhood free of fears about supporting their children. I consider it a feminist action to support the education of these young women and girls.

Thank you for this opportunity to express my thoughts.

I am grateful for this letter. While it does not disprove my argument, it does represent another point of view and I’d like to use it as an opportunity to dig deeper.

Before addressing this letter directly I feel it’s critical to raise the broader context in which this discussion is taking place. We live in an age when a primary form of outright opposition to feminism is a systemic and contradictory strategy to redefine feminism.

The first common iteration of an argument to support this strategy says feminism is worthless because equality has already been achieved and any woman who says otherwise is a weak and self-victimizing whiner.

The second argument keeps the basic idea that equality has been achieved but serves to support the status quo by, paradoxically, declaring feminism a good thing and then co-opting that definition to turn it into an identity for individuals, frequently ‘strong conservative women,’ who work against equality and justice for women as a class through support of things like corporate deregulation, assault weapons on demand, and religious fundamentalism masquerading as ‘institutional conscience’ (as opposed to the whining women who are working for laws, policies, and culture shifts that will empower women, such as raising the minimum wage, ratifying an Equal Rights Amendment, and ensuring access to health care — including reproductive health care — as a basic human right).

Briefly, these two claims are untrue and rest on wildly faulty premises. Equality has not been achieved. Feminism is a movement and not an identity. Opponents of equality and justice have a strong investment in painting feminism as an individual characteristic; it’s much easier to demonize feminists as man-hating harridans than it is to praise white male supremacy.

Yet a third common iteration of this strategy to undermine and redefine feminism accepts that equality has been achieved, or is at least theoretically achievable immediately, if only women would make smarter choices and stop being their own worst enemies. This is an area where in particular the anti-sexuality fundamentalists love to flutter their batons. Of course women are equal, they argue. They just can’t have sex unless they are prepared to have a baby or pay for their own contraception, because that’s the way the world just works. It’s about personal responsibility!

We live in an age where pregnancy is viewed as a consequence of something you did to yourself. While this personal responsibility frame may appear gender neutral, it is women as a class who are disadvantaged. Men are free to have their health care needs recognized as health care needs rather than something “extra.” Women, on the other hand, have the specific health care needs related to their sexuality and reproductive health consigned to questions of “morality,” or “difficult social issues,” or even the supernatural — mystifying the basic truths that pregnancy is produced by heterosexual sex and a baby is produced by a woman giving birth.

These attitudes feed into discrimination against the accessibility and coverage of reproductive health care that must be available to women as a necessary precondition of their social and legal equality. Let’s repeat that again, because it’s important: Women cannot be equal without access to and coverage of all forms of reproductive health care, whether or not they use them. 

This view that pregnancy is something you did to yourself also feeds into a bunch of seemingly unrelated bullshit social narratives – that women as a class make less money or occupy fewer positions of power because they are individually “deciding” to have children, that women as a class are more subject to dependence on public assistance that must be made less available by government because otherwise women are too individually “licentious” or “slutty” and won’t keep their legs shut, and overwhelmingly that women as a class can rise above a world largely run by white men and white male dominance in their capacity as individual women by being good girls and making bomb-ass choices.

We can’t gloss too quickly over the fact that men are largely free to engage in heterosexual sex without these consequences. We should carefully pause on arguments that the unique reproductive capabilities of the female body come with unique responsibilities that must be borne by women, rather than accommodated by society as routine human needs in the form of health care.

In essence, the freedom of men to have sex without being consigned to a second class social, legal, and economic status, coupled with the freedom of men to have their bodies accepted as bodies and part of medicine rather than vessels of sin and consequences is the screaming, blinking reason why there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. You can’t mystify a woman’s body and disrespect her decisions and be a feminist. Even if you are a woman  yourself.

Back to the letter-writer, though. I want to be sure to respond to her distinct points:

I do respect her ability to self-define and especially make her own decisions, and, as I said in the original letter she was responding to, it is possible to never have an abortion yourself (or even swear you would never have an abortion yourself) and still be a feminist; the issue lies in your approach to other women.

Self-definition is not rooted in the control of others. Furthermore, feminism is not rooted in the control of women; coercion around the issue of pregnancy is pure and naked control of women. Ultimately, however, this is not an issue of self-definition.

Whether or not the letter-writer agrees, she is appropriating the label of feminism so long as she continues to believe that individual women should not be respected in their decisions around sexuality and pregnancy.

I am grateful the letter writer donates to education for women and girls, and retain hope that she may someday open her heart, mind, and even wallet to the inherent dignity and humanity of other women — even if they are sexual, and even if they may not make the same decisions she does.

My Pregnancy, My Eating Disorder

Among other things, recovering from my eating disorder meant I could get pregnant. Me. Pregnant. It’s a stretch for many of us to imagine getting excited about growing a big belly, but add a history of eating disorders into the mix and it’s downright weird.

Eating disorder culture is an unhealthy, relentless focus on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical fitness, along with the presentation of hunger and food as pathologies, or demons, to be conquered. This culture of body hatred is inescapable, whether you have struggled with an eating disorder or not.

We are supposed to feel bad about our bodies, no matter what they look like.

We are supposed to judge our food and exercise choices as “good” or “bad.” It is considered totally normal to say “I was good today” in reference to starving, or to say “I’ve been so bad” to refer to the act of not exercising. This happens so much it is considered commonplace; but it’s shocking when you think about the fact that food and exercise are used as shorthand to convey our entire worth as persons.

Body hatred, negative self-image, and eating disorder culture are so relatable because they are everywhere. They are not the exclusive provinces of women, but it’s true that women are disproportionately impacted. The pressure to be less is profound; it is not just about bodies. It is about the devaluing of an entire gender. It is a pressure, placed strongly upon women, to take up less space in the world. To be seen and not heard. To be airbrushed into something that is non-human. These unattainable standards are labeled “perfect.”

And yet, how to explain the endless fetishization of pregnant women? The pressure to turn pregnancy into a spectator sport, complete with photographs that everyone you’ve ever met can comment upon online? The relentless messages about “getting your body back” after pregnancy is complete? The magazines, the stars, and the stories about how they lost (or didn’t lose) the baby weight?

Through the process of my pregnancy, and through my lens as an eating disorder survivor, I came to see pregnancy voyeur culture as an important component of eating disorder culture. The specifics may be different, but many of the pressures and root behaviors are the same.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body and physical appearance is seen as appropriate for comment by strangers.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, it is considered appropriate to discuss how much weight she has gained or lost, and these numbers are taken to signify something more than simply what she weighs. They are taken as a way for others to assess not just whether she is acceptable, but whether other women are acceptable.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, the shape of her body is taken as an immediate assessment and announcement of her sexuality.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, strangers feel they can touch her, from rubbing a belly to rubbing an arm.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body is treated as a piece of public property. That body may be commented upon, or have laws placed upon it.

Pregnancy can be a profoundly alienating and centering experience. My pregnancy was both. It was shocking to me that my body could create my baby, and also that during the process of pregnancy I could feel totally new things. That foods I had loved no longer tasted good. That foods I hadn’t desired in years were sudden, urgent cravings. That aches could develop in areas of my body I had never considered.

It was also centering, in that I had to surrender to what my body would do. When it came time to give birth, I had no choice. I was operating on my body’s timetable. Not my mind’s.

When I realized I was going to have a girl, I thought hard about the body image struggles I had gone through in the past. I thought about the hospitalizations of my youth, and the days when, at rock bottom, I accepted that anorexia meant I was probably going to die. I thought about not wanting to pass that along to my daughter, and more specifically taking active steps to not model any body destructive behavior in front of her.

And so, as with my recovery, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. I grew. And this time, so did she.

This original essay first appeared in DISORDERED a zine on eating disorders feminism and anti-oppression…