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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Are We So Ashamed of Our Women Heroes?


For as long as I can remember, I've relied on the inspirational company of heroes. When I was in grade school, I read every biography in a blue-book series of famous figures in American history: Dr. King, Helen Keller, FDR, Harriet Tubman, and many more... all of their stories told my soul I could change the world, especially important for a kid in a broken home craving a role model to emulate.

As I grew older, my role models evolved and meant more to me in different ways. Keller was about overcoming tremendous obstacles, King was about inspiring people to change through words of love and non-violence, etc.

And yet, besides these figures, I had real-life heroes around me, and most of the time, they were women: Mrs. Mabry, my 8th grade English teacher who saw something in me and pushed me harder than I'd ever been pushed, not accepting anything less than my best; my grandmother, who lavished me with love but encouraged me to think outside the box and always consider others; and Mrs. Wright, my high school history teacher who impressed upon me to challenge everything, even my own opinions, on a constant basis.

It wasn't because they were women that I took them on as role models; it was because I needed role models, and they happened to be there.

When I joined the Army and went infantry, it still didn't occur to me that gender should factor into picking a role model or mentor. One of my sergeants was a great guy, and I ended up following his lead through my enlisted years.

But when I started attending West Point, three years later, I had access to what one would describe as a tremendous and diverse database of mentors and role models.

And my pick happened to be my math instructor, a lieutenant colonel who was very professional but had solid leadership skills. And again, gender didn't matter. She just happened to be someone who inspired me by her example.

Yet, I began to notice an anti-woman sentiment not only at West Point but in the mood of the country when it came to holding up women as role models.

You see, a female officer at the Academy was always respected, face to face, but in the privacy of our room, I'd hear classmates (mostly male but some females) be ridiculously critical of our women who were officers as opposed to men, who weren't put in as critical a light.

In fact, men who were hard asses were seen with more awe and respect. You may not personally like the man, but you admired him as a leader.

Women officers, on the other hand, were respected and got the job done, but no cadets (at least, none of the male cadets) wanted to be like them. "Bitch" was not an uncommon term to be thrown around.

Outside of the Academy, it didn't seem to be much different. Admiring a high-ranking male politician was acceptable. Admiring Hillary Clinton? God forbid.

But this is especially pronounced along gender lines.

If a young woman in middle school or high school hangs up a poster of Barack Obama in her room, this is seen as acceptable. It's fine for women to admire men and want to be like them.

If a young man (the same age) hangs up a poster of Hillary Clinton in his room, this is seen as odd (maybe even troubling, is he gay? Oh no!).

Society tells us young men can't think of women as role models, unless they're a family member, whereas young women can admire and seek to emulate anyone, regardless of gender.

If you're a young man, and if you have a poster on your wall with a woman, she had better be half-naked in a bikini, even if the Ronald Reagan or Gen. Patton poster next to it obviously features the man fully-clothed.

Young men are not to taught to think of women as role models. They are taught to think of them as either family members or sexual objects. There is no other category presented.

And if you do happen to get a boss that's a woman, suck it up and get through it. You can always go to the bar, after work, and complain about that "ball-busting bitch" to your friends.

Men, even in my own generation, are still taught that it is bad to be a woman. Pussy, bitch, fag, etc. are all used on a regular basis by men towards other men to insult and discredit them because after all, what is more insulting than downgrading a man to a woman, from masculine to feminine?

That's how it's viewed.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton left her position as Secretary of State as one of the most successful and popular diplomats in history. She is widely touted as the inevitable Democratic Nominee for President in 2016.

A few miles away, several dozen women gathered to give personal testimonies in the Symposium on Women in Combat. They attended to tell their stories of overcoming adversity, hanging with the men (with relative ease, might I add), and engaging in combat successfully. Their actions made them every bit as brave and effective as their brothers-in-arms.

And yet, between Clinton and these uniformed women, how many young men and boys would lift up their hand to say they want to be like them, someday?

Time and time again, we perpetuate the belief to children from an early age that women are weaker, less intelligent, and less capable than men. Women belong in princess costumes making us sandwiches while they clean the house.

And young women notice this, immediately: "Is that my destiny? Am I meant to cater to men?"

I posted a picture of a woman I really admire on Facebook back in 2010 with the caption, "One of my personal heroes...", and the very first comment was from a classmate mocking it based on gender.

This is a common reaction and illustrates a vicious cycle: define a woman's role from an early age, tear down those who attempt to transcend it, observe their lack of success, attribute it to "women are weaker than men and belong in the home", and use this to further limit girls from an early age.

It leads to other things: if a person is commonly perceived as weaker, they're more likely to be exploited and attacked. Is it really that much of a coincidence that women make up 91% of rape victims and men make up 82% of Congress?

We have a major problem in this country of marginalizing women based on ridiculous criteria, beating down any woman who rises above it, and then, pretending like there's no connection between that and not only the lack of women in power but the number of women who are victimized.

It may seem like a ridiculous protest slogan, but it's absolutely true: the patriarchy is real, and it needs to be destroyed.

We need to get rid of the vicious slander that a young man wanting to follow in the footsteps of a great woman isn't right in the head.

We can no longer take women who worked hard to get out of the home to contribute so much in so many brilliant and impacting ways and stick them back there.

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  1. This is literal perfection. Amazing post!

  2. I'm an 18 year old male, and later this year I will begin a degree on English Language focusing on Gender studies. The majority of my biggest idols are female. Fantastic article.

  3. A great post. It is very refreshing to hear men say such things, considering what I've been experiencing my whole life.

  4. This is an excellent article. I'm so glad it was posted by a friend on Facebook. As I said to her, "I LOVE THIS. It's so true. When Hillary was running for the nomination when I was in college, there were signs that said, "There's a reason we're uncomfortable when women wear pants." and lots of talk about making sandwiches. In my philosophy classes, men who take side A, would IMMEDIATELY run to side B with the other men, if I argued for side A. Always. When I was a top salesperson, the men told me it was literally just because I was a girl. And I was using my sexuality. I mean, the list is endless."


  5. Saw this blogged on Tumblr. I have since shared this with my friends on facebook and twitter. I hope it goes viral.

  6. Thank you, I enjoyed your article, alas that many of our brothers and sisters come to that, can't even begin to consider some of what you have written without getting in to a froth and lather...

  7. It's inspiring to hear someone discuss this issue in a calm, reasoned way. It's so vital to have men who will fight for women, not by standing in front of us, but by standing beside us.

  8. You could be right, although what you've observed may be racially specific.

    For instance, posters of Angela Davis, Wangari Maathai, Maya Angelou, Mae Jemison, Winnie Mandela, Graca Machel, or numerous other global African women would likely not meet the same reaction from, for instance, Nigerians, Jamaicans, Somalis, Ghanaians, African-Canadians, and so forth.

    So the question might be to ask what exists in Euro-American culture that produces such reactions, and what exists in African-American (and -Canadian, and -etc.) culture that avoids such responses?

  9. This is my favorite thing I've read in a long time -- accurate, well-written, appropriately scathing THANK YOU. You give me hope for the men in this country.

  10. good article, women deserve respect and admiration for their achievements. however there is an aspect missing, while women are marginalized and held to be less capable men are held to an often unrealistically high standard which has lead to 80% of all suicides being men and 90% of the homeless being male. the expectations upon men to be strong and capable in all situations harms both genders by not allowing women to achieve to their full potential and harms men by forcing them to attempt to achieve something which is beyond the capabilities of either gender. if we focus only on what is harming women we will never find true equality and respect between the genders.

  11. Great post!


  12. Reply posted here:

    "...those shaming words have been used as often by women in addressing men as by men in addressing other men --- especially after those women receive a "No."."

  13. You had me right up until your last line: "We can no longer take women who worked hard to get out of the home to contribute so much in so many brilliant and impacting ways and stick them back there."

    This denigration of work done in the home is very deeply misogynistic. There is very valuable and even "brilliant and impacting" work done in the home. Of course, I don't think that working in the home should be a requirement or even the exclusive purview of women. But the lack of respect which is given to the work of raising the next generation is abhorrent. One of the major problems facing women is how to transition between work and home. Once you've been home with the kids for a while, it doesn't matter how well educated you are, how much you've kept your skills up or what unique and valuable abilities you have gained and developed during your time as a full time mother, you are worthless. And much of that attitude can be traced right back to that last line there comparing the "brilliant and impacting" work of women outside the home with the terrible specter of being a woman who is stuck in the home.

    1. Rebecca says:
      "Of course, I don't think that working in the home should be a requirement or even the exclusive purview of women. But the lack of respect which is given to the work of raising the next generation is abhorrent. One of the major problems facing women is how to transition between work and home.

      I would posit that broadening people's assumptions to include women as role models for men is part of the process of breaking down the denigration of the domestic. Given that the domestic sphere is so tightly associated with women and femininity, encouraging men to embrace women as positive role models is one of many steps which can be taken toward shifting men's perceptions of women and femininity in a more open, positive direction. Boys and men are often taught to view anything associated with women and femininity as toxic and worthless. Hence, domesticity is also seen as worthless. Encouraging men to actually identify with women is a pretty good start in shifting this dysfunctional pattern.

  14. Rebecca says:
    This denigration of work done in the home is very deeply misogynistic.

    Rebecca, please consider this context:

    "Young men are not to taught to think of women as role models. They are taught to think of them as either family members or sexual objects. There is no other category presented."

    when reading this:
    "We can no longer take women who worked hard to get out of the home to contribute so much in so many brilliant and impacting ways and stick them back there."

    In other words, men are still raised to relate to women as having a domestic/familial relationship (mothers, wives, etc.) and/or someone to have sex with (girlfriend, one-night-stand, wife, etc.). In that context, imagining women as something other than familial, domestic or sexual is a matter of challenging men's misogynistic, limited, perceptions of women. I might add, that these male perceptions hold great power in churches, government, advertising agencies, and various other institutions.

    We still live in a time where cultural assumptions place the greater burden of childcare upon women. We still live in a time where the isles of toy stores are gender segregated and have pink sections lined with baby dolls, baby carriages, tea sets, easy-bake ovens, and so on. Contemporary gender role assumptions are embedded with the notion that homemaking continues to be the primary responsibility of women and working outside of the home comes second, while men simply work outside of the home.

    Envisioning women as strong role models in non-domestic contexts is still far too uncommon. In spite of the women's movement having fought to expand women's roles beyond the domestic and the sexual 40 years ago, we still fight older, more restrictive assumptions and media representations of women's roles.

    Given this context, I do not see the author's comment as misogynistic. I think his words are an insightful assessment of the current social reality. I understood his comments to be referencing the decades long struggle to broaden gender roles so that women are just as likely to be seen as leaders as they are mothers.

    1. The denigration of traditional women's work as inherently oppressive and worthless has its roots in a lot of misogyny. And it has very, very real negative consequences for women. Also, while it's fine to praise high achieving women, why would men be drawn to contribute to the domestic sphere given that it's still held in such low regard? Which is part of why women do carry such a disproportionate amount of the burden on that front.

      Praising women for living up to the standards set by men while continuing to denigrate an entire, very important part of every human being's life -the domestic - is just a perpetuation of paternalistic standards. Women have value when they do things that men do, but neither men nor women who engage in things women traditionally do have any value in our culture. That's misogyny. And it's a huge problem which affects many people's lives.

    2. Sure, Rebecca. All of those things are true... as are the points I brought up. Opening up men to see women as positive role models is but one approach and not the only one. Feminist efforts need not limit themselves to only one avenue of action. A whole host of interlocking efforts are needed. Society enforces sexism from multiple angles and as such, multiple approaches are needed.

      I still do not see the misogyny in the author's words. You might as well accuse the decades of struggle by feminists to broaden women's roles beyond the domestic sphere as misogynistic.

    3. And the thing is, if you cant find a path to start to encourage young boys to start to identify with girls and women as people to emulate, they are going to continue to see anything associated with the female half of the world as alien and inferior. Even the Harry Potter stories were penned under the author's initials because she feared that boys wouldn't read her books. You've got to start somewhere and you've got to start young.

    4. Just to be more clear, providing examples of women who fulfill non-traditional roles commonly coded as "masculine" would access a mode of being already comfortable and familiar for many boys, given the way boys tend to be socialized in mainstream society. It can serve as an initial "wedge" in opening up boys to the concept of women serving as role models for boys. Establish that precedent and work from there on prying that "crack in socialization" even further as time progresses.

      This doesn't have to be the only approach, however. For example, you could use male role models assuming non-traditional "feminine" activities as well. The more we can break down the notion of certain activities being exclusively coded as one gender or the other, the better.

      There are, no doubt, plenty of other approaches as well. These are merely but two of the more obvious avenues. I suspect it makes sense to use multiple approaches, rather than limiting one's approach to just one (or two).

  15. Wait a minute, a guy with a beyonce poster in his room would not look weird at all, even if she was fully clothed!

    What I'm trying to say is that neither would be considered weird to start with since they have dissociated themself from their gender and would only be associated with their accomplishments. Not saying that accomplishments portray anything anyways!

    1. "Wait a minute, a guy with a beyonce poster in his room would not look weird at all, even if she was fully clothed!"

      However much clothing she is wearing, no other "man's man" would look twice at another guy having her on his wall, assuming it's because he finds her attractive. But what if it were a less traditionally pretty celebrity?

      I think the point he's trying to make (and it's a good one) is that men aren't taught to look to women as role models and looking at one for anything other than how attractive she is to men is almost taboo. And it's true for most men.

      I really loved this post. I think we get much closer to gender equality when men join in and give the climb a boost rather than push us down. You're a a good man, Charles Clymer. :)

  16. Astounding. This is very true. Sexism has such an effect on men as well. Why can't a man admire and want to emulate a woman? Why is it seen as laughable? It underlies the misogyny we continue to hold in the core of our society. Thank you for your eloquence and shared experiences.

  17. This is really a good blog.please keep it up man.
    Female models

  18. I really don't know why I keep reading these kinds of articles & blogs. I know this stuff so much already and it drives me more and more batty the more it's reinforced. Just...why do we still need to talk about this? Why is this still a problem that needs to be addressed?! Why do we still have to have lengthy discussions, analyses, debates, etc....IN 2014?!? WHY ARE THE GENERAL PUBLIC SO DAMN STUPID?!?! WHY HAS ANY OF THIS EVERRRR BEEN AN ISSUE?!?!?!? GAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ...more movies/books that bring up forces outside of humanity seeking to kill all humans due to our sins, real or not, need to just cite this patriarchy crap as all the reason they need.


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