Ask A Feminist #1: My friends don’t get it

// 11 January 2012

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In our first Ask A Feminist feature, a “spectacularly frustrated” feminist reader is looking for ways to convince her friends that feminism is still relevant…

Dear Laura,

yellow question mark chalked on a tarmac road

I’m a feminist, secure and happy in that, but seemingly inarticulate when trying to explain both why I am and why feminism is still needed. More importantly, I struggle to explain this to my own generation, early 20s, and particularly males, in a way that they find accessible and engaging. Almost all my male friends – including my boyfriend – either don’t believe that women are still treated differently or cannot comprehend that the way society is structured is not just inherently normal and natural. What’s more, many of my female friends would be similarly perplexed at my annoyance that they wouldn’t deem themselves feminist.

It is futile to give them a copy of an overtly feminist book, or a highly politicised blog post, or even just quoting a series of statistics (detailing the pay inequality for example), because these things don’t speak to or engage them. What should I do?! It is not that they fundamentally and completely disagree, rather that they’re ignorant but willing to consider other perspectives.

– Spectacularly Frustrated, 23, Newcastle

Firstly, rest assured that we’ve all been there! It can be really difficult to explain something that seems so obvious to you, particularly when you are personally and emotionally invested in it.

I want to start with your boyfriend, who you mention in more detail your email. You say you don’t want to just give your friends a book, but I think in the case of your boyfriend it is wholly reasonable to ask that he spend a bit of time learning about something that is so important to you. Why not buy/borrow him a copy of The Equality Illusion? It describes quite clearly the gender inequality that still exists in the UK today, backing up its claims with plenty of case studies and evidence. It might be a bit of a heavy read, but it will give your boyfriend a basic understanding, enabling you to move on to more engaging and personal discussions about the issues you face as a woman and why you are a feminist.

With the rest of your friends, I think you need to encourage them to look at the world around them and to think about how things could be different. People tend to pay more attention to the conclusions they draw themselves than what someone else tells them they should be thinking. Their immediate responses will probably reflect the usual justifications we hear time and again when we complain about sexism, but that’s because it’s what they’re used to hearing too. Be prepared to come back at these and encourage your friends to think more deeply about what they’re saying. Try working statistics and personal stories naturally into the resulting discussion, rather than just throwing them out as conversation starters.

For example, you could ask them how often they see women’s sport on TV or in the papers. They will probably say women just don’t play sport or that women just aren’t as good at sport as men so no one wants to watch them. You can then lead this into a discussion about gender socialisation – how girls can be put off sport at school because of homophobia (only lesbians play football!) and the pressure to look good all the time. Suggest that maybe the lack of focus on women causes women to take less interest in sport, rather than the other way round. Mention the Sports Personality of the Year debacle, where highly talented sportswomen were completely ignored by a bunch of male award panellists.

Or ask why they think so many women still take their husband’s name when they get married. What does this say about who is most important in a heterosexual relationship? Your female friends may say it’s romantic, but ask them why putting men first is considered normal and romantic.

These might not be the biggest problems facing women, but they are everyday examples of the fact that we don’t live in a 100% equal society, and once your friends recognise this, they’re more likely to listen when you do talk about the big issues. You can also use these everyday examples to lead into discussion of the bigger issues, as they tend to be minor symptoms of major problems.

Another good approach with your male friends is to show how sexism and gender stereotyping affects their lives as well as women’s. Point out the disparity in parental leave – why should men be entitled to so much less than women? Why should they be the ones to bear the financial burden of supporting a child, just because they’re men? This could lead into a discussion of the pay gap and how women earn less and have more limited career opportunities because they end up being the primary caregiver whether they want to be or not.

When they inevitably say that women are just designed to be the main parent, or are naturally more caring, ask them to look around them and see how different individual women are from each other. I bet they have female friends who never want kids and can remember female teachers who were much meaner than their male counterparts. Does it really make sense to generalise about billions of people?! Most people know a variety of men and women with different personalities, interests, temperaments and lifestyles, and the stereotypes tend to melt away in the face of reality.

By encouraging your friends to question the status quo rather than lecturing them about what’s wrong with the world, you’ll help them to see that what they thought was normal and natural is often the result of sexism; hence why you’re into feminism.

These are just a few ideas that I’ve found helpful in my own life – there’s lots of other ways you could approach feminism with your friends – so I’ll open the floor to everyone else: what advice can you give Spectacularly Frustrated? Are there any resources you’ve found useful in getting your family and friends to engage with feminism?

Want to Ask A Feminist? Email laura[at]thefword.org.uk.

Comments From You

Christine // Posted 11 January 2012 at 11:29 pm

Universal rights of the Declaration embracing all human beings are feminist : The a-feminists are not humanists.

Lisa // Posted 12 January 2012 at 1:17 am

The single most effective tactic I know in this situation is The Bechdel Test. A film passes the Test if it contains:

1. At least two (named*) women

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

* depending on the version of the test

Passing the test doesn’t mean a film’s feminist, but it’s just staggering to look at how many don’t, but would easily pass a kind of “Reverse Bechdel”.

Schnee // Posted 12 January 2012 at 5:12 am

When I’m trying to make a point about sexism, or about why Feminism is still needed, I draw the anaology with racism. No-one would claim that there is no longer any racism.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote that article about sexist language, making the point that we wouldn’t go around saying, ‘hey, you whiteys,’ and just expect people of other ethnicities to suck it up, because when we say ‘whiteys’, we don’t mean just white people, we mean everyone. That was a powerful message.

If someone says to me, ‘oh, so and so isn’t sexist,’ I can often apply that same test. Well, would you say that if the (whatever it is) applied to race instead of gender?

In reality, more people react more strongly to racism. They recognise it. The majority of reasonably minded people don’t think that one ethnicity is inherently superior to another, whereas because patriarchy is SO entrenched, society is SO steeped in the notion that male things are of greater value, there are both women AND men who reinforce the whole second sex paradigm.

People are lazy-thinkers. They don’t want to step outside of their own comfort zone. It’s so true that given a contrary argument to their own beliefs, most people will immediately expend a great deal of energy proving that what they believe is correct, rather than objectively looking at they new point that is being presented.

After all, if they discover that what feminists are saying is true, even slightly true, then they may have to change. Far easier to demonise the evil feminists, that takes far less effort.

Laura // Posted 12 January 2012 at 8:11 am

@ Schnee: Actually, I think a lot of people would say there is no longer any racism in the UK, and a lot of people do hold racist views. We also need to remember that there isn’t a clear distinction between sexism and racism – black women experience both, often in combination. So while your approach might work with some people, it’s not very helpful from an intersectional perspective, as you’re essentially saying that sexism is a bigger issue than racism because more people are (apparently) aware of racism than sexism. This kind of “oppression olympics” debate pits people suffering different oppressions against each other and erases the experiences of those who experience multiple oppressions. Please see Holly’s post here for more.

Laura // Posted 12 January 2012 at 8:12 am

Comment from our Facebook page:

“I would also add, may not work for everyone, that even if the friends feel women in UK are doing ok, there are millions of women worldwide suffering horrendous inequality and treatment and they need our support and for us to fight for all women.”

Chloe // Posted 12 January 2012 at 9:05 am

Give them a copy of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be A Woman. Not overtly ‘feminist’ but it sure is once you open it … even my ‘non-feminist’ friends loved it, and at the end said shiftily yeah-they-probably-would-call-themselves-a-feminist-now

Jacqui Christodoulou // Posted 12 January 2012 at 9:42 am

I encounter the ‘women are equal now’ argument all the time. I try to find an example where women are clearly oppressed, such as the ‘one in four women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime’ or ‘on average two women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner. Unfortunately, It’s easy to find a current news item refelcting this, or a women who has been abused by their male partner to bring this into context.

JessLeeds // Posted 12 January 2012 at 10:11 am

Start a pub conversation about street harrassment. We once had a really interesting talk between about four women and three men where the women said just how much they got groped, or cat called, or harrassed and then this led on to a bigger discussion about how men are expected to fight each other whereas women are expected not to mind too much about the groping and to gender roles as a whole.

hannah // Posted 12 January 2012 at 2:23 pm

Seconding Caitlin Moran’s book and the Bechdel test. They are easy to understand and a whole lot more engaging for someone with no previous interest in feminism than a factsheet of dry stats about the gender pay gap. The Bechdel test has the advantage of being a foundation for a discussion that you can subtly guide – this approach is probably better than just leaving someone to get on with educating themselves with a book, no matter how carefully chosen.

I also agree with JessLeeds on street harassment as a good introduction (marriage & names is a similar good everyday example, mentioned by Laura). I’ve found that women who wouldn’t define themselves as feminists (not because they’re hostile to it, just because they’re not particularly ‘political’) often spontaneously start conversations about topics like this, or you can unearth secret frustrations by starting a conversation and giving them a space to open up – then you can drop in a ‘…and that’s what feminism is about!’. As much as I wouldn’t wish this to happen to anyone, I’m assuming that since you’re a woman that you probably experience street harassment from time to time, so next time it happens to you or a friend, tell your boyfriend. It might shock him to realise that women he cares about have to endure this kind of abuse and it happens not because some people are individual isolated arseholes, but because we live in a sexist culture that tolerates and is riddled with systemic arseholery.

More generally, I would say that the ideal way to introduce feminism into a conversation is to start from a personal story or something in the news, and work outwards to the broader issues of gender inequality. In terms of the news stories you pick, I think that news from your culture is likely to be a better starting point than really blatant and horrible stories about, for instance, VAWG in Afganistan. I am a research student in postcolonial studies and thought carefully about this before posting, so hear me out. The starkness of the violence could be a useful shock, but I think that more often such extreme stories are easily compartmentalised because of essentialist assumptions about ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ in ‘our’ and ‘their’ cultures (inverted comma overload); they also produce feelings of powerlessness which can seem to permit indifference and inaction, and they allow the person you’re talking to to make the (bad) argument that women are fine here because we’re not being beaten by our in-laws anymore. It goes without saying that the ideal starting point is one which relates VAWG or another feminist topic cross-culturally, but this isn’t always possible.

Fairly sure I’ve just put my head above the parapet and everyone is now loading up their weapons ready to fire accusations of ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘dismissing the experiences of the most oppressed women’. It’s a useful and interesting debate to have and I’m open to hearing people who disagree.

JessicaFMB // Posted 12 January 2012 at 2:35 pm

My boyfriend didn’t know much about feminism before he met me, and he’s very sweetly agreed to read a book on the subject so he can understand it even better. I was originally thinking The Equality Illusion or How To Be a Woman, but I recently came across some reviews for The Guy’s Guide to Feminism by Michael Kimmel, and am thinking it could be a good starting point. Anyone else read it? What did you think?

Cycleboy // Posted 12 January 2012 at 5:23 pm

Good books to read?

Many, many years ago, I read a book by John Nicholson, “A Question of Sex”. This is not a feminist text, per se, but examines society’s assumptions about the perceived differences between the sexes from a very neutral, but scientific, viewpoint. It certainly got me thinking…

kateb // Posted 13 January 2012 at 12:26 am

I think the task of trying to ‘convert’ someone in one or a few conversations about feminism and why there is still a need to for it is a very hard task that might sap your energy and leave you feeling disheartened or frustrated. People rarely change an opinion in one evening of conversation especially considering the unhelpful stereotypes surrounding feminism. I’d advocate a kind of continued approach where you try to be an example to those around you. Try offering a feminist perspective on whatever comes up in conversation with your friends or boyfriend whether it be about a film, a news story, an advert, or whatever. Hearing different opinions is always healthy and they might start to think in other ways about things or question things they normally wouldn’t. It’s annoying being ‘the feminist’ in a group of friends but I think after a while people will come to admire you for always standing up for women’s rights and not being afraid to say how you feel. I’d imagine your friends would agree with the small points you might make even if hearing them all in one go could make them feel defensive or put off. Every now and again when the conversation does come round to feminism, you can bring up some of the examples of things you’d agreed on before and say ‘see, that’s why I am a feminist!.. you are too!’

Schnee // Posted 13 January 2012 at 3:23 am

@ Laura. I wasn’t implying that sexism is a bigger issue than racism, I was saying that sexism is every bit as important as racism.

Beth // Posted 13 January 2012 at 4:57 pm

It might seem a bit ‘out there’, but if he’s a south park fan you could ask if he’s seen the ‘nagger’ episode. It’s about racism and the conclusion is that one of the kids can never understand how it feels to be discriminated against because he’s one of the priviledged ones. Might help him understand that as one of the men, he’s not ever going to completely understand?

De Zesde Clan // Posted 14 January 2012 at 10:07 am

For me, asking open questions always works. For an example, he and she proudly announce they expect a baby. Great! Later on, insert questions at opportune moments. For an example, ask the guy how he will handle things like the combination of a paid job and household / childcare. The results are often very funny: men who automatically assume the woman will take care of things and he can just go back to ‘normal’ are found everywhere, so these seemingly innocent questions can act as an eye-opener. Added bonus; you’re just asking a question, at the right moment so that it feels naturally in a conversation. It means you don’t get pushed into the role of the angry feminist.

Gemma McDonald // Posted 15 January 2012 at 12:23 pm

hi – I’m newly back into feminism and have just read Cailtin Moran’s brilliant book and then then equally great ‘the Equality Illusion’. Germaine Greer is next!

I wanted to comment on this blog because I have had the same problems talking to my friends – very upsettingley they were very anti-feminist – you’d be horrified at what they said – though some who would agree with me were maybe to shy to say what they thought. These were educated 38ish female teachers in 2012! I’m horrified! I know you may say ‘get new friends’ but I’m going to try and convert them with the above tips.

anywavewilldo // Posted 15 January 2012 at 3:00 pm

If you are spending more than half your time with people who dismiss your views then you are going to end up feeling very isolated.

If you truly feel that ‘getting people to understand feminism’ is a task you want to take on then you need a supportive base to work from.

This will make sharing feminism, easier, calmer and more sustainable. [or you could just let them figure it out themselves without your help – it’s not automatically your job]

my advice is that you get more friends that are feminist than are not.

also why have a boyfriend that doesn’t understand something you feel is so important? If you have several lovers, or he’s a fuck buddy, then this doesn’t matter so much perhaps – but if you are pair bonding with someone they need to respect and preferably share the things that are central to your life – so maybe get a new (boy)friend

ishallnotworry // Posted 15 January 2012 at 10:34 pm

anywavewilldo:

I don’t agree with the last bit of your comment about the boyfriend, my reading of the post is that both the boyfriend and friends do want to understand and are happy to try to share the posters perspective, presumably form the boyfriends pov that precisesly out of a desire to share and respect each others views that. There are many reasons why we’re with a person, for my the differences are as important as the similarities so long as each party is open to accepting those differences (within reason of course), so I wouldn’t advocate getting a new boyfriend so quickly, in fact I think it is highly admirable to be facing up to the issue and finding ways round it, I don’t think my younger less confident self would have done.

I’d say stick with it, to be able to start having these conversations, to share ideas is the best basis for any friendship or relationship and whilst it’s hard at first it is something all of us outspoken feminist, unfortunately, have to do quite regularly. I would go down the small but often route, when you get catcalled explain how this makes you feel and question why it is acceptable, when watching TV ask why the female presenters are young and beautiful, presumably both your boyfriend and female and male friends can engage with the issue of the beauty myth, so this could be a place to start and it is immediate and all around them.

Good luck!

HeatherStill // Posted 16 January 2012 at 7:16 pm

I’ve had this problem for a while. I’m 18 and although my boyfriend is a feminist, a lot of my friends aren’t and they don’t seem to understand the reasoning behind my morals. This, of course, is perfectly reasonable. However you must come up with new approaches, if you recite the suffergete movement, they aren’t going to care because it, for them, is a long time ago.

I would read newspapers, for me, i or the independent have columnists a plenty on womyn’s rights. They bring light to problems in which you can further research on, I cut out these newspaper articles (because I’m cool like that) so I can keep them and show them to future generations to explain how oblivious most people were to sexism. Here are a couple:

A recent study showed that men could not tell the difference between comments made by erial rapists and comments made by “lads mags”. Research further into the content of these quotations.

A womyn in high authority at an NHS hospital was fired due to her “ethnicity and gender” (she was fired after she was pregnant), and that illegally, 30,000 womyn get fired a year due to pregnancy.

An example that happened to my friend: she found out she was pregnant, got top A level results yet was banned from entering university because of her pregnancy.

As with guys, express how unfair it is, like said in other advice, that men get lower paternity leave and get mocked if they wera anything pink. If they can relate to that they can relate to you.

I still struggle with trying to make other people realise that sexism is still apparent and there is nothing wrong with being a feminist. But i hope this helps.

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