Dear feminist heroes: please don’t hate me if sometimes I disagree slightly

Update: Following some discussions on Twitter (ironically), I regret some of my wording choices in this post. In particular:

  • The title conjures an image of feminists sniping at me if I disagree.
  • The “head above the parapet” phrase implies that I’m taking some sort of risk both here and in any possible disagreement in comments. The only risk involved is really to my ego, whereas I acknowledge that many brave women face awful harassment for posting their views online.
  • Likewise my use of “safe space” at the end implies a lack of safety (for me) in disagreement otherwise. Again, this is inappropriate compared with the need for real safe spaces.

In addition, where the tone is patronizing – any implication of “I’ll be the level-headed chap to bring common sense, balance and reason to the feminist orthodoxy” – I apologise.

None of this was my conscious intention, but I definitely need to think about why I chose to express myself this way in the first place.

With all that said, I haven’t changed the text beyond fixing typos – I’m not keen on revisionism, and if I don’t own the words I use, it makes it too easy to make the same mistakes again.

Jon, the bad feminist

I have a deep, dark secret. Sometimes when I’m reading an article – most commonly on rape culture, but not always – I say “not all men!” to myself, very quietly. I don’t say it out loud. I would certainly not post it in the comments section – I’m aware of its ability to derail the conversation, whether deliberately or not – but I think it.

This is just one example, and it’s mostly a reaction to the writing style rather than the points raised. (Personally I find that the more compassion for all that is shown in an article, the more thought-provoking it is – but I understand that a smidge of hyperbole can be helpful in getting an article noticed.)

In other cases, I find myself disagreeing with the some of the actual points raised by the article. Importantly, this is usually within the context of strongly agreeing with the primary thrust of the piece. Time for another concrete example, with the risk of raising my head above the parapet here… but I’ll put it all in one paragraph, to try to avoid it dominating the comments. (This piece is not about this particular issue. It’s just an example.)

I don’t think it’s a good idea to knowingly put yourself in a situation where you’re at risk, where it’s reasonably easily avoidable. If you do, and if you are assaulted, that is not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. You are not “asking for it”. But I’d still suggest avoiding the situation in the first place, where possible. When they’re older, I’ll be happy to tell my sons that if they go out clubbing, it might be a good idea for them to sort out leaving with their friends, to avoid being on their own, potentially after drinking, late at night. They should be able to walk the streets (whether in town or closer to home) in safety – but I know that we don’t live in a totally safe world, and I’ll encourage them to take safety precautions. I don’t believe that’s encouraging muggers. I don’t believe that the posters at train stations saying “Pick-pockets are known to operate in this area – be careful with your possessions” are encouraging theft. So when it comes to advice given to women to avoid being assaulted, including rape, I don’t have a problem with there being such advice. I think there are good and bad ways of doing it – that it can be done in a terrible way which is victim-blaming a slut-shaming – but there’s room for it to be done well, too.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about here.

Space for disagreement

I’ve been thinking about avenues for minor disagreement for a while – and procrastinating writing this post, basically – but Louise O’Neill’s piece in the Irish Examiner last week gave me cause for optimism, and spurred me on (with only another six days of dithering) to write this. Three quotes from it – out of context, so please read the whole thing:

It felt to me as if we were trying to say that there was a ‘right’ type of woman, or a ‘right’ type of feminist and that feels antithetical to the movement itself.

Feminism is about inclusion. Feminism is for everyone.
I think the most important thing to retain when discussing political issues like these is a sense of nuance.
My own sense of feminism is constantly evolving and incidents such as this help to further develop my political ideologies – I would never be as quick to judge as I would have been only two short years ago.

Robust discourse and debate are crucial for the health of any social movement but infighting and tearing each other apart for daring to hold different opinions is not.

Hooray! So that means it’s time for me to start adding comments, right? Maybe not.

I see four broad reasons why I might disagree with something written by (say) Louise O’Neill, Sophie Walker, Catherine Mayer, Emer O’Toole or Roe McDermott.

  • I’m just ignorant. There’s no way round it – I’m not a woman. I don’t know how I would feel about various issues if they’d affected me more personally. When I was mugged early in the morning a few years ago, that affected me more than I hoped it would. So maybe I’m just wrong.
  • It’s just possible that I’m objectively right (without evidence so far) and they’re objectively wrong. There are definitely some aspects where evidence of policy decisions could be available and maybe even is available. Things like the gender pay gap have had a lot of research effort put into them, for example. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to be the areas where I disagree least.
  • Maybe the view I inferred from the piece isn’t the one they intended to put across, or it may be exaggerated for effect, and actually we don’t disagree at all, or at least not significantly.
  • Maybe it’s just something where we’d have to agree to disagree, where there is no objective truth. That’s not to say discourse would be fruitless – it’s always good to understand someone else’s views better – but we shouldn’t expect to change each other’s minds.

It’s important to note that I don’t believe any of these make me a bad person. I don’t feel guilty for disagreeing. (Maybe a little guilty when that disagreement is in the form of a mental “not all men!” – darn that feminist social conditioning! ;) Given that I think all of the authors are fabulous people, I suspect none of them would think I’m a bad person for disagreeing, either. So why am I holding back?

Unity first

I think it’s important that men support feminism. I think it’s important that they do so full-throatedly. I think it’s important that they’re seen to do so. And that’s why I’m limiting my concerns to this little corner of the internet, where I can lay it all out and put significant effort into not being misunderstood.

Imagine I write a well-crafted response to an article I disagree with. To be careful, maybe the first paragraph is in broad agreement, then three paragraphs of respectful challenge, then a summary paragraph reiterating the broad agreement and demarcating the area of disagreement. To start with, that’s a much longer comment than many people will read properly, and obviously on Twitter any chance of nuance is pretty much shot. But even for a diligent reader, it ends up as 60%+ disagreement – and I suspect that hurts the cause of feminism more than it helps.

To put it bluntly: I think a man registering disagreement can easily look like a dismissal of the whole feminist movement, whereas a woman is in a better position to explore nuance in comments. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but I believe it is. (If you disagree, please comment here, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman – or whether you don’t self-identify in such a binary way.)

I hope it won’t be this way forever. I hope that when more battles have been won, when “openly, actively feminist” men are more commonplace, that there won’t be such a risk in my participation in nuanced debate. Until then, I’ve made my peace with mostly staying silent where I can’t be loudly supportive.

To be clear – this is really around public debate. I very much hope to one day meet at least some of these heroes in person. (I’m actively trying to make that happen, too. We often host great speakers at Google, and I see no reason not to try to make self-interest align with office culture.) I would love to have a long, drawn-out coffee with lively debate, with no risk of my counterpart coming away with the impression that I’m a misogynist. I could listen and become less ignorant. I could ask dumb questions and make dumb comparisons without making it sound like I think I’m actually making a clever point. We could take a point of disagreement and work out which of those four broad buckets from earlier that point lay in, or whether it deserves a new bucket to itself.

The more I describe it, the more I think I’m talking about a “safe space” for respectful critical discussion on feminist issues, where men are included equally. But I’m not asking for it yet. I think we have rather more important things to fight for first.

So I’ll continue to self-censor – unless comments persuade me otherwise. I think it’s for the greater good. (And it feels so good just to have finally written all of this down…)

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6 thoughts on “Dear feminist heroes: please don’t hate me if sometimes I disagree slightly”

  1. There is definite difficulty in dissenting with feminist establishment, even as a woman.

    Sorry for the very long example to follow, but I want to get the nuances (as you pointed out, that’s important on the internet).

    As a woman software developer, I have a firm belief that the way that the issue of women in tech is talked about in the current culture is frequently harmful to the overall progress of the industry, owning to the tone of the conversation being very negative. When talking about the issue of women in technology, our conversational focus is often on issues with women being told they’re too aggressive, or having their ideas ignored, or not getting promoted past a certain point. Every couple months there is some new high profile scandal with a major tech company (Microsoft Game Developer conference last week).

    I think we should talk about these things. I’ve definitely been told I’m to aggressive. I’ve definitely been ignored. I don’t like the idea that Microsoft felt the need to have gogo dancers at a professional conference.

    But I think we actually need to talk about this stuff a little less, and talk about our victories a little more. Why? Because the tone of the conversation today around women in tech is really negative. And why would more women enter the field if all they hear is negative stuff? When I get out and give a talk on database administration, or document databases, or date and time, I think I do a lot more good for women in tech than I do by talking about things that happened to me that sucked. Largely, the industry has been very good to me and I want other women who may be considering entering the industry to know that.

    When I have brought this up on internet forms or at women in tech events, I have been told that I ‘missed the point’, and was ‘diminishing others’ experiences’. I have been basically told that I was wrong. I’ve been told this quite aggressively.

    Point being, femaleness does not automatically enable someone to disagree. For this reason, I would say that you should go right ahead and disagree if you want to. You’re going to get a loud push back, but it turns out I do too. Don’t be afraid of that loud push back.

    Having thought hard about something and deciding that you disagree makes you a better feminist. It makes you someone who cares deeply about the issue. Why would we want to suppress that?


    1. Thank you very much for this. Will need to think about not being afraid of the push back… it’s definitely not a matter of whether I can take it personally, but about the result elsewhere. Hmm.

      Very much agree about being positive about successes in the tech industry. One difficulty (not problem) is trying to highlight broad success rather than just a few individuals. At the 5×15 fundraiser for WE, Tanya Moodie made a point about it being more important to bring 100 people 1 step forward than 1 person 100 steps forward. (Cue rapturous applause.) That’s why I love hearing about @WomenWhoCode etc, more than individual women as CTOs of big companies etc etc. Not that the latter isn’t important – I just feel the former is more empowering.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment. More to digest :)


      1. Minor but I think relevant addition. I’m 26. I did not have to succeed in business in the 80s and 90s. I have had an easier time than the women who came before me, so I am commensurately less defensive as a feminist. Older women will deservingly have a somewhat different perspective.


  2. Great post, Jon. Your “four broad reasons why I might disagree” seem applicable to any debate, really, not just about feminism. The same with a lot of what you bring forward in the following paragraphs, especially about nuances and how people miss the finer lines when they feel passionately about the subject being discussed.


  3. Hello Jon,

    I applaud you for speaking out and taking the time to thoroughly explain your concerns.

    A movement that prides itself on fighting for equality should certainly be mature enough to cope with criticism from all of its members. To me, the thought of this not being possible is very dangerous – especially when men are considered as part of a “problem”, they should certainly have a way to defend themselves. Feminism is in no way safe from mistakes, so it definitely needs to question itself regularly.

    It’s sad that the internet seems to have somewhat destroyed a sense of civil debate. I believe I understand your worries, and I’d encourage you to keep voicing them – you seem to do so in a very reasoned manner. :)


    1. My concern isn’t that feminism isn’t mature enough to cope with criticism, so much as that criticism being taken out of context, primarily by people who aren’t already feminists. In other words, that by voicing any objection to even a single point, there might be a chorus of “See! Even other feminists disagree! Therefore you (the original author) must be wrong about everything!”

      I see this occurring in all kinds of internet discussions, but more so with debates on equality (including race, sexual orientation etc).

      I’m also concerned that any points I raise are likely to be fairly naive ones, as an inexperienced feminist (both in terms of time and life experience). I wouldn’t want those points to distract from points which are more likely to lead to fruitful discussion.

      None of this was as clear in the post as I’d have liked it to be :(


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