When is it time to stop listening?
I like to think of myself as a good listener. It’s one of those nice, feminine qualities that was tacitly prized in my upbringing: being a good listener, effectively synonymous with knowing when to shut up. The exact opposite of being over-assertive, over-reaching, thinking you know best. Those qualities that no one exactly needs to tell you are extra-inappropriate in a woman. And this summer, I’ve done a lot of listening.
I’ve listened to Republican politicians tell me what they’d do if they were pregnant. I’ve listened to Julian Assange supporters tell me what is and isn’t “real” rape. And now I’ve listened to a man tell me what having sex as a woman feels like. (http://www.gender-agenda.org.uk/discuss/1079/on-penetration/) And you know what? I think I might be done listening to men tell me what they know about being female.
Indirectly, the article mentioned above has been a wake-up call. I can’t do much about George Galloway’s ignorance, and Todd Aiken is well out of my reach, but why on earth didn’t I comment on this article? Why wait for everyone else to do it? There are now a string of great comments, so in a way the problem’s solved – but I realised that I hadn’t said anything for exactly reasons I usually end up listening to men when I know in my heart they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about – that this was, in microcosm, the problem I have with all feminist debate with men.
Why didn’t I comment? Because this was an academic article and I hadn’t the expertise to counter-quote. Because I couldn’t speak from my own experience in case I was being ‘personal’ or ‘embarrassing’. Because I comforted myself with the reflection that I’d ‘only make things worse’ by weighing in, under-qualified, and a better feminist would say it better… My response was agonisingly contradictory: on one hand, the familiar flare of rage (How dare he tell me what things feel like, for women, he has no way of knowing!), followed by the shaming sense of powerlessness (yes, but you’re not going to do anything about it, are you? Didn’t think so…).
I can’t speak for other women, but I can be honest about how many times I’ve caught another woman’s eye in a meeting and we’ve both looked at the floor: neither of us is going to speak, though we both want to. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there a great many women who are silenced by this toxic combination of rage and shame: our anger is inexpressible because it is shameful; we are ashamed because we cannot express it.
The things that matter most to me in feminist debate are the things that have hurt me and the women I love the most: sexual violence, victim-blaming, rape apologism, hateful beauty norms and body fascism, contempt for women’s voices and women’s knowledge, and the underlying fact that women aren’t believed when they explain what all these things feel like. Other women will have other priorities, these just happen to be mine. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these are also the things that I find most difficult even to refer to in front of men. When you think about it, that’s entirely logical. The power structures that underpin gender relations are suddenly thrown into relief in those conversations: men’s power not to believe me, to shame me, to belittle me, will be at its greatest, and I see and hear women being treated like that, all the time, in public. (You don’t? Read the online comments on any newspaper article written by a woman on these subjects). I daren’t risk it, and so either the debate will be about things that matter to me less, or I’ll shut up and start listening.
Thing is, that’s just not good enough. Sometimes, a braver woman will speak out – but she’ll still need other women to back her up: better to back her up awkwardly than to leave her out there on her own. And if that braver woman is too tired to speak out, then you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be a man to fill in the gaps, and tell us what to think about these things. As long as we’re listening, they’ll be talking.
Beyond making the resolution to perform what I’m going to think of as a mansplaining check before I listen to a man in future (it’ll go something like this: is he telling me about something he knows about – could be almost anything: Mandarin history, Marxist theory, the rules of cricket, where Fitzwilliam is – or is he telling me about something I know about and he’s just guessing, ie: any aspect of actually being female?), I think the way forward is to commit to carving out more all-female spaces, and supporting other women in doing so. I want to be able to talk about what matters to me most in discussion groups and organising meetings, and generally, I can’t do that if men are there. There are honourable exceptions to that statement and there’s a place for mixed meetings and men’s groups and whatever, but that won’t be where I’ll be putting my energies. More than ever, I think that what we need, as women, is not some good ideas from men, it’s the confidence to believe in our own ideas, to trust each other, to listen to each other, and to speak up – and that’s just not going to leave time for listening to men very much.