Feminism, Privilege, and Learning About Humility


This is a guest post from Patrick Mitchell, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Ashley F. Miller

One year ago, after one of the most agonizing struggles of my life, I finally shook off the chains of fundamentalist Christianity, leaving me free to explore ideas in a way I never dreamt possible: in color.  You see, in Fundyland™, everything is black and white: You are for me or against me, men are the head, women serve. Sex outside marriage is evil, sex inside marriage is required.

Drinking “gender role” tripe for 10 years from fundamentalist Bible passages and pastors, alongside the idea that feminism is the devil, served to create a large barrier for me understanding feminism in a meaningful way much longer than it took me to understand homosexuality wasn’t a sin, or that enjoying sex is natural.

Also, I’m male.

I have been wanting to distill my thoughts about feminism in the context of my atheism for some time, and on the year anniversary of my freedom, I figured it would be a good occasion.  This is an expansion of the thoughts I had on my own blog, and Ashley (who has strongly influenced my own feminism in positive ways) was gracious enough to allow me the opportunity for this platform.

Misogyny Is Everywhere

“Grow a pair,” “Man Up,” “Pansy,” are phrases that misogynist and Fundyland™ culture uses to denigrate the feminine and elevate the masculine.  Phrases I used to use without a moment’s thought that state unabashedly “Men are strong, women are weak.” And yet this could not be further from the truth.  I have seen women with more strength of character and resolve than dozens of men: these claims are demonstrably false.

Anita Sarkeesian’s series on Tropes vs. Women served to help me realize just how much misogyny has infected our culture, such that it is nearly hidden from view.  Traditional gender roles, defined by the apostle Paul and ignorantly parroted across the world today, are inherently sexist and entirely stupid. There is absolutely no reason why “Men are the head of the household” should be taken for granted.  In fundamentalism, everything is black and white.  In reality, there is color.

Women have the right to function in a relationship as they desire to define themselves. I have no right, no recompense, nor stature with which to demand (or even suggest) the way in which two genders interact with one another.  When one realizes that sexuality and gender itself is fluid, the archaic notion of ‘roles’ should promptly be defenstrated from any rational person’s mind.

And thus, I must continue to fight against my own past, the small-mindedness of my fundamentalist background, to see the opposite sex as a full human, lacking in nothing, whose values and expertise must and should be evaluated on her terms, not on mine.

I Am Privileged

The thing about the word privilege, is that its one of those things that is nearly impossible to understand until you’ve experienced life without it.  When I lost my faith, but more specifically when I became public about it, I learned what its like to be in the minority of wordview, to have people hate and judge me based on something fundamentally outside my control.

It’s not the same, but it knocked me down enough notches to recognize I was too stupid, too arrogant, and too blind to really know how well I had it.  This is the fundamental idea of privilege, be it white, male, cis, or rich (all of which I am).  Therefore I have an uphill battle to recognize it in myself.

The first time my own privilege reared its head was when I first read about Watsongate (in an uninformed rant on /r/atheism).  I thought it was the most infantile reaction, and was behind Dawkins for calling out what was clearly a childish plea for attention.

Then I read about Watsongate from Ashley’s perspective.  Thanks to the SSA here in our meager town of Columbia, SC, I knew Ashley personally and was more likely to respect what she had to say. She isn’t the type of person that gets behind idiots with bad ideas, so I read.  And I learned about Schrodinger’s rapist, and started to realize I’ve never felt fearful for my sexual identity being violated, and very rarely have I been objectified in a way that made me uncomfortable.  Then I learned about the statistics, numbers that run through feminists’ minds, that had never crossed my own.

And then it hit me: I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, what it feels like to be threatened.

So in the face of this fact, I did what any good skeptic should: withhold judgement, assess the facts, and change my mind if the facts deem it so.  And thus, I did.

The Skeptic Community Needs Feminism

First, let me say that I don’t use the word “need” to say that feminists need me, or anyone, to achieve their goals, in any way that denigrates their role or prior achievements.  Nor am I at all mature in this movement, so my commentary must come with a grain of salt.

But in this past year, after reading about the Rebecca Watson incident, after what The Amazing Atheist said, and the current debacle over TAM’s reporting policy, it is clear that there is a need for the voices of those who are actually aware and affected by the issues to speak up, and to have the attention of everyone when they say something.  On blogs, posts, walls, reddit threads, everywhere in the skeptic movement it is clear that there is a man-child level of misogyny that rivals our fundamentalist foes: women are routinely denigrated, slut-shamed, and recognized for their ability to reproduce rather than the quality and content of their discourse.  Ashley has obliged before on this issue.

This is a problem. A hill that the community faces, that will bring it to a grinding halt if we don’t take a step back and address the issues.  I would prefer that we all just became aware that calling people ‘cunt,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘slut,’ etc. is bigoted and stupid, but at the very least we should continue fighting to enact policies that protect the speech of sexual harassment whistleblowers.

The sad thing is, we look more like the religious than than skeptics and freethinkers when we treat one another this way.

The US Needs Feminism

The recent string of back-woods Bible-fueled insanity in this country highlight the need for us to shape the discourse of our nation towards recognizing misogyny and feminist-sensitive issues.  The uptick across several states in invasive and psychologically damaging procedures to dissuade (and disparage) women who seek abortions from having them in incredibly humiliating ways.

The Catholic Leagues attempt to take away women’s health rights by masking legalized suffering in religious terms means that atheist feminists are uniquely qualified to answer both questions: It is not alright to force women to suffer, and especially not because of a 2000-year-old delusional fairy tale.

Across this country, there are senators and Congressmen who have been elected who are so steeped in their own privilege as to render them incapable of representing 51% of the voting muscle of the nation.  This is a problem, and should be recognized and addressed by those of us with minds and eyes enough to see the problem.

Seeing in Color

After this year, I can recognize the beauty that is feminism, and the demon of my own ingorance that I need to continually stab until it rears its ugly head no more.  In my small way, I seek to educate others about the journey I’ve had and what it’s taught me.  To be sure, there are irrational sexists out there who would masquerade under the title of feminism, but their rantings do not make the issues any less important or real.  I have to check my privilege at the door to continue this conversation, and thanks to people like Ashley, Greta Christina, Sikivu Hutchenson, the Godless Bitches, and many others, I’m learning.

And I want to continue this conversation, for a long, long time.

About The Author


Patrick Mitchell is a 27-year old Electrical Engineering Ph.D. Student at University of South Carolina.  He became a Christian at age 16 and studied theology and apologetics, was president of USC’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and served as a lay minister and worship leader in multiple congregations.  His interests include History, Theology, Philosophy, Music, Engineering, and Psychology.  He blogs at his personal website, the Coffee Shop Atheist, writes for his School Newspaper, and is an officer of The Pastafarians @ USC, a SSA affiliate group.

Comments

  1. Joshua says

    Ashley, Greta Christina, Sikivu Hutchenson, the Godless Bitches

    These four helped me too.

  2. Martha says

    Thanks for this post, Patrick. It’s enormously frustrating to see simple feminist ideas meet with such defensiveness and misogyny– especially in a community that claims to be enlightened. The fight can be extremely draining, and hearing the same words over and over again from guys who aren’t actually listening makes it seem hopeless at times. It’s good to be reminded that sometimes those guys do start to listen and change their minds. Thanks for helping me remember this.

    I’d only add that a man doesn’t need to have lived in a fundamentalist environment to face the same challenges you have in coming to terms with male privilege. I find sexists who claim to use reason to support their world views much harder to deal with than religious sexists. They may not be as dangerous politically, but they are certainly equally dangerous in other ways.

  3. smhll says

    Great post!

    Phrases I used to use without a moment’s thought…

    I thought that part was an especially useful insight.

    Guys who are into skepticism but know relatively little about feminism can come and drop a rotten but common phrase and then be surprised that they get push back. Because if something is used in conversation a lot and usually doesn’t make a ripple, then, golly, it must be okay.

    Many of the common words and phrases in our culture come attached to some pretty heavy implications.

  4. dogeared, spotted and foxed says

    Thanks Patrick. After the last few days (weeks, year?), it’s so very nice to read this. Sometimes you just have to hear that other people have your back.

  5. says

    This was terrific! Thank you. I find it so discouraging, at times, when I post the most innocuous feminist articles or statements on my Facebook wall and get some of the nastiest comments and push-back from some of the most surprising of all the friends I have.

    I am still bewildered and outraged when the men that claim to care about me don’t understand the most basic principles behind feminism. Even some of the better ones still have the need to play the knight in shining amour role.

    Example- I am a grown-ass damn woman (almost 50) that owns a business, a house and runs two non-profits. I apparently, however, need a man to tell me what to tell the car repair shop when I take my car in to get it fixed even though I have been doing this for some 30 or so years myself. The man I was speaking with (a good friend) applied the stereotype that because I am a woman, I can’t handle dealing with car repairs. I asked him specifically if he would have told “Edward” what to do if I had been a man and not a woman. His response was, “No”

    If I don’t ask for your help or your advice, I probably don’t want it.

  6. says

    EllenBeth – tell me about it! Last winter, I helped a guy out by giving him a jump start with my cables. He joked around, like, what’s a pretty girl like you doing with jumper cables. I seriously considered just walking away and leaving him there. But of course I didn’t. Just smiled and said, “That was pretty sexist,” and went on my way.

  7. samoanbiscuit says

    I thought this would be some cookie-cutter “look at me flagellate myself for being a xtian/sexist before I saw the light!”, but it was very thoughtful, and measured. The relationship between skepticism and feminism, and also with the war against women, was very well written.

  8. says

    Samoan,

    I think there’s a distinct difference between people who deconvert and become self-assured of their correctness, and those who deconvert and realize their propensity towards error. I tend towards the second camp, which causes a much different response than the typical tripe that exists in quite a few more masturbatory pockets of the atheist zeitgeist.

    At any rate, thank you for the kind words. I think our duty as the “only sober ones at the party” is to provide a proportional, measured, rational response to small-minded tripe that spews forth from the Religious Right, whatever else our goals might individually be.

  9. samoanbiscuit says

    Depending on age and demographic, maybe he wasn’t trying to put you down, but rather, trying to be cute and flirty? Y’know, “What’s a nice place like you doin’ inna guy like me?” sort of pickup line. Obviously, he bombed either way.

  10. samoanbiscuit says

    The “zealous deconverted asshole” is not just for formerly religious or formerly sexist, it’s also for the formerly overweight, and even the formerly uneducated. It just seems to be human nature, as soon as we get over a block in our thinking, or abilities, we tend to want to shit on other people that haven’t. So yes, your post heartened me greatly that there were people out there who didn’t fall into the trap.
    Mind you I’m in no way implying you or anyone else here is this, just mentioning it because of some things I’ve seen on the interwebs.

  11. Kevin says

    Good article, but I think you can’t lay all of the blame for gender roles on Paul.

    Practically all of human society was patriarchal in ancient times. Long before Paul, ancient Chinese women were considered second-class, ancient Indian women were consigned to the bedroom or the household, ancient Babylonian women were bought and sold in marriage like so much house furniture, and on and on. Even in societies where women could own property and get an education, their societal roles were carefully prescribed so as to not conflict with male dominance.

    So, the problem is broader and deeper than just a Christian or post-Christian mind-set.

  12. John says

    Really nice post, and it mirrors the way I feel lately as a fairly recent male fundie deconvert who is just now learning about feminism via blogs like this.

    Feminism pointing out the engrained things like privilege and misogyny in our language really isn’t an easy topic to digest as an outsider, but the more you read about it the harder it is to try and deny the very valid points that are made.

  13. says

    Kevin,

    Thank you for that. I realized after re-reading the piece that this sounded bad (among other slight mis-wordings). I suppose what I meant was in the context of my own experience, the apostle Paul’s teachings on systematic misogyny were used to convince me that women were to be submissive to the will of their husband as the head of the household. Thank you for that piece of insight; I’ll have to go read some Babylonian (and egyptian/caananite etc.) literature.

  14. John Horstman says

    I’m definitely more in the latter camp, as I was not raised religious and didn’t convert to any religions ever, but was still inflected by the positionality-blindness cultural privilege induces in one. Coming out of a Second-Wave perspective steeped in Liberalism (via my mother), I though of equality in a sort of Libertarian-leaning sense of universalized privilege, which is, I now realize, impossible. It took years of consciousness-raising and study of various veins of feminist theory through my Women’s Studies program to start recognizing and accounting for my own privileges (and also to recognize some of my own marginalizations). That said, I can imagine it’s even more difficult for people from fundamentalist backgrounds, as I was raised with the basic premise that women are equal to men, while harboring naively privileged views about how to achieve that equality and how, exactly, the extant inequality presently (dys)functions.

  15. says

    “Because if something is used in conversation a lot and usually doesn’t make a ripple, then, golly, it must be okay.”

    This is precisely why it’s so important to call it out. Even if it’s just a simple “Hey, man, that’s kinda messed up” and it gets left at that, or even if it gets fought back against, it’s still loads better than letting a nasty comment sit.

    Nobody’s going to change overnight, and rarely does anyone change after hearing a single speech – it’s the slow, plodding progress that gets us places, one step at a time.

  16. Agnostic1111000111 says

    I totally disagree with opinion of the writer of the piece (Patrick) who is clearly pandering to women… for what I am sure are very personal reasons…

    Feminist theory placed into policy is funded to the likes of hundreds of billions of dollars a year in many forms by the federal government. Feminism is the primary paradigm of academia. Feminism is not humanism and there is not a major formal PARTY OR policy addressing men’s needs. As such, MENS HEALTH IS ON THE DECLINE, feminists are undermining the rights of men in academia, and in law, and increasingly in the world of commerce where feminist laws hold men to different standards than women, and most of all in the family unit. In family law, hardcore gender feminist policy has became the law, and 50% of the men who marry today end up dealing with the downside of the misandric laws like it or not. There is very little that is humanist about family law as it is so babdly tainted by blind feminist hatred.

    So, although from your perspective you can find flaws in the allegedly patriarchal world to whine about, there are multitudes of issues where men are on the short end. Raising awareness to health issues that effect men to help increase longevity would be good place to start. But do not hold your breath, as part of the feminist active conspiracy is to create a society with less men.

    So Patrick. Not only are your a lame ass looking to get laid, you are also a hypocrite. I’ll suggest you grow a pair :)

  17. says

    Short version:

    I can’t be bothered to cite a single source for my arguments, argue against actual feminist arguments, or recognize that the gender roles feminism is fighting against are the roots of the problems I’m mentioning.

  18. Cypress says

    Patrick,
    Thank you. I’m an atheist Mom trying to raise Skeptical, freethinking kids in the bible belt. It’s so frustrating to come across rabid sexism and bigotry in the skeptical community that is in some cases Worse than the religous community. I didn’t think it was possible. It certainly keeps me on my toes.

    Thank you

  19. Blue Duck says

    The even shorter version:

    “I am a self-centered, whiny jerkwad living in a soap opera world in my head and who is completely unacquainted with reality.” -Agnostic1111000111, aka YetAnotherTROLL

    I think that about covers it.

  20. says

    Let me give this a try…

    “HAI GUSY I”M IGNORNT AND I CAN FOR PROVES IT!@”

    Also, I think that he attempted to do the male corrolary of slut shaming there at the end. “You’re a feminist to pick up chicks!”

    Irony is lost to him, apparently.

  21. says

    Let me know when you’ve got an argument (with sources) worth rebutting. I’ve got better things to do with my time than go point-by-point with someone who has none.

  22. says

    If you want to be taken seriously around here, you might start by not sounding off talking points that look like they came straight from the male supremacist handbook.

    I mean, really, conspiracy theories about all of academia being pawns of the feminist movement? Undermining men’s rights? Stealing all men’s precious stuff through divorce?

    You simply cannot be trying.

  23. samoanbiscuit says

    Shhhhh. Don’t got teaching him TEH S3CCRET FEMINIST HANDSHAKE! He won’t be oppressed any longer!

  24. Jabes says

    Little hint, that comment is NOT a good way of showing that you recognize your privilege.

    Sally Strange was there, she knew that the guy made a sexist remark. It’s example of your privilege that you think it could never NOT be sexist and a put-down to make a comment like the one which was made to her. (Or that putting someone down is a good way of chatting them up.)

    And I know full well that’s really hard to hear, because it’s happened to me. I found that my experiences in learning about the privilege H hold really required me to sit back and just. not. comment. no matter how much I wanted to, because I finally realized that it took a lot of work to put away my privilege and listen, over and over, so what someone else was telling me. (There are some blogs I still don’t comment on because I’m not sure I will get it right.)

    And if I missed a sarcasm tag on your comment, I’m really sorry for the lecture.

  25. samoanbiscuit says

    I said this at the end:

    Obviously, he bombed either way.

    It was meant as a snarky reinterpretation of events WITHOUT disagreeing or trying to gaslight her own testimony.
    You said:

    Little hint, that comment is NOT a good way of showing that you recognize your privilege.

    Sally Strange was there, she knew that the guy made a sexist remark. It’s example of your privilege that you think it could never NOT be sexist and a put-down to make a comment like the one which was made to her. (Or that putting someone down is a good way of chatting them up.)

    You know that whole privilege101 page where they tell people not to use privilege as a club? Well I cannot say for sure, but it feels to me like this might be a mild example. Your good intentions are appreciated either way. (That last bit was not meant sarcastically I promise!)

  26. Agnostic1111000111 says

    Likewise you ignorant asshole (and hypocritical fool) who assumes only women have gender issues. The point is, feminism has been over-funded by hundred of billions of dollars with no real effect other than bypassing human rights of men, this is fact.There is no similar monolithic movement for men, and feminist groups OPPOSE laws that benefit men with federal funds.

    I am done making points with the fool denizens here… Go fuck yourselves atheists!

  27. says

    Aww, you’re so cute when you keep asserting things without backing them up with citations.

    I hope your day gets better.

  28. says

    The part you get wrong is where you assume that if someone is trying to be “cute and flirty” or whatever, and doesn’t mean to be sexist, that makes it not sexist.

    People say and do sexist things, without trying to or even realizing it, all the damn time.

    That was one of the more prominent messages of the OP. It’s not “using privilege as a club” to point out something that you got wrong which, if you had actually read the post to which we are both allegedly responding, you would not have gotten wrong.

  29. samoanbiscuit says

    The part you get wrong is where you assume that if someone is trying to be “cute and flirty” or whatever, and doesn’t mean to be sexist, that makes it not sexist.

    People say and do sexist things, without trying to or even realizing it, all the damn time.

    I thought it was implicit that he “bombed either way” because he either was explicitly sexist, or was using a sexist pickup line. The only things I “got wrong” were to tell an unfunny joke to someone in a very serious frame of mind, and to not attempt to couch said unfunny joke in the most stringent way possible so as not to be interpreted as “privileged” or mansplaining.
    Going forward I shall choose my language with better care, and also not try to joke around with a commenter whom I am not familiar with.

  30. Me says

    “I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, what it feels like to be threatened”

    Thus proving the god of the gaps fallacy can be committed by atheists as well as theists. What use for “women’s rights” is there when the more humanist need is for HUMAN RIGHTS. This is a group of people who blatantly support, not equality, but superiority. So much so that they cannot even keep their terminology in line with equality. It’s a special interest group that sees itself as separate from the whole of humanity and thus works to aims completely in opposition to what equality engenders.

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