I believe that it is because of a perceived difference between objective ideology and subjective experience.
I know a lot of different types of feminists because basic ideas of inequality and feminism are encapsulated in political, social and religious laws, rules and beliefs that are applied objectively to women. But everyone’s awareness and experience of inequality, everyone’s reaction to and interaction with inequality is personal, specific and subjective.
I will, as always, start with a personal story. I wrote what I now think of as my first two proto-feminist essays in Year Twelve Religious Education as one of the Liturgy Prefects of a Catholic all girls school. I call these essays proto-feminist now, but at the time I remember that I was just following a line of logic to its conclusion.
The first essay was on abortion, and I still remember the comfort I felt with the argument I made because I was in love with God at that time, and he was in love with me. Love was, literally, all around, and my logic was all about love.
In the essay I agreed that the statistics seemed to indicate that abortion was a terrible thing for most women to have to go through, but it was clear to me that it was an option that was absolutely necessary for women because of the conditional love of the society they belonged to.
I didn’t even touch on the contraception debate and rape was a word, not a concept I knew anything about. I had been brought up in a Catholic household and in Catholic schools, so sex was only for procreation, between people who loved each other, and sometimes only within marriage.
Instead I made an impassioned and utterly naïve call for society, law and religion to treat each child as precious no matter the circumstances of their birth, to ensure all the decisions made, religious views held, politics presumed and history claimed by the parents never rested on their innocent heads. As soon as children were born society would view them as untouched and would provide equitable funding, education, love and support under the law, religion and society. I was arguing for the concept of the village raising the child, which would negate the need for abortions in all but the most serious circumstances, by destroying discrimination that may otherwise make abortion a viable option.
I was told to rewrite the essay because I was not regurgitating Church teachings, those illogical teachings that everyone must be judged by the actions of those related to them. I was cross that, as a Liturgy Prefect who knew more of the Bible, Church history and Church tradition than my teachers, I had been told to stop thinking. I am pretty sure I just dismissed the criticism as one from a bored and ignorant teacher, and went my merry way.
Until our second assignment, which was about abuse. 149 girls wrote their assignments on domestic violence, and I wrote mine of the failure of the Australian Education system to teach boys effectively.
It was an uncomplicated argument, ably backed up with research from Steve Biddulph’s defining book, and again I remember a great feeling of happiness while putting forward my arguments, because I cared greatly about my two brothers and how they were being educated.
I finally woke up from my innocence when I was told, again, to rewrite my essay because
‘men were not victims of abuse’
(and believe me, the irony of that phrase used in a Catholic school was lost on me then, but is not lost on me now)
I was aghast at this second instance of being told not to exercise the Christian values of love, social responsibility, compassion and activism in my essays for Religious Education.
They had asked me to write on abortion and I had argued that if a Christian society loved each child and never discriminated against them because of their parents, abortion would only be necessary due to abuse, rape, health circumstances or the choice of a woman who made her decision genuinely unaffected by the potential for a negative social view of her decision. What more did they want? I was applying Christian principles of love and forgiveness to the topic and I was … wrong?
They had asked me to write on abuse and I had written about the waste of the educative years of young men’s lives through policies that were not giving them what they needed to be men. Again, what more did they want? I was applying Christian principles of equality (I know, irony warning again, but I was clearly naïve enough to think that because I considered myself equal to all, others thought me equal as well) and social conscience to the topic and I was … wrong?
Six months later I studied Anthropology and Politics at University and my political awareness arrived at last. It became clear to me that the individual and collective experience of laws, rules and beliefs come in a minimum of four permutations:
1. How you apply them objectively
2. How you apply them subjectively
3. How they apply to you objectively
4. How they apply to you subjectively
The great pity is that these four aspects are still argued as if a difference between them impedes progress rather than informs progress.
If you were to look at my youthful beliefs on abortion for instance:
1. Abortion would become less necessary if all children are loved and cared for by society as discrete individuals free from any association with their parents.
2. Abortion is the right of every woman who is free in a society to act according to her own conscience without having to consider possible social reactions to her decision.
3. I could carry a child to term at any point in my life and my society would guarantee equitable funding, education, support and opportunities to all children, including mine, as the situation of myself or other parents would be irrelevant to the rights of the child.
4. I could carry a child to term at any point in my life and my society would never judge that child by the social, political or religious decisions I made before they were born.
One illogical ruling in any of these areas and inequality is entrenched. In the case of the Catholic view on abortion, all these areas are inequitable. Funding, support and opportunities for children is based on the social, economic, political and religious decisions of parents, rather than the rights of the child. This is wrong; no matter what the parents do, children should never pay for it.
Eliminate all discrimination of children for the actions of the parents, and the flow on effect for the potential of all life will be, I suggest, profound. And there would incidentally have been no need for my second essay, because children would be equally treasured by society, and all abuse of and inequality for either gender would be swiftly punished.
Despite my teachers, I felt my job as Liturgy Prefect was done, Christian values had been defended, Humanist principles had been applied, it was time to graduate to University and encounter more than just Christian values and Humanist principles.
So what has this to do with men not being feminists, women being feminists, and the lack of what should be a logical uptake of the fight for equality by both genders?
I suggest it is because, useful as it would be to be able to see inequality from all four aspects so it can be identified and rectified, we cannot. Injustice between the genders is currently half invisible to half of the population.
How many men have had the discrimination women experience each day applied to them objectively?
Men mostly experience the discrimination women experience each day subjectively, through the specific experience of the women they know.
How many men then take the laws, rules and beliefs that formed the basis of the discrimination communicated to them and act decisively to change them so discrimination does not happen again?
How many men then take the personal experience of the woman they know and change their behaviour permanently so they never perpetuate that discrimination, or let that discrimination be tolerated in their presence?
Men cannot be expected to experience gender discrimination themselves, but they can be expected to listen to experiences of it and act accordingly to prevent it happening again through their actions or the actions of others they can influence.
Women cannot and should not be expected to tolerate objective policies that are discriminatory towards them.
Women cannot and should not be expected not to communicate subjectively and repeatedly each time they are discriminated against. To witness is not our only obligation however, education is essential so those who have not experienced discrimination still act to change the situation.
Women can listen to the subjective experiences of discrimination from other people and identify the underlying policies that encourage discrimination and act to change those policies.
Women can ensure that their understanding of the objective policies that enable discrimination are identified and challenged each time they are used in their presence, and they can encourage those around them to do the same.
If men can only see half the picture, it is our job to communicate the other half of the picture, to educate them to be aware of objective and subjective experiences, to show the logic of universal understanding and the universal drive for equality.
Women are the only ones who can communicate fully the experience of gender discrimination, we are ideologically bilingual after all, and we are the only ones who can fully communicate the changes that need to be made.
And we owe it to our children to start educating their fathers and listening to their mothers right now.