A few jobs back I was having a “get to know you” conversation with a new co-worker. We got through the basics of where we were from, if we were dating anyone, and what type of music we liked, and I was asked, “What does your wife do?” I responded that she was the user experience/user interface designer for a software development company. I usually get a little proud when I tell people about her because what she does is so awesome, and she is really good at it. My co-worker then asked, “How much does she make?” I responded with her salary, which was about three times what my co-worker and I were being paid at the time and is still far more than I make now. My co-worker then responded, “Oh… Then who really is the man in your relationship?”
I wish I could say that I had some great comeback to this or that I took the time to educate my co-worker on the asininity of prescribed gender roles, but I didn’t. Instead I laughed nervously and changed the topic. I don’t know if it was the twelve-hour shift that I still had to finish with him or if I was just caught off-guard by the statement. Surely, it wasn’t because I was feeling uncomfortable with the idea that my wife, a woman, made more money than me. It couldn’t be that I felt as though I was less of a man because I wasn’t the majority or even sole provider in my relationship. Maybe my newfound passion for feminism wasn’t enough to shield me from feeling guilty for not living up to my “role”.
Patriarchal society draws clear lines and distinctions between maleness and femaleness. In reality, gender identity and expression are distributed across a continuum, and people can experience and exhibit genders in ways that are totally unique to them. For the moment I wish to speak about the false gender binary, so as to address what sex educator, Al Vernacchio calls “gender fouls”. My co-worker saw me as less of a man because I had gone outside of my gender role by not being a provider. This gender foul was also committed by my wife, who had the audacity to be a full-time, well-paid employee instead of an unpaid homemaker, but she was not attributed a gender foul by my co-worker. I was.
Feminism has done a lot of great work to change societal views about women’s gender roles. More women are entering the work force than ever, making up a total of 46.8% of all employees in 2016 according to Department of Labor statistics. Women are far from having equal representation in government, but more women and girls are picturing themselves in political leadership roles and running for office. We are slowly becoming more accustomed to women stepping outside of their patriarchal gender roles and being who they want to be, but men are given far less leeway to do the same. Some would say that this makes feminism or society more discriminatory toward men, but I would argue that it is actually misogyny not misandry that motivates the inflexibility that society imposes on men.
Patriarchal societies have traditionally valued men over women. This can be seen in the way women in many societies were, and are, denied rights to own property or give up what property they did own upon marriage. Families used to obsess over having a male child, so that they could have an “heir”. Some cultures went so far as to kill or discard female children in the hope of producing a male child. Men were largely the only ones seen fit to lead, conduct business, or be in the public eye generally. These attitudes have been handed down for millennia in many cultures, and it has taken centuries to challenge them.
Those challenges have usually been done through the argument that women deserve to have the same rights that men have because women are just as strong, intelligent, and capable as men. Feminists have fought for women to have the same opportunities as men for so long, and society has slowly acknowledged their arguments as valid, and made accommodations over time. Women can now do things that only men would have been allowed to do even half a century ago.
These are wonderful strides, but they have done little to change the larger societal view that maleness is better than femaleness. Many women are applauded and celebrated for doing things that are traditionally associated with maleness because they are adopting what patriarchy sees as beneficial “male” traits, but men are simultaneously ridiculed or demeaned for participating in activities traditionally associated with femaleness because they are considered to be abandoning beneficial “male” traits in favor of negative “female” traits.
When my co-worker questioned who the man was in my relationship, he was saying your wife is more of a man than you because she is filling the “male” role. When I stand up in defense of men’s emotional wellness and vulnerability, men often call me a pussy or a bitch. When a father stays home with the children, he is “babysitting” instead of parenting. The ridicule men who commit gender fouls face is not really discrimination against men. It’s discrimination against their perceived femininity.
This is where feminism has offered solutions. Early feminist movement was made up of mostly white, middle-class, women who wanted to go outside their traditional roles. Most of these early feminists were seeking equality within the existing power structures in society. More recent feminist movements have focused on dismantling or changing the existing power structures to allow more individual choice when it comes to gender. Instead of women adopting patriarchal masculinity to get ahead in the workplace, feminists are moving to make the workplace more inclusive of all genders. These efforts are working to reduce the negative stereotypes our patriarchal society has about femaleness, which will lay the groundwork for men being able to step into traditionally feminine roles with less stigma.
We still have a long way to go until everyone can step outside their prescribed gender roles without people attributing them with a gender foul. It will start by addressing misogyny as it is applied to men and women, and it will end once our society can value masculinity, femininity, and everything in between equally.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on June 5, 2019.