Ask a geek feminist: But I don’t feel oppressed

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question.

This question may seem very 101 but I have yet been able to find or formulate a good response to a comment I recently received from another young woman and I was hoping someone could help me out?

I was talking about power dynamics between men and women and the respondent came back with “Western women aren’t oppressed. I don’t feel oppressed. We are able to vote.. etc etc.” and I was just flabbergasted and didn’t know how to respond. I suspect a lot of this was her personal response to acknowledging oppression making her seem weak or whiny. Although I could be wrong and she may really believe this and think it cancels out the feelings of any Western women who does acknowledge our ongoing oppression. Help?

It can be disorienting to be faced with this stance by someone who is a member of a class of people, and feels that they represent that class. You may disagree strongly with their position, and have very good reasons for it which you want to express. But you hesitate.

It could be that the situation is already tense and you don’t want to make things worse. Maybe you don’t know each other very well, and you’re not sure whether it’s a good idea to open this particular can of worms with them. Or, perhaps, you just don’t have the right words.

Finally, a Feminism 101 blog has a FAQ with a pretty good answer, which calls out the misconceptions underlying the question:

1. Even if women in your part of the world do have legal equality, what about women elsewhere? Feminists who fight for the rights of other women to have what they already have are justified in doing so.

2. Simple, basic legal equality regarding the right to own property, sign contracts or vote does not always translate into social equality in work, the community or the home.

(emphasis added. thanks to Mary for the reference)

However, the matter of how to respond to the person is perhaps more important than having an answer. Ideally, you’d like to engage with this person, and enter into a dialog where you can both learn something. Your mileage may vary, but I find that counterargument and psychoanalysis don’t always set us on that path.

Here’s what I try to do:

  • Validate their first-hand experience. Regardless of whether they represent a class, they are telling you something about their lived experience, and that is a subject on which they are an authority. Respect that, and acknowledge what they are telling you about themselves. You never know, and they may have been very fortunate. They are almost certainly fortunate compared to many other people, and recognizing that good fortune can be a sign of genuine humility. So, give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Integrate their position into a broader perspective. Other people (including you) have a different view: how can we reconcile that? If you don’t know, invite them to explore the question with you. What would have to be true in order for both views to be valid?
  • Explore their point of view. Now that you have some shared perspective, dig a little deeper and try to understand why they feel they way they do. How do their past and present experiences, their beliefs, and their personality influence their opinion? What can you learn from them?

How about you, readers? Tell us in the comments how you respond to this type of situation.

18 thoughts on “Ask a geek feminist: But I don’t feel oppressed

  1. Heather Freeman

    I actually felt the same way until barely a year ago, and so I would certainly be able to empathize with the position. I would then point out how hard it is to see systemic prejudice when you’re inundated in it – like a fish perceiving water. I’d then probably point out the things that resonated most with me when I was having my eyes opened to oppression and sexism – how few stories have heroes who are not straight white able-bodied males; the narrowness of the roles women are restricted to; how it’s okay for a girl to like boyish things but not for a boy to like girlish things. Basically retrace the path that I took.

    I also in general find it works better to leave them with some things to think about rather than presenting it as fact. That leaves them some agency to play with the ideas on their own and really integrate them into their worldview.

  2. Meg Thornton

    I’m with Heather in that leaving people with questions to think about rather than facts to digest is sometimes a better way of leading them. My own problem as a younger woman was knowing how much things had improved since the days of my mother and my grandmother, and knowing how much better we had things now. How could I complain of still being oppressed, when I could choose so many more options for a potential career than my mother (teaching, nursing, shop assistant) or my grandmother (nursing, shop assistant, factory work, domestic help). How could I complain of being hard done by when there were and are still women around the world who don’t even have the option of choice.

    What helped me to realise things hadn’t changed as much as people would have liked them to was wanting to read about something other than orgasms, men, dieting and cooking – the main topics of choice in women’s magazines here in Australia. It didn’t matter which magazine I chose, I couldn’t find a decent article about computers and technology (or indeed, anything other than orgasms, men, dieting and cooking) – and being blessed with a decent memory and a habit of hoarding old magazines, I soon realised that even on those four topics, there was a lot of recycling happening. I started wanting a bit more out of life, and getting frustrated when all I was offered was more of the same – and I found it hard to believe that I was the only one who felt this way.

    Another thing which helped was giving up dieting (I took the rather radical position that dieting wasn’t working for me, so I might as well stop trying it) and as a part of this, trying to avoid diet talk for a period of about a year. It proved to be damn near impossible, until I took the (for me at that time) extreme step of giving up female-oriented popular culture for a period of twelve months. Away from all the repeated reinforcing of the messages about what a woman was supposed to look like, act like, be like etc, I found myself asking more and more questions of “why?”. Why was I supposed to look this way rather than that way? Why was I expected to spend hours maintaining a very artificial appearance, which constrained the way I moved, the way I acted, the things I could and couldn’t do, even the way I ate and drank? Why was I supposed to have such a narrow set of interests and tastes? Why couldn’t I find an embroidery pattern which wasn’t either cutesy as all hell, or kitsch as all get-out? Why couldn’t I find some reasonably comfortable women’s clothes which were in plain colours, didn’t have huge cutesy appliqués, and were practical for the job I was doing?

    As the year continued, then grew into two, then three, then more, I started to realise that women’s oppression never actually went away. Instead, the fight got transferred to new arenas, most of them cultural rather than legal. The legal fight to get women the vote, or property ownership rights, or the right to bodily autonomy, or the right to work in various areas might well be over. The cultural battle to get women not to *exercise* these rights is still ongoing – and the biggest gun in the arsenal is the one which says “you’ve come so far… why are you still complaining?”

  3. Jayn

    Well, firstly, I would ignore anything talking about laws. Most of that work has been done–but as you mentioned, there’s still a lot left to do for women to be treated truly as equals, even though legally we’re supposed to be.

    A few anecdotes might be helpful. One eye-opener for me was hearing about women who play MMOs and use voice modulators to hide their gender. I’ve always been fortunate in that my geek friends had nothing against me for being female (hell, half the geeks at my school were female) and I’ve rarely experienced overt sexism. So hearing about women who get treated differently enough that they feel the need to hide their gender really highlighted ways that women in general are oppressed, even if I myself haven’t had that experience.

    More concrete examples might work too–go to a mall and count how many women’s clothing stores there are compared to male clothing stores; bonus points for beauty salons/parlours aimed at men. Look at a magazine rack and note how the subjects change between the women’s magazines and the men’s ones. Introduce your friend to the Bechdel test (boy is that depressing). These are things we see all the time, but we don’t notice them until we’re looking for them.

  4. Cessen

    So, first, a male here. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t pretend to really know what I’m talking about. Just putting some thoughts out there.

    It sounds to me like there are probably a couple of things going on here.

    First, I think there’s a real language barrier between feminists/anti-racists/etc. and other people. The way that terms like “oppression”, “sexism”, “racism”, “privilege”, etc. are used in these circles have sometimes subtle but always important differences from how the layperson uses them. When you use a word like “oppression” she probably thinks you mean that the men in her life are purposefully and consciously conspiring in an organized fashion to harm her and keep her down, rather than the more realistic and useful definition where the oppressors are to some degree caught up in the cultural narrative themselves and do not realize that what they are participating in is oppression. People have an idea in their heads of what an oppressor is, and she may well be correct that she does not experience that pop-culture idea of oppression in her life.

    So it may be the case that she actually agrees with you, but there is a misunderstanding based on language usage. So maybe just avoid using such words, and directly explain the relevant concepts instead. At least at first. Dunno.

    (And yes, I realize that the differing definitions in lay usage is part of the oppression. But you can’t just ignore what people think words mean and expect them to understand you.)

    Second, there is a lot of oppression that she may very well not experience. The severity of the oppression of women in our society did not become known to me until I started reading about this stuff. It’s often just not visible to someone who’s not looking (which is a huge part of the problem, obviously). And as a guy it makes sense that I wouldn’t be aware of it. But I can imagine the same could be true of women that have led a comparatively privileged life.

  5. Dorothea Salo

    The tricky bit for me is that it often feels as though women who say this are trying to invalidate my experiences. I do not react kindly to that. Ideas for how to react better most welcome.

  6. Miriam

    I think that the truth is that here in the Western world, we really do have it much better than women in other parts of the world. That doesn’t mean we’re entirely free from oppression or prejudice, but it can certainly be hard to look at the world immediately around me and call it oppressive sometimes, because I know that the lives of women in places like Saudi Arabia or even India are much worse.

    Since the woman asking this question seems to have been very lucky in her life so far, it’s not good to downplay her particular worldview. Yes, some people are fortunate. But point out the fact that others aren’t so fortunate. Maybe her parents would’ve been totally loving and accepting if she’d told them that she feels more like a man than a woman, or that she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up rather than a housewife. Maybe every boss she’s ever worked for paid her fairly and equally and would never have even considered laying her off if she got married. Maybe she lives in a state where people can marry any gender they choose and where abortions are safe, legal, and rare. But not everybody lives in circumstances like these.

  7. Jen

    This might sound terrible… but I often find women who say this are to a greater or lesser extent stereotypically feminine people – maybe they are genuinely interested in stereotypically feminine things like fashion, cooking, and kids, maybe they have stereotypically feminine personality traits like being nurturing and supportive towards others. So these are all positive things, and these are part of the spectrum of ways that people can be… but maybe these women haven’t noticed how brutally women who don’t fit into ‘stereotypically feminine’ are punished for it, in thousands of small ways, every day.

    Also (and again, this is going to sound terrible) I’ve found that even within the small island of England where I live, the level of oppression varies hugely depending on where you go. If I walk through some parts of London on my own I run a high risk of getting minor sexual harassment but I’ve got a friend who grew up and lives in Cambridge who was genuinely surprised when I told her that sort of thing happens.

    1. Travis

      Eh, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I am transgender, female-to-male, and even before I was actively presenting as male, I was not at all stereotypically feminine either in appearance or in personality/interests, yet I am one of those people who had never experienced any harassment or anything and had no idea it was as common as it is.

      1. Ingrid Jakobsen

        If you’re talking about street sexual harrassment of the shout-outs and wolf-whistles (and worse) kind, you may not have experienced much, precisely because of your presentation. I’m certainly not of the “she asked for it wearing that miniskirt” school (I think the harrassers have a responsibility to act like competent adults) but my own experience is that I’m more likely to get that kind of harrassment in certain outfits, and moving in certain ways.

        If you (like me) happen to have a reasonably fast walk with a “strong independent” kind of bodylanguage, you won’t get much street harrassment. Bizarrely enough, I don’t seem to have the same bodylanguage when running, so I’m more likely to get catcalls then.

        I think Travis and Jen are likely to have moved in different social circles, because I also notice a difference in how approved of I am in terms of my interests being feminine enough and my general attitudes, dress, etc, moving in different social circles.

  8. Kali

    I’ve taught women’s studies courses for over 25 years, and this is a very common initial response to the question of oppression. My explanation to my female students, when they claim they’re not oppressed, is to point out that it’s very hard for a fish to see water. I tell them, part of being a member of an oppressed group is having your oppression normalized, so that it doesn’t feel extraordinary and you don’t consciously notice it all the time. And then I give them examples:

    1. A man and a woman each want to buy a new car. They go, on different days, to the same auto-dealer and talk to the same salesman, and bargain hard and buy the exact same make and model car. But odds are, 87% of the time, that the man will have paid less. The man and the woman don’t know each other and will never compare notes, but surveys consistently show that women pay more money for big-ticket items because salesmen refuse to lower the prices to the same level they would for male customers. The woman doesn’t “feel” oppressed because she doesn’t know she’s paying more. But the fact is, she is oppressed.

    2. Even upper class women are used to being constantly concerned about ensuring their physical safety. When they make a date to meet someone, they automatically consider where they will have to walk, how dark or deserted the street will be, and other factors. The underlying fear is of the sexual predator. Men, however, worry about their physical safety only under certain circumstances, not as a regular function of operating outside the home. A woman doesn’t usually think about thinking about her safety — she just does it. And if you ask her why she won’t walk some place she feels unsafe, she’ll say, “it would just be stupid.” In short, the higher danger females face in this society is normalized so that it doesn’t usually *feel* like oppression. It just feels like… life.

    3. A young female child will raise her hand to answer a question at school at the same time a male child raises his hands. Odds are that the teacher will call on the male child. If the girl is called on and she gives an incorrect answer, the teacher will probably call on another student or supply the right answer. The boy will be treated differently: he will be encouraged to think the question through and arrive at the correct answer himself. This is so subtle that even teachers don’t know that they’re doing it. In fact, even teachers who call themselves feminists tend to do it. There are thousands of hours of videotape evidence to prove this. Life has been like this for the little girl for as long as she remembers. It doesn’t *feel* like oppression. But it is.

    4. A common belief is that “women talk too much.” But in fact, when men and women are having a mixed group conversation, the men perceive the women as dominating the conversation as soon as they reach a point where they are speaking one-third of the time. Not over 50% of the time, but 33% of the time. And men react as if they’re being dominated, and women accept the male judgement (because no one actually measures the actual amount of time a speaker occupies except scientists), and life goes on. It’s “normal” and so it doesn’t *feel* like oppression, but it is.

    Marx talks about the identification with one’s oppressors as “false consciousness” — the internalization of someone else’s set of standards, devised to benefit them and not you. My job as a feminist educator has been to simply make reality clear, and once it’s clear, it’s impossible for a logical human being to argue that women are not oppressed. All oppression is not equal of course, and some women in some countries have it far, far worse than others. But that doesn’t make oppression in any form okay.

    I hope that’s helpful.

    Kali

  9. Restructure!

    I don’t like #1: “Even if women in your part of the world do have legal equality, what about women elsewhere?”

    I do not think this helps someone see the sexism in society. All it does is invoke the stereotype that white societies are socially advanced and non-white societies are culturally backwards. This frame is often used to justify military invasions under the propaganda of exporting “our freedom”, in which “socially enlightened” white men use force to “save” the “brainwashed” brown women from the “evil” brown men. Even civilian casualties are justified in this frame, because war is waged in the name of “spreading freedom”.

    1. tigtog

      Restructure, that’s a very good point. I wouldn’t write that FAQ answer in the same way now (it was written in 2007) and it’s definitely time that I went back and rewrote it to reflect my improved understanding of that problematic framing.

  10. X

    Hi. Initial question-asker here. I really appreciate all the well thought out responses. Especially to Restructure! with regards to my discomfort with the ethnocentric concept she was putting forth by emphasizing “Western Women.”Perhaps at some point I will be able to utilize these ideas to communicate with my now (sadly) former friend more successfully.
    Thank You!

  11. Ingrid Jakobsen

    I’d try to have a conversation with her about what she means by equality and not being oppressed, and based on what she says, try to come up with some hypothetical imagery based on that.

    So e.g., women are equal in the sense that we have a vote each like the men, but politicians sure aren’t an equal cross-section of men and women. Imagine if every politician had their sex/gender reversed. What would parliament look like? Feel like? What would you feel about the decisions they would make? Probably it would feel distorted and odd that there were so many women politicians and so few men, and you might wonder if the male point of view was getting heard.

    Why then doesn’t it feel odd that the existing parliament has so many men and so few women? Why don’t you worry whether the female point of view is getting heard? (Why isn’t it something women should have as much input to as men? After all, a large fraction of government expenditure is on health care and education, and women do much more health care, care for older relatives, and care for and education of children than men.)

    Similarly for businesses: why are the important people in business nearly all older men in suits? (Businesses that make and sell food, clothes, etc that women buy just as much as men.) What do women of that age and level of experience look like? Where are they all?

    Sadly, a lot of oppression is invisible, particularly when you’re young, and you have fairly limited experience of life and not as much insight into larger social patterns. And you tend to just not know things like whether the men doing the same job as you are getting paid more.

    I agree with everyone else that the initial answer about women in non-Western countries is irrelevant and even derailing and I’m glad tigtog is looking into that.

  12. Kelly

    These are all really great responses. I would add that you could ask her who, in her childhood home or her current home, makes holidays happen? Who writes the thank-you cards and the birthday cards, or forces the kids to write them? Who buys presents when weddings are coming up and makes sure the RSVP gets in the mail? More to the point, who gets the blame if these things don’t happen? Who gets the blame if the house isn’t clean for guests or if the kids are being rude?

    These are obviously small things, but they are part of a huge pile of small things, and when it occurred to me how the responsibility of social and family events is heaped invisibly upon women regardless of whether they’re working full-time jobs or personally inclined to doing those kinds of things, it helped me to understand the problem.

    Oh and the Bechdel test… another eye-opener.

    Another thing to add, I think a lot of people have the misconception that feminism = the idea that women are better than men. They get defensive because they don’t think that any of the men they know are evil and they think that’s what it’s all about. A basic explanation might be a good place to start.

  13. Vinaigrette Girl

    It’s important, it seems from reading the responses above, to work out first whether you need to reify your own view and your own emotions about oppression before responding to someone else’s view.

    It isn’t necessary for you to get your friend to /feel/ oppressed, but to perceive that oppression exists and that it may affect her in ways from which she accrues disbenefit. An analogy might be between pain and suffering: pain is just pain. It doesn’t have to involve suffering as well, which is bound up in perception and processing, but pain can indicate a disbenefit which may ultimately cause the entire organism to fail if not given attention.

  14. Catherine Devlin

    Maybe just, “I’m really glad you feel like that. Being in a position of strength gives you a great opportunity to help other women whose experiences haven’t been so good.”

  15. Ann

    No, the question is not 101. I had (and continue to have) the same experience. I am 51 and mentor a number of younger women in the geosciences (primarily graduate students). I am continually asking how the “mix” is in their departments and the interaction because when I flat out ask if they ever feel treated different or left out, they vehemently deny it.

    When digging deeper with more obtuse and experiential questions, they answer MUCH differently. For instance, one young lady could never get into to her advisor to have him guide her as to what he expected from her field work, thesis details etc… She really wants to get a PhD and she couldn’t even get his feedback. She continually rationalized it with: “he is out of town on…..”, “I think he wants to see what I come up with first….”, and she made the assumption that she could continue her studies at that university.

    My response to her (to help her along) was to have her answer a bunch of questions related to what she wanted to focus on in further studies, had her list the top five or six people and institutions in her field AND to confirm her assumption of staying put. To her complete surprise her advisor said the only way she could stay would be to work under someone else (no suggestions) and to procure her own funding. Next, she did not know how to communicate with possible opportunities elsewhere. And she settled for applying only at one place with a great amount of trepidation because it really wasn’t what she wanted to do.

    I thought to myself that she is still experiencing what I experienced and continue to ;and that is the lack of communication about expectations. How do you know what to do if you are never told? Women don’t even know the questions to ask, and if we do we are often labeled “she doesn’t know what she is doing, ie… know anything”. I was recently hit upside the head by a 2×4 when I approached my supervisor looking for additional responsibilities and was told that “I had not performed up to his expectations for the last year….” We work in supposedly collaborative teams and they REFUSE to have technical meetings where one would learn what is expected and needed. That information is never transferred, as if you are supposed to know that through mind reading. In addition, I have NEVER had a performance review in four years, AND if I had not initiated the conversation I suspect it would have continued until I quit or they fired me. I was appalled at the entire situation.

    Point being, that equality etc… is deeply ingrained in our culture and permeates our belief system. So we only see what we want or what fits into our belief system. It never occurs to us there is something missing. I truly think this young lady doesn’t think she is being treated any differently, but I’ll bet the men in her degree program and receiving a lot more guidance and encouragement than she is. You can not legislate equality or value based behavior. It may be on the books, but rarely trickles to everyday environments such as schools, work and even family.

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