Feminism | Posted by Sophia I on 06/13/2012

When Your Friends Don’t Get Feminism

I recently experienced something deeply upsetting that as fellow feminists I am sure you all can relate to. It was like any other summer evening, a group of my friends (3 guys, 4 girls) were sitting in a circle in my  guy friend’s backyard. At some point in the conversation, my good female friend (a bio/chem major) asked me to explain – on a basic level – what exactly women’s studies (which is what I’m studying) entails. As I always do when I get asked this question, I took a deep breath and carefully calculated my response. I summed up the major (to my understanding) pretty concisely, or at least I thought, and looked forward to answering any other questions she, or any of my friends, might have. In a matter of minutes, however, the conversation quickly turned from a genuine inquiry to a violent, disorganized, messy attack of 6 against 1.

Suddenly, I was being asked to convince all of my friends that my passion for feminism and women’s studies was valid. Naturally, I used examples of pertinent political and social issues that are often discussed in my classes. Then, the conversation became a heated debate over the specific issues I mentioned, like work-life balance and equal pay. After defending myself, and the issues I care so deeply about, for about 30 minutes (and after the speaking turned to yelling) I decided that it was best to simply secede from the conversation. I left my friend’s backyard feeling defeated, angry and disappointed.

But it was not the difference in opinions expressed that bothered me so much. I completely believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and it would be irresponsible for me to expect otherwise. What left me feeling so hurt and upset was the very obvious inability to discuss these issues (even just the concept of the women’s studies major alone) in a civilized, understanding manner. While the topic of discussion is not new to me, as I have a miniature version of it every time I tell someone I am a Women’s Studies major, the nature of the conversation is what bothered me and was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Not only did it become so angry so quickly, but I felt so disappointed in myself for not knowing exactly how to control or handle the situation well enough in order to leave all participants feeling informed and included. I struggled to really “reach” any of my friends, which was incredibly frustrating.

Since that night, I’m struggling to separate the friends I know and love from the uninformed and ignorant things they said. I’m not sure how to move forward. While I do not expect to “convert” anyone to being a feminist, nor do I expect every conversation I have about feminism to be a respectful, understanding one (although that would be ideal), I really would like to be better prepared next time I find myself in a similar situation.

As a Women’s Studies student, I have learned a lot, but as of yet, no professor has taught me how to handle inevitable situations like this. Like any other issue faced by those who identify as feminists, this is something that should be discussed and debated. I assume that this is common, and particularly troubling to those of you (like me) who care deeply about women’s issues and relevant topics. As I continue my studies, I hope to figure out how to best weather this kind of thing by hearing what my fellow young feminists have done in the past.
If you’ve experienced something similar, or have any thoughts at all – please leave your comment below!
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  • Amanda Paniagua @ at 11:48 am, June 13th, 2012

    Sophia, I completely understand your experience. I had a similar dishearting conversation a couple years back with people I considered to be really good friends. The conversation became so overwhelming and frustrating that I had to grab my keys and drive off in a fit of disbelief and shaking anger. It went something like this: I was in the kitchen of a friend’s house getting a drink when I heard a female friend make a crack about feminism and feminists. I asked very calmy, “What is it that you don’t like about feminism or feminists?” She looked at me and struggled for an answer. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’re just…so…I don’t know…feminists!” I didn’t quite understand how someone could have such a strong dislike for something they couldn’t legitimately explain as to why. So I then asked her to define, in her own words, what Feminism meant to her. She was silent. I then went on to explain what I felt it was: the notion that women have equal talents, abilities and unique experiences to offer to the world if given the same opportunities and. I also explained that Feminism wasn’t about making women superior to men but it was about allowing women full access to historically oppressive areas in society for women. A mutual male friend (who happen to be in the kitchen at the time) chimed in, right away, with “Well, then you should just call it humanism…if you’re just trying to promote equality for all..not just women.” I was dumbfounded. Obviously he hadn’t heard a word I had just said. “Sure, I said, humanism would fit what I was describing…but Feminism designates the unique struggle that women have faced since the beginning of written history.” “Well, you shouln’t call it Feminism then if you’re just trying to have EVERYONE equal.” Again, I took a very deep breath and said, “You’re not understanding me. Though I want to see everyone equal, black white, male female, there are specific struggles in society that need their own label and attention.” The conversation continued to be this guy telling me how much I was wrong and the two began to gang up on me. The conversation came to a hault when one of them (I can’t remember who) said, “Well, then, really..you should just call it something else other than Feminism.” I accepted defeat and said, “Obviously, you two have already made up your mind that Feminism is in of itself a bad thing…so I’m not going to waste any more of our time trying to convince you otherwise.” With that, I turned on my heels, grabbed my car keys and drove off some steam on the way home.

    I understand so much how frustrating it is. I thought I handled myself rather well in tone though I’m sure my face said, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!?” Hang in there. You won’t be able to change anyone’s mind if they’ve already made it up for themselves. Usually, people don’t realize how valid Feminism is until they’re directly affected by sexism.

  • Lauren @ at 12:46 pm, June 13th, 2012

    When I’ve raised feminist issues I’ve been laughed at and dismissed before, or got into horrible ‘debates’. I’m especially rubbish at articulating myself in a confrontational situation, which makes it even more distressing. It’s a horrible feeling, especially if you’re close to the people concerned. On the other hand, over the years many of the same people have reached the same conclusion I have – so please don’t be disheartened.

  • Amy @ at 3:38 pm, June 13th, 2012

    Hi fellow feminist,

    My name is Amy and I am also a women’s studies major–actually, the first ever at my university. It JUST became a major! Exciting but like you expressed so thoughtfully–challenging. I feel the same way so many times. There are many moments where I find myself defending the study and the activism when all I want to do is inform them and answer their questions enough so that maybe it lingers in their mind–not cause them to be outraged and attack me to the point where my mind can’t keep up with my mouth.

    I think what has helped me the most is simply saying to my friends at the get-go–look, I completely understand if you don’t believe all I believe to be true, just like the same goes for myself but all I ask is that you hear me out because maybe a large part of the world’s problems is that we just aren’t listening to each other anymore. You can’t change minds but you can change attitudes. That’s a motto of mine. They may not change their mind about feminism but you may help them to see that it’s okay to hear a different side to it.

    Then I live my life. I post interesting things on facebook about feminism and women’s issues and I continue to try to be an activist in my own life. Maybe if they see it–someday they’ll get it too. And if they don’t recognize the equality, maybe their children will if we just keep doing our thing.

    That’s when real change begins to come–when people at least hear it–even if they don’t agree with it.

    Maybe that didn’t help at all–but maybe all that helps is knowing someone in the world is feeling your pain. My parents still haven’t come to terms with it so going home is always fun. They’re wildly religious so I think they have a hard time telling people what my major is. Not patriarchal enough for them…

    Where do you go to school? I’d love to get in touch more. It would be nice to hear from someone who’s going through similar things. Contact me via my email!

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 6:00 pm, June 13th, 2012

    I live in an extremely conservative environment, and most of my friends disagree with my opinions, but I’ve been blessed to never have had an experience like yours before. My friends and I have talked about the feminist stuff I’m into and have fleshed out our opinions, but we’ve always respected each other. So far, at least.

  • Melissa @ at 6:55 pm, June 13th, 2012

    I know that conversations that turn into viciousness are so difficult, disappointing, and hurtful. It can be so hard to know how to handle them. I think it’s so important to remember that how people handle arguments, debates, or issues they are passionate about are separate from the specific issue being discussed. There’s the issue and then there’s communication skills (which come with defenses and taking things personally). All parties have to be willing to participate fairly and friendly to make a discussion work. Unfortunately, many people (perhaps most) have poor skills in this area, particularly in less cultured areas where people aren’t used to living among and discussing opposing or different ideas.

    I think it’s really important to not take all of the responsibility for polite conversation onto yourself. Offer what you know and your opinions, but once people start to shut down, then it’s time to decide whether the relationship is worth continuing the conversation or not. Many times this means swallowing our pride, loving the people in our lives, and simply living by example. Your friends might surprisingly come back around one day and ask you more questions. Obviously if a friend has a big problem with being disrespectful in conversation, then that’s another issue that may need to be discussed (apart from the triggering discussion).

    Your friends’ inability to be respectful in the conversation may not reflect how they feel about you but may simply be a result of their own comfortable foundation of how the world works being shaken a bit. I wonder if they are also feeling bad about what happened?

  • Sarah @ at 9:06 pm, June 13th, 2012

    How is it the word “feminism” has been given such a nasty connotation? it’s often related to the “femini-nazi” and “man-haters.”

    I have no idea why feminism is considered such a dirty word, but like the first commenter’s story suggested, maybe if we just called it something else these days we feminists would have an easier go of it.

    Call it “women’s studies” instead of “feminist studies” or something. “Gender studies”? Is that too innocuous? feminism is just as much a fight against the societal pressures that men face.

    it’s all semantics though, isn’t it?

  • SherryH @ at 9:26 pm, June 13th, 2012

    I had a similar conversation last night with two of the last people I’d have expected to have one with – my sons.

    One shot down my every attempt at explaining why it was important to me before I could get a complete sentence out, and then accused me of getting all angry about the issue (not that he conceded there was an issue…) rather than being repeatedly interrupted.

    The other engaged at first, then went to, “I don’t want to have this conversation” and finally moved on to rolling his eyes and heaving impatient sighs whenever I tried to continue talking to his brother.

    I’d never have expected it from either one. I can’t make them listen – I guess I’ll just have to keep making baby steps and hope it will eventually click for them.

    (Part of the problem may be that my husband and I have always been very fluid about gender roles and work, chores, childcare, and so on. So our boys may not even be seeing the problems, or may think they’ve been worked out to a greater extent than they are. *sigh*)

  • Tel @ at 10:50 am, June 14th, 2012

    It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a short explanation for some fields of study. If the explanation took “some minutes” then it isn’t short. You need a summary that’s two sentences long, max; ideally a couple of phrases.

    For example, back in college I described my major as, “Studying why people believe what they believe, and how that results in policy.” (That’s for “Degree in International Relations from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, with a concentration in Culture and Politics.”) That’s short and fairly accurate, people get the gist of what it’s about immediately, it gives a practical purpose to the study, and it doesn’t raise any suspicions that I’m a weirdo hippie. There’s loads more to it, but it makes a decently good first impression.

    If, instead of using that shorthand, I had explained that it was looking at the intersection of cultural beliefs, mediated by individual practices in various cultures across the world; that not everybody agreed on what a “culture” is; or that some of the other majors within SFS thought it’s not really that important to consider since other factors like economics, military power, legal systems, etc, are much more predictive of policy outcomes … then I probably would have had some of the same problems that Women’s Studies majors typically have.

    For Women’s Studies, how about: “Studying how power becomes distributed unequally across gender, and trying to determine the best ways to improve outcomes for both genders.” You could probably get it shorter than that with a little work. It’s brief and pretty accurate, doesn’t assign blame to one side or the other, doesn’t assume any particular “end state,” but still gives a practical purpose to the field.

    It’s a good first impression for somebody to get from an actual person who’s in the field (as opposed to the impressions they get from some conservative commentators, who believe that a strange species of aliens populate the country’s Women’s Studies departments). As a student of cultural interactions, I can tell you: those first impressions really, really matter.

  • Eric Johnson @ at 12:21 pm, June 14th, 2012

    Sophia, Kudos for your efforts to introduce your friends to the study of women’s struggle for equality. As someone who grew up in the 50′s and 60′s, I understand the difficulty of conversations like this one. I think the first thing you have to think about is the reasons for the reactions you get from your friends. Women even in our modern society are still boxed into a very confined role. By exploring that role and questioning it, you are touching upon ideas promoted early in childhood by most organized religions, mass media and most authority figures. In your mind you are honestly exploring equality and working to improve women’s lives; in their minds, you are questioning and possibly threatening the entire structure of their comfortable and reassuring world. You are speaking from reason and honest inquiry; they are responding from emotion and fear. But, you are causing some of your friends to think, and some will likely want to return to the discussion. Never forget the power of your living example. Don’t give up.

  • Amanda Anastasia @ at 3:59 pm, June 14th, 2012

    Sarah, I don’t think it is semantics. Because my example is this. Someone who identifies as Christian isn’t constantly told to call themselves something else because historically Christianity has been responsible for so many atrocities. Giving up the word would show ‘defeat’ to me. And I don’t feel like giving up any time soon.

  • Miriam @ at 10:40 pm, June 14th, 2012

    Thanks for this. I can completely relate.

  • Robyn @ at 10:52 pm, June 14th, 2012

    If you need further evidence, try my articles. http://teamoyeniyi.com/2012/06/05/independent-women-syndrome-further-attacks-on-women/

    I am very concerned about the future of gender equality.

  • Cheryll @ at 1:17 am, June 15th, 2012

    It sounds like you’re talking about how to have a respectful debate, keep your cool, make your points without losing it? I strive for this no matter what topic I discuss. I think it takes an incredible talent to debate without losing control of our emotion. It would be oxymoronic to speak, dispassionately, about that which we are passionate. And a show of emotion can be very persuasive. It’s an art, I think, to controlling the edge so that we can make our points, stay in connection with the other, and eventually persuade, or agree to disagree. Time & practice helps.

  • Cheryll @ at 1:24 am, June 15th, 2012

    It has also been helpful for me to let go of the importance of persuading each person. Planting seeds is a supreme goal when a person is firmly in disagreement to my positions. I also find it helps to stay connected and reduce tension by finding something about which we can agree & hitting it hard.

  • Lea M @ at 2:17 am, June 15th, 2012

    I can relate, it’s difficult to express your feelings on issues that are so close to home. We are taught, it it is hard to talk about it, then it’s best not to talk about it at all. We don’t know how to have the hard conversations, but we know how not to have them. Do not give up; stand up for what you believe in, as you are not alone.

  • Amanda @ at 11:41 am, June 15th, 2012

    A quote that has served me well time and again in these types of conversations: “After all, if it were really an equal rights movement, it wouldn’t be called FEMinism. Just like if humanity really included women, it wouldn’t be called MANkind.”

    Also, this: http://dizzybuzzkill.wordpress.com/2007/07/20/context/ Keeps me grounded after a long day in my oppression-fighting cape.

  • Kait @ at 3:13 pm, June 15th, 2012

    I can definitely relate. I haven’t had any interactions go that poorly, but there have been times when people I’ve been close to (family memebers, etc) have just totally disrespected my chosen field, ie “So, are you taking any *real” courses this year?”

    It totally sucks. This is why I have gotten really into the idea of a movement to reclaim the word “feminist.”

    Thanks for sharing, this is definitely something that needs to be discussed and shared, alone is too painful.

  • Sophia I @ at 9:57 pm, June 16th, 2012

    I am seriously overwhelmed by these responses, in the best way. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Already, I feel more at ease knowing that so many of you can relate. It really means so much to hear that I’m not the only one who believes this is a highly imperative yet often neglected conversation. I’ll be reading these over a few times more. Really empowering to see 17 poignant comments on something I wrote at a time of such raw frustration. I hope that the conversation will continue and as I continue to stand for what I believe in, I’ll become better equipped to stay strong, despite opposition. I guess its all part of being a passionate person – regardless of your passion.

    I just definitely think that the gender “thing” is so deeply rooted for so many people, and is therefore associated with a certain degree of comfort. This seems obvious, but it can definitely be disheartening when that comfort is “threatened.” It’s definitely difficult to acknowledge or admit when that “thing” is a discomfort for you, but a comfort to someone else. That can be a really revolutionary yet painful discovery – especially when that someone else is a close friend or family member. That fundamental difference is enormous and sometimes ugly.

    Anyway, thanks again for all of the feedback – this is exactly what I had hoped for.

  • fed up with irrationality @ at 5:42 am, June 21st, 2012

    I the worst part is discovering that someone close is misunderstanding and not accepting a different viewpoint espeially when it is something im very passionate about. unfortunately for me i love researching and constructing arguments but im not eloquent so i always fail to get my point across. this is why i write everytime i feel indignant and i imagine people in my life reading my writng and being convinced.

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