Toxic Masculinity in Focus

By David Michael Newstead.

As part of an on-going series about Toxic Masculinity, I’ve been speaking to a number of women I know regarding their day-to-day experiences with men. Below is a conversation with Abigail (not her real name) on the realities of living and working in Washington D.C.

David Newstead: So, how prevalent are misogyny and sexism in your life?

Abigail: I don’t mean to laugh, but it’s basically everywhere.

David Newstead: Can you describe some of these daily run-ins?

Abigail: Funnily enough the amount of run-ins I had decreased quite a bit once I left my old job. But in general getting hit on or stared at if I wear anything “too” short or revealing, being told to smile by strangers, random sexist graffiti like on the metro.

At my old job, it came out a lot in job roles. Automatically being given “housework” tasks like setting up/food ordering/event planning. Men on my team and others being given a lot more platitude to fuck up or voice concerns while women were not. All while knowing that just about every single man was making more (usually much more) than women in the same position or higher. That doesn’t really happen at my new job, or if it does I don’t notice it.

But other things that are more general include worrying that if I don’t put on makeup to go to work I won’t be taken as seriously. Or when I was negotiating my offer the fact that I had to consider my boss’ “feelings” and make sure that I wasn’t being too forward in my time while I was daring to ask for more. But overall in my experience men are given more opportunities and are given a lot more room to fuck up before anything is done about it. Not just in work, but in all aspects of life.

I’ve been asked in a job interview if I was planning on getting married or if I was in a serious relationship. Men who hit on me only stop if I lie and say I’m married or have a boyfriend. I literally wear my mom’s wedding band on my right hand and switch it to my left when I don’t want to be bothered by someone. Getting honked at, followed in cars, cat called and followed down the street.

Oh and my favorite is guys at a bar who think their best version of an opening line is to introduce themselves and then start to criticize something about me. Then shortly thereafter ask my friend and I if we’ve ever made out. Again, funny enough, this type of thing doesn’t happen when I’m out with guy friends. And if a guy does try to hit on me while I’m out with male friends, he almost always asks one of them if it’s “okay” first. Because a lot more men than you wouldn’t see women as equals, but as means to an end. An entity that exists solely to support them. And if you aren’t supportive at all times, even to complete strangers, you’re a bitch or a whore.

I know toxic masculinity exists because it’s been ingrained in me to constantly be thinking about other people’s feelings. And horribly enough, even more so men’s feelings, to protect myself. I have to be polite and smile when I tell men I’m not interested because otherwise he could start yelling or turn violent. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s been happening basically all my life so unfortunately you get used to it. It helped that I went to an all-girls middle and high school, so the experiences didn’t really ramp up until college and post grad. I didn’t really have the terminology for it until recently to be honest. You kind of just accept it as how the world works. If I let myself get angry every time it happened I wouldn’t be a pleasant happy person. But when asked I can definitely tell some stories as you can see.

Walking home alone is not a thing, especially if wearing anything remotely close to revealing. Same with late night metro rides: not a thing. I mean I don’t get hit on every single day at least overtly, not counting silent stares or whatever. But I think that’s only because my commute is mainly other people going to work so everyone is focused on their phones or whatever.

Interview with a Feminist

By David Michael Newstead.

With women’s rights at the forefront of politics, I’ve been trying to reach out to different people I know: to ask questions, learn more, and to get their perspectives on gender issues in America. Recently, I had the chance to speak with my friend, Charity Sperringer, about the role feminism has played in her life. Charity is a committed feminist living in Washington, D.C. where she’s started a feminist book club to delve into many of these issues. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: When and how did you first become a feminist?

Charity Sperringer: First of all, I am in no way an expert to all things pertaining to feminism. If you asked me prior to the book club’s humble beginnings in December 2014, I may have not considered myself a feminist. Now that I know what being a feminist entails (thanks to the diversity of texts and open discussions from the book club members!), I would say I’ve only recently been the feminist I want to be – the one who advocates for feminism beyond my own personal gains.

I have been entering traditionally male dominated spaces since I was young because I didn’t understand the typical female trajectory that society expects from women. Some examples include taking advanced level statistics among a class of males because I knew that having a woman question statistics was rare in panel discussions and of course playing video games and watching animes with my brothers while growing up. This is partial to having been raised with expectations similar to my older brother and partial to being told by society to be someone that I wanted/would like to challenge. That’s one way of looking at feminism, in a personal way.

In college I dated a man who was vocal that he was a feminist. I didn’t know what that meant for a man to do that. He wanted to fight for equality for all races, genders, and sexualities. He also worked for the ACLU and dated women before me who were passionate about acting for others. That’s another way to look at feminism and the way I aspire to be.

I can’t forget about entering the private sector and leaving the non-profit sector. That’s when I started the book club. That was a whammy for realizing work place inequality. The book club was a safe space to discuss whatever we wanted. I was immersed with mostly women previously at non-profits, then I jumped into an area dominated by men in leadership and unfortunately with ulterior motives. I still work in a mostly male dominated environment and am constantly presented with scenarios that are laughably about me being a female rather than my abilities or qualities.

David: Do you feel like that becoming a feminist has changed you as a person? If so, how? Are there any examples from your personal or professional life that you’d feel comfortable sharing?

Charity: Yes, owning the label “feminist” has changed me. I have more open discussions about gender, race, equality, access, and history with coworkers, family members, my boyfriend (also a feminist) and friends. I’m referred to as the liberal or the feminist at work now and am completely comfortable with it – whereas before I was hesitant to accept it because I associated it with women who knew more about being a female than I did. Now that I’ve built this identity, I have former colleagues from school ask me questions about impacts on women of policies and I have coworkers who send me events and news articles they think would be of interest to me. It just so happens that it’s a great time to be a feminist! Making it ok to be labeled as a feminist is a bizarre step towards the goal that I’ll take. Letting people know that feminism entails equality in addition to WHY with examples of inequality to illustrate, and what the next steps are – this is more meaningful. As I said, I’m no expert in feminism and I hope other people don’t feel that they have to be to consider themselves as a feminist. If I have to be that person in the office to encourage dialogue, I’ll be that person. Every office should have that person.

David: What do you think are the best ways of addressing negative and toxic forms of masculinity?

Charity: Some great ways to address negative and toxic forms of masculinity are to address them head-on. This is something I admit need to do more so at the workplace when I’m confronted with scenarios of male colleague using language to belittle me because I’m a female (calling me “sexy”, referring to me as “little girl”, laughing at my female colleague for getting harassed on the street as a “china doll”, and more). I’m also trying to be more patient to the males in my office who defer to violence as the answer to understand why they approach difficult scenarios this way. I’ll let you know how this method works. Talking to your male partner, father, brother about negative and toxic forms of masculinity is also important so that they can carry these conversations back to their male buds and relatives. Lastly, accepting males when they aren’t traditionally masculine and letting them know you appreciate their qualities is important. Everyone just wants validation.

David: In closing, what’s the main challenge or challenges confronting feminism right now and how should they be addressed?

Charity: Can I have a less weighty question? Haha. I think it’s pretty basic and not even substantial to the critical principles of it – getting people on board that it means equality and not special privileges for women. And that you can be a Republican and also a feminist. Kind of like you can be a Democrat or a Republican and think that trafficking humans is wrong. Unfortunately “feminism” denotes “female” and starts fun, circular and ceaseless conversations about why feminism doesn’t mean equality among everyone. How to address this? Discussing inequality can be enough to get people on board with tackling it. And then you can say GOTCHA! You’re a feminist! But also, getting males into the conversation of feminism.

Toxic Masculinity Reader

When Everything Changed

By David Michael Newstead. 

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present chronicles fifty years of social progress for women in the United States, measured across economics, politics, and American culture and is reinforced with personal stories from our recent past. In fact, it’s the personal stories that help connect us to those events, which may seem like ancient history for some people but are within the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. A few excerpts stood out to me in particular and I share those below to illustrate the stark differences between the world of 1960 and the world of today.

  • In 1960 women accounted for 6 percent of American doctors, 3 percent of lawyers, and less than 1 percent of engineers. Although more than half a million women worked for the federal government, they made up 1.4 percent of the civil-service workers in the top four pay grades. Those who did break into the male-dominated professions were channeled into low-profile specialties related to their sex. Journalists were shuttled off to the women’s page, doctors to pediatric medicine, and lawyers to behind-the-scenes work such as real estate and insurance law.
  • Jo Freeman, who went to Berkeley in the early ‘60s, realized only later that while she had spent four years “in one of the largest institutions of higher education in the world – and one with a progressive reputation,” she had never once had a female professor. “I never even saw one. Worse yet, I didn’t notice.”
  • If all the working women were invisible, it was in part because of the jobs most of them were doing. They were office workers – receptionists or bookkeepers, often part-time. They stood behind cash registers in stores, cleaned offices or homes. If they were professionals, they held – with relatively few exceptions – low-paying positions that had long been defined as particularly suited to women, such as teacher, nurse, or librarian. The nation’s ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.
  • If a stewardess was still on the job after three years, one United executive said in 1963, “I’d know we were getting the wrong kind of girl. She’s not getting married.” Supervisors combed through wedding announcements looking for evidence of rule breaking. They discovered one stewardess was secretly married while the young woman was working with Georgia Panter on a cross-country flight. When the plane was making its stop in Denver, a supervisor met the flight. “He pulled that poor woman off,” Panter said, “and we never saw her again.”
  • Not long ago Linda McDaniel, a Kansas housewife, came across the deed to the house she and her husband had purchased when they were married in the 1960s. “It was made out to ‘John McDaniel and spouse.’ My name wasn’t even on it,” she said.
  • Men, in their capacity as breadwinners, were presumed to be the money managers on the home front as well as in business, and women were cut out of almost everything having to do with finances. Credit cards were issued in the husband’s name. Loans were granted based on the husband’s wage-earning ability, even if the wife had a job, under the theory that no matter what the woman said she planned to do, she would soon become pregnant and quit working. A rule of thumb that banks used when analyzing a couple’s ability to handle a mortgage or car loan was that the salary of the wife was irrelevant if she was 28 or under. Half of her income was taken into consideration if she was in her 30s. Her entire salary entered the calculations only if she had reached 40 or could prove she had been sterilized. Marjorie Wintjen, a 25-year-old Delaware woman, was told her husband’s vasectomy had no effect on the matter “because you can still get pregnant.” Even when a woman was living on her own and supporting herself, she had trouble convincing the financial establishment that she could be relied upon to pay her bills. The New York Times was still reporting horror stories in 1972, such as that of a suburban mother who was unable to rent an apartment until she got the lease cosigned by her husband – a patient in a mental hospital. A divorced woman, well-to-do and over forty, had to get her father to cosign her application for a new co-op. Divorced women had a particular problem getting credit, in part because of a widely held belief that a woman who could not keep her marriage together might not keep her money under control, either.
  • Many upscale bars refused to serve women, particularly if they were alone, under the theory that they must be prostitutes.

Other interesting topics covered in the book include the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the life of Jeannette Rankin. Likewise, the reader can observe changes overtime through the effects of Roe v. Wade, how divorce proceedings were conducted, and the growing education attainment as well as workforce participation by American women. Skip ahead to the present and women are 47 percent of the workforce, 55 percent of college students, and 15 percent of active-duty military personnel: all watershed developments from a historical standpoint. And while many of the excerpts above probably wouldn’t take place in 2017, it’s important not to downplay the challenges on the horizon. Today’s progress took decades. Confronting misogyny will take even longer. And the next fifty years of women’s history has yet to be written.

The March Reader